Dreads Of Men Of Genius

The insane are particularly prone to suffer from dreads, so that some

people argue from their dreads to the thought of insanity. It is quite

a mistake, however, to think of dreads as necessarily connected with

insanity in any way. They are irrational though they will commonly be

found to be dependent on some special physical condition. This is

usually some exaggeration of attention to a sensation natural enough

in itse
f but disturbing when dwelt on to such a degree that it

produces a much greater reaction in these individuals than in other

people. These dreads have existed in all sorts of people. It is said

that they are more frequent in the highly intellectual, especially in

the class known as geniuses, and they are often said to represent the

definite evidence of a relationship between genius and insanity. I

have always felt, however, that they are quite as common among

ordinary people who have no genius and no signs of it as among the

so-called geniuses. They are not so much spoken of by ordinary people,

however, because they are rather ashamed of them. Genius, on the

contrary, is quite willing, as a rule, to exploit its peculiarities

for the benefit of the public, or what is even more true, its

peculiarities are remembered and commented on as details of history.

With this in mind the following paragraph from Dr. Dorland's book on

"The Ages of Mental Virility" [Footnote 50] deserves to be

recalled. He has gathered a number of examples that are very


[Footnote 50: The Century Co., New York, 1908]

Fear has played an important role in the development of the

antipathies of the great--fear that was often groundless in its

origin and inexplicable in its manifestation. The unaccountable fear

of dogs is not so common as ailurophobia, although it is said that

De Musset cordially detested them, and Goethe despised them,

notwithstanding, forsooth, he kept a tame snake. Much more frequent

is the fear of spiders, centipedes, and other insects. Charles

Kingsley, thorough naturalist though he was, entertained an

unconquerable horror of spiders, even the common house spider;

Turenne became weak when he saw a spider; while the author of the

"Turkish Spy" once asserted that he would far prefer, with sword in

hand, "to face a lion in his desert lair than to have a spider crawl

over him in the dark." Lord Lauderdale, on the contrary, while

declaring that the mewing of a cat was "sweeter to him than any

music," had a most intense dislike for the flute and the bag-pipe;

and Dr. Johnson was so fond of his cats that he would personally buy

oysters for them, his servants being too proud to do so.

There are curious contradictions to be found in these matters.

Montaigne confesses that he did his best writing and was in the best

humor for keeping at his Essays while stroking his favorite cat with

his left hand, his other being occupied with his writing. This would

be seriously disturbing to many people, but apparently occupied

certain distracting sensory tendencies and enabled him to concentrate

his mental energies. To many people the very thought of doing anything

like this would put all ideas for writing out of their mind. Other of

Montaigne's peculiarities are quite as interesting. He always refused

to sit down with thirteen at table, his liking for odd numbers was so

great that he made all sorts of excuses in order not to use even

numbers and his aversion for Friday made the quota of work that he

could do on that day much less than any other day of the week.


There are many curious obsessions that disturb people and that are

often extremely difficult of explanation even by themselves. Dr.

Johnson, one of the most sensible men in many ways in his time in

England, could not, it is said, pass a post on the street without

touching it. At least if he did so he felt that somehow he had omitted

to do something that he ought to have done and it would make him

uncomfortable. There are many people who have some idea that it is

lucky to touch posts as they pass along and the number of people who

do things like this is larger than might be imagined. Many people put

themselves out of the way in order to avoid letting a post come

between the person with whom they are walking and themselves because

it is said to be unlucky. Most of them will laugh at it, but still

they continue the practice in spite of the bother it may occasion

them. Occasionally there is some incident in their past life which

accounts for such obsessions, though the patients themselves are

occasionally not quite conscious of them. Dr. Boris Sidis tells the

story of a man who could not take a car with an odd number.

Psycho-analysis showed that he had once seen a child run down by an

odd-numbered car.

In such cases there has been a long series of suggestions that have

created a dominant state of mind. The only way to overcome this when

it becomes a serious annoyance is to undo the influence of the

suggestions by a continued series of counter-suggestions, and by such

discipline of mind as will prevent the former suggestion from exerting

itself. The cure can be accomplished in this way, though, as a rule,

the patient will need the help of someone else.


