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[Perspectives] John Keats: science and sympathy

According to his friend Charles Brown, John Keats (1795–1821) was “compelled, by conscientious motives” to abandon a career in medicine “upon discovering that he was unfit to perform a surgical operation. He ascribed his inability to an overwrought apprehension of every possible chance of doing evil in the wrong direction of the instrument.” Written 20 years after Keats’s death, Brown’s anecdote is a small but telling example of the posthumous (and inaccurate) presentation of the poet as a nervous and unworldly figure, too sensitive for the brutal realities of early 19th-century medicine, especially surgery without anaesthetics.

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