Literature Annotations


Shaw, George Bernard
The Doctor's Dilemma


Genre Play (101 pp.)
KeywordsDeath and Dying, Doctor-Patient Relationship, History of Medicine, History of Science, Human Worth, Humor and Illness/Disability, Medical Ethics, Medical Research, Society, Tuberculosis
Summary

The story opens on the day that Ridgeon, a prominent research doctor, is knighted. His friends gather to congratulate him. The friends include Sir Patrick, a distinguished old physician; Walpole, an aggressive surgeon; Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington, a charismatic society doctor; and Blenkinsop, a threadbare but honest government doctor. Each one has his favorite theory of illness and method of cure. These are incompatible--one man's cure is another man's poison. Nonetheless, they all get along.

A young woman (Mrs. Dubechat) desperately seeks help for her husband from Ridgeon, who has evidently found a way to cure consumption by "stimulating the phagocytes." Ridgeon initially refuses, but changes his mind for two reasons--Dubechat is a fine artist and Ridgeon is smitten with his wife.

When the doctors meet Dubechat, however, they find that he is a dishonest scoundrel. Ridgeon eventually decides to treat Blenkinsop (who also has consumption) and refer the artist to Bloomfield Bonington, this insuring that he will die. In the end Ridgeon justifies his behavior as a plan to let Dubechat die before his wife find out what an amoral cad he actually was. This, in fact, happens and Dubechat's artistic reputation soars.

Commentary

At one level this comedy--Shaw calls it a "tragedy"--deals with allocation of scarce medical resources. Which of the two men will Sir Ridgeon save? Blenkinsop is an honest doctor who works assiduously for the poor. Dubechat is a charming sociopath, who happens to be an extraordinary artist.

The scientist resolves this problem with an interesting moral twist--he reasons that Dubechat's death will be a benefit because it will preserve his reputation. It will also potentially benefit Ridgeon, who covets Mrs. Dubechat. Various themes swirl about within this general framework--the value of science, the paternalism of the medical profession, and the fact that "everything that goes around, comes around."

The play itself is preceded by an 88-page "Preface on Doctors" (1911) in which Shaw declaims at length about the general inadequacy of medicine in Britain and presents a proposal for an improved medical care system, including socialized medicine. Along the way, he takes off against two of his favorite bugaboos--animal research (vivisection) and vaccination. (Shaw evidently did not believe that vaccination was efficacious.)

PublisherPenguin
Edition1946
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousPlay first produced in 1906 and first published in 1908. The "Preface on Doctors" was first published in 1911.
Annotated by Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 01/24/00