Dreads founded on terrifying or seriously disturbing incidents of the

past, the details of which at times have gone out of the patient's

mind, are not infrequent. It is probable that many of the unreasoning

dreads have some such foundation and occasionally, if patients'

memories are carefully searched, the whole story can be reconstructed.

All that is needed, as a rule, is to get the patients interested in

conjunction with the physician in tracing the origin of their

affliction and not infrequently an interesting story will turn up.

Hypnosis used to be considered of great value for such

reconstructions, but unfortunately patients then become so suggestible

that it is often difficult to decide how much of what is brought out

by questioning is due to the suggestive quality that cannot well be

kept out of questions, and how much to a true redintegration of


Frights in children may for a time be forgotten and yet the memory of

them may come back, or a dread connected with them develop, that will

make the patient profoundly miserable. One of my patients slipped and

fell on a smooth steel plate at the head of a coal breaker and was

only saved by good fortune from falling a long distance. This happened

when he was a boy of ten. There were times when the memory of

this recurred so vividly as to set him all atremble and he could not

look down from a height without something of the feeling of goneness

coming over him that he felt at the time of the accident. The calling

of his attention to the fact that his memory probably exaggerated the

danger he had been in as a boy led him to go back and have another

look at the conditions in which he had fallen some thirty years

before. He found that they were not so dangerous as he thought and

that while he would have been scratched and his clothes would probably

have been soiled and torn, he would not have been seriously injured.

This has greatly diminished his dread of heights.

Various physical manifestations may be due to dreads which are often

supposed to be the result of some physical process in the nervous

system. Occasional fits of trembling, for instance, are, in sensitive

people, due to more or less forgotten memories of dangers or frights.

Occasionally even slight convulsive seizures may follow such recurrent

dreads. Not a few of the cases of so-called hystero-epilepsy in the

borderland between hysteria and epilepsy but always one or the other,

are due to such mental states rather than to any physical conditions.

Such incomplete memories are sometimes spoken of as subconscious. The

word subconscious has been so much abused, however, that I prefer not

to use it. The reminiscences have been obscured by an accumulation of

other facts but may with an effort of attention and concentration of

mind be recalled. Hypnosis, or the milder form of it spoken of as the

hypnoidal state, may enable the patient to recall them more vividly by

enabling him to concentrate his attention, but there are always risks

that suggestion will vitiate the old story in these cases. With care

all the details can usually be recalled and the patient is thus given

renewed confidence in himself and his own powers and does not learn to

lean on someone else in the process.


The most important psychotherapeutic factor for the relief of the

discomfort due to dreads is the knowledge that there are so many and

such different varieties of them and that so many people suffer from

them. Many of those afflicted are inclined to think that their cases

are almost unique. To have them know that there are all forms and

phases of these curious aversions is to make them laugh a little at

their own because they laugh so readily at others, and it gives them

new courage for the attempt to conquer them. The aversion cannot be

entirely overcome, but it can be prevented from seriously influencing

sleep or appetite or occupation. This is after all the important

feature of the case from the standpoint of psychotherapy. Besides,

patients are encouraged not only to take up, but, above all, to

continue, the practice of that mental discipline and self-control

which will enable them to lessen their natural aversion, if not to

remove it entirely. I have many cases in which patients' aversions

have been entirely overcome. Curiously enough, there are rather often

relapses when the patients are run down in weight, or are in an

irritable condition from worry or emotional stress, and then something

of the former mental discipline has to be reinstituted to make them

once more free from disturbance.

I have sometimes found that the recommendation to patients suffering

from dreads to read Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's "Frankenstein" has

proved an excellent therapeutic agent. This is particularly true when

the patients are women, for it is likely to bring them close to the

sad lives of the Shelleys. The circumstances in which the book was

written add to the appeal. "Frankenstein" itself is interesting, so

that the mood created by this combination of interests is excellently

therapeutic. It will be recalled that in "Frankenstein" the inventor

seeking to make a man does make an automaton that is able to move and

to talk, but that then haunts its inventor, demanding of him a soul.

It proves a plague to him, but he cannot escape from it. Fly where he

will his creation follows him and bothers the life out of him, killing

a friend, strangling his bride, and making existence intolerable. The

symbol is complete and to the point. The things that bother us in life

are to a great extent of our own invention. The dreads that make so

many people miserable are practically always without any groundwork in

reality, figments of our imagination without the soul of real life,

but capable, as was Frankenstein's monster, of making their creators

intensely miserable and with them, to an even greater degree, their




There are so many false and, indeed, from a scientific standpoint,

utterly groundless notions with regard to heredity which, as a result

of the popularization of science, have become widely diffused, that

notions about inheritance are a most copious source of dreads and

discouragement and even produce inhibition of resistive vitality

against disease on the part of many patients. At first it seemed to me

as though the subject should be treated in the chapter on Dreads. It

is so much more important than the other dreads, however, and there

are so many people with so many different notions as to the evil

influence of heredity that it seems advisable to devote a special

chapter to it in which to provide contrary suggestion. Many patients

are constantly suggesting to themselves that, because they are

suffering from certain symptoms due to real or supposed hereditary

conditions, there is little or no hope of their recovery or of any

effective relief. In the old days, when tuberculosis was considered to

be hereditary, it was almost hopeless to try to rouse patients into a

state of vital resistance to their disease because of this overhanging

dread. Such a prepossession of mind must be overcome.

In spite of all that has been said about the power for evil of

heredity, and in this as in every other phase of pseudo-science, the

reason why there are false popular notions is because the medical

profession first cherished them and then they spread popularly, we now

know that it means comparatively little in pathology. The false

notions will continue, however, to be popularly diffused probably for

another generation, at least, and will have to be combated. Their

force must be lessened, for they are a heavy incubus on the patient's

mind, imposing a burden on vitality that inhibits normal, vital

reaction. This can only be done by a frank and complete statement of

our present knowledge of heredity, which is even yet not nearly

so definite as we would like to have it, but which contradicts

entirely most of the older impressions. In the matter of disease what

we know of heredity, instead of being a source of distress and

discouragement for patients, provides rather new incentives for

vigorous reaction, since nature helps rather than hampers the effort

of the individual to throw off disease from generation to generation.

False Impressions and Expression.--Probably the commonest expressions

that the physician hears from his patients, though we hear many

stereotyped phrases in our time when patients so freely discuss their

ills and their physicians' opinions among themselves, are such as: "My

father suffered from rheumatism, and I suppose I must expect to be

bothered by the same ailment." "My mother died of heart disease and I

think I have a weak heart; I suppose that we have weak hearts in the

family." "I have had three relatives die of cancer in the last three

generations, so I presume that cancer is in the family, or at least we

are much more liable to cancer than the generality of people." And,

finally, what used to be the commonest of all, but fortunately we have

changed that at least, though we sometimes hear it still:

"Tuberculosis runs in our family, my mother and an uncle died of it

and one of my brothers is suffering from it, so I suppose I must just

make up my mind that I, too, am sure to get it." Even the rarer

affections, like kidney disease, liver disease, various nervous

troubles, stomach and intestinal disturbances of many kinds,

flatulence, constipation or diarrhea, are all supposed to be

hereditary and patients explain their ill feelings by an appeal to the

supposed principle of heredity and its application to themselves and

their families.

In many chapters in this book the subject of heredity has been

considered with regard to specific affections. We have no evidence at

all, or the evidence is so trivial as to be quite negligible, that

anything acquired by the individual, be it for good or evil, is ever

transmitted to the next generation. That acquired characters are not

transmitted is now almost a universally accepted principle among

biologists. The more a biologist knows of recent biological research

and investigation the more will he be likely to consider this

principle of the non-transmission of acquirements as definitely

settled. According to this, then, no disease is ever transmitted