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The Scientific Life by S. Weir Mitchell

It has been my good fortune to be thrown much with men of science, and to find among them companions made agreeable by the best of social qualities and by many larger capacities. Perhaps it is their life apart, their consciousness of belonging to a distinct class, that has made them, as I have found them, so strikingly individual, and partly for this very reason so interesting. Indeed, it is curious to observe how varied and how utterly different maybe the non-essentials, moral and mental, of the beings to whom God has given the rare gift of power to look into the secrets He has scattered around us in plant and earth and animal life. Consistently with various grades of competence for investigation, the man may be social, or may flee his fellows; may be witty, or incapable of seeing the broadest fun; a poet, or almost devoid of creative imagination; full of refinement and rife with multiple forms of culture, or neither scholarly nor well-informed outside of his especial line of work. According as he is endowed with mental graces and forms of culture, apart from his science, will be his charm as a companion; but while the absence of these means of pleasing is sometimes met with, and while their lack in no wise lessens his power of investigation, I have found most men of science to possess in a high degree qualities which rendered them delightful as comrades at the camp-fire or as guests at the dinner-table. Indeed, the best talkers I know are men of science—not the mere students of a knowledge already garnered, but those who discover new facts or who spend their lives in original research. The most mirthful, cheery, happy and liberal-minded of men are to be found in the limited ring of those who are known in this country as investigators. On the European continent the same remark holds true, but in Europe this class is very often less refined than with us. In England the same class is undoubtedly notable for a curious absence of the wide range of general information constantly found in America, so that English men of science often amaze us in social life by their lack not so much of culture, as  of wide knowledge of matters outside of their own studies, as well as by their inaptitude to share the lighter chat of the dinner-table.

Even in Great Britain—and yet more in Germany and France—the habits of life make it less of a sacrifice than here for men to abandon all that money gives and to devote themselves to the quiet life of the closet and the laboratory. Once set in a groove, the average man abroad is less apt, to seek to rise out of it or depart from it; while with us the constant flow of a too intensely active life is for ever luring men with baits of greed to take the easy step aside from pure science into the golden ways of gain. Honored be they in this land of eager money-getting who withstand the temptation, and in quiet and peace, undisturbed by the turmoil about them, pursue those noble quests which give to humanity its highest training! What these men lose we know: to them are neither great houses nor the hoards of successful commerce. Their lives are often vexed by the trouble and worry of wretchedly incompetent incomes, and what trials they endure those they love must also share. Their incomes, in fact, are usually such as a well-paid bank-clerk or dry-goods salesman would despise. Officers of the navy or army are, as a rule, as well paid as men of science who hold the chairs of teachers; but while the former class are the most signal and steady grumblers, the latter are, of all the men I know, the most tranquilly content. What they miss in life we can well imagine; what they gain the general public little comprehends; but those who know them best will readily understand why it is that their lives are seemingly so happy.

And here, again, I would remind the reader that the class I speak of are not the mere college professors, useful as they are, but those men, in or out of that class, whose lives are devoted to the acquisition of facts fresh from Nature—to the original study of bird and beast and stone and flower—and those who, on a yet higher plane of work, are busy with the patient investigation of physics and physiology. Such men do not rely for success in their pursuits on their knowledge of human nature, or the passions and foibles and lower wants of their fellows, but, for ever turning toward a more quiet life, are living among those strange problems which haunt the naturalist, or among those awful forces which rule the stars and pervade the dead and living world of matter. There must be something quieting and ennobling in this steady contemplation of vast machineries, which have all the force and terror of human passions, and yet the serene steadiness and certainty of unchanging law. It is "a purer ether, a diviner air," from whence its citizens can afford to look down in peace, perhaps in scorn, upon the ignoble strifes beneath them.

I suppose, too, that other men can hardly dream of the one vast pleasure which comes to these searchers when ever so little a new truth or a fresh analogy reaches them as the result of their work. The pursuit itself is all absorbing, all exacting, and when at last the purpose is attained, and out of darkness flashes the light of some novel law, the knowledge of some new connecting link, some simple explanation of a range of facts or phenomena, or even the discovery of a fresh analogy or homology, or of an undescribed fossil being, the purity of the pleasure which they win is something which to be understood must have been felt. "I think," said Jeffries Wyman once to the writer, "that the most happy and heartfilling thing in the world is to come face to face with something which no one but God ever saw before." How transcendent must have been this form of joy when it rewarded the first who saw the spectrum analysis of starlight in its fullness of meaning, or to him who first knew where and how the blood runs its wonderful courses!

Then, too, the life of other men, of the merchant and the lawyer, palls as age advances and its rewards are paid in dollars or in honor. Their experiences are limited and work out, but the naturalist or investigator only gathers day by day new interests about his life of duties. His work is as pleasant as play, and his play is usually only some new  form of work. Nature is his—a mistress whose charms are unfading, and who is his for life. Go to some meeting of men of science and see how this is. The oldest has as keen a zest as the youngest, and while life becomes to others a weariness, to these men the pleasure in their steady work is absolutely unfailing. I heard the other day a half-jesting remark at a dinner-table of men of science to the effect that life might become a tiresome thing as we grew older. "Not for me," said one of them, whose name is known wherever science is held in honor: "there must be no end of Rhizopods I have never studied." Thus it is that men who live ever gazing at the surely widening horizon of truth, who know that they at least need never sigh for new worlds to conquer, who day by day are coming into closer company with the yet unwhispered thoughts of the great Maker, are happy and contented in the tasks to which their lives are given, and serenely patient of what their duties deny them of luxury and wealth and freedom to wander or to rest.

It might well be thought that men living so far apart from the general paths, and pursuing purposes so remote from those of the trader, would become obnoxious to that bitterest of American reproaches, the charge of being unpractical. The directness of aim of scientific training and the lofty code of honor among students of science, with their fair share of cis-Atlantic pliability, makes them, however, most useful and trustworthy people whenever it becomes requisite to entrust to them the mixture of commercial and scientific labor which is needed by heads of boards of weights and measures, of lighthouses, of coast surveys, and for the affairs and mere business conduct of societies and colleges or museums. Indeed, as regards this kind of work, they have too much of it—too much of that sort of labor which in England is well and wisely done by wealthy aristocrats who are amateurs in science or eager to find work of some kind. The popular opinion certainly conceives of the man of true science as being almost unfit for the practical every-day duties which bring him into working contact with his fellow-men. This is, as it were, a reversed form of the prejudice which believes that a physician or a lawyer will be a worse doctor or advocate because he writes verses or amuses an hour of leisure by penning a magazine article. As regards medicine, this popular decree is swiftly fading, though it still has some mischievous power. It was once believed, at least in this country, that a doctor should be all his life a doctor, and nothing else: the notion still lingers, so that young medical men who at the outset of their career seek to become known as investigators in any of the sciences related to medicine are, I fear, liable to be looked upon by many older physicians, and by a part of the lay public, as less likely than others to attain eminence in the purely practical part of medical life. It is time that this phantom of vulgar prejudice faded out. "Whatever you do," said a late teacher of physiology in my presence to a young doctor, "do not venture to become an experimental physiologist—that is, if you wish afterward to succeed as a doctor. It is fatal to that. It is sure to ruin you with the public." Yet Brodie, Cooper, Erichson and many others so employed their earlier years of leisure, and I might point in this country to some noble instances of like success in practice following upon careers which at first were purely scientific. But, in truth, every physician is more or less an investigator, and those who have been early trained to the sternly accurate demands of work in the laboratory of the experimental physiologist are only the better fitted for study at the bedside.

There is, however, a long list of physicians who have begun life in the pursuit of science, and have found its charms too potent to allow them to depart thence into the more lucrative ways of medical practice. One of this class was Jeffries Wyman, whose character and career well illustrate all that I have said of the scientific life, its trials and rewards. There are some graves on which we cannot lay too many flowers; and if, therefore, after those who knew him best, I venture to  add my words of honor and affection, and to state the impressions derived from my intercourse with the very remarkable student of science whose loss we have all lamented, I trust that the strong feeling which prompts me may be held a sufficient excuse.

I had three or four sets of associations with Wyman, no one of which fails to come back to my remembrance filled with the charm of a man whose whole nature was simple, wholesome, pure and generous. Others have said all that need be said of what he did for his much-loved science: it is less easy to convey to those who knew him not an impression of the influence he exerted upon younger workers, and a sense of the social pleasure which came of his remarkable combination of vast knowledge and general culture, combined with a certain loveliness of character and an almost childlike simplicity. I once heard our greatest preacher nobly illustrate, with Samson's riddle as his text, the delightfulness of that form of human character in which sweetness and strength are blended. As I listened, somehow I began to recall Wyman, for it was just here that his social charm resided. He was intellectually stronger even than any of his completed work showed, but he was also the most lovable of men. His mind was very active and remarkably suggestive—so much so that in social chat, even the most careless, he was constantly saying things which made you think or left you thoughtful. For many years he wrote to me frequently, and his letters are filled with the most lucid and happy suggestions, explanations or comments. After the failure on the part of one of his friends to attain a deserved object of just ambition, he wrote to me to state his own extreme regret; and this not once, but thrice, as if he was haunted by the sorrow of another's disappointment. At times he was full of the most boyish spirit of jesting, as when in 1862 he wrote to me grieving over the secession of Virginia, because we had both of us thus lost our easiest supply of rattlesnakes. Then he rejoiced over the fact that we still had the bull-frog; and in an another note regrets that the rattlesnakes had not been allowed to vote on the question of seceding.

As I write I pause to turn over these records of a dearly-valued friendship. They begin years ago with words of encouragement as to certain investigations in which both of us felt interest. Here and there they touch on matters of social or personal value, but for the most part they deal only with science. I used to wonder in those days, and still am surprised anew as again I turn over these letters, at the amount of what I might call suggestiveness in Wyman. He replies, for example, in one letter to the gift of a scientific essay, and then in a postscript runs off over eight pages of comment, explanation and novel suggestions which put the subject in a new light; while every here and there, amidst the wealth of scientific illustration and useful hints given to aid another's work, there is some pause to express a courteous doubt of his own opinions. Everywhere, indeed, his letters, which made the most of our intercourse, were full of the broadest sympathy in pursuits which often were—but often were not—in the same direction as his own lifelong studies. At times, too, the sympathy broke out into the extreme of generosity. Thus, having learned from me that certain very important and hitherto undescribed anatomical structures would probably be found in serpents and frogs, he tells me soon after that he has found them; also, that he has discovered them in birds, and that he has been led finally to a series of unlooked-for discoveries in the anatomy of the nerves of the frog; and he wishes experiments made on living frogs to learn the physiological use of the structures thus found. Then not long after he proposes that as the first discovery came from this writer, he should take and use the notes and drawings which recorded his own researches, and should use them in a second paper. It is needless to say that this was declined, and the results appeared under Wyman's name. It was characteristic of the man, and was not the only time when I had to thank him for the kindest offers of aid.

To see Dr. Wyman in his museum  was one of the most pleasant exhibitions of the man at his best. I well remember one Sunday afternoon in May three years ago, when, walking in Cambridge with H——, one of the most prominent of our great railway presidents—and, better than this, a man notable for genial social qualities, high culture and a broad range of the readiest sympathies—I proposed to him to call on Wyman and ask him to show us the Archaeological Museum. We found Wyman at home, and if you had asked a bright little girl to show you her baby-house she could have been no better pleased than he. At first, as we went from case to case, he was quiet and said little, but as we showed the interest and admiration we so warmly felt, he also grew eager and vivid in description, until as he went on his talk became a marvel of illustrative learning—so wide, so varied, so complete, that we were carried along the current of his thoughts in wonder at this strange combination of intense interest, of almost childlike satisfaction, of a concentration on his subject of vast antiquarian knowledge and of absolutely perfect anatomical skill. Mr. H—— called his attention to the curious distortions and odd enlargements of the protruded tongue in some of the Alaskan wooden masks, and on this little text he was away in a moment from case to case in the museum, and from century to century, pointing out the use of the tongue as an organ of facial expression in various ages. Here were Roman or Greek examples, here Sioux or Alaskan types of the same usages, and here was a new thought he had never had before, and we were thanked for awakening it; and so in his talk over this little point he showed us how barbarian natures had like thoughts everywhere, and, as much amused as we, he quoted and laughed and talked, still always pleased and easy under the vast weight of learning which, coming from his lips, was so utterly free from the least appearance of being ponderous or tiresome. I think I never knew any other man whose learning sat upon him as lightly or was given to others as gracefully.

I had once a like pleasure in raking over an Indian shell-heap with Wyman. The quiet, amused amazement of the native who plied the spade for us was an odd contrast to Wyman's mood of deep interest and serious occupation. He had a boy's pleasure in the quest, and again displayed for me the most ready learning as to everything involved in the search. Bits of bones were named as I would name the letters of the alphabet: bone needles, fragments of pottery and odds and ends of nameless use went with a laugh or some ingenious comment into his little basket. In truth, a walk with Wyman at Mount Desert was something to remember.

The acquaintances of the merchant or lawyer grow fewer as age comes on, but the naturalist is always enlarging his circle of living or dead things in which he takes interest, and none more profited thus by the years as they came than Wyman. The bird, the tree, the flower, the rock, tiny worlds beneath damp stones, little dramas of minute life within mouldy tree-trunks, the quaint menageries in the sea-caves, shifted with every tide, whatever the waves brought or the winds carried or the earth bore were one and all acquaintances of this delightful and delighted companion. Not without a manly interest in the world of men and politics, he lived for the most part serenely above its ferment and passions. Without the large means which, had they been his, had been in the truest sense and for the best purposes means, he lived a life of quiet, studious content, made somewhat hard by ill-health, but, so far as I know, undisturbed by envy of easier lots than his. Whatever were his crosses in this world—and they must have been many—no man who knew Wyman could now wish them to have been changed, if, as no doubt was the case, they helped to build up a character so filled with honest labor, so pure, so lofty and so generous—

Nor could Humanity resign

A life which bade her heart beat high,

And blazoned Duty's stainless shield,

And set a star in Honor's sky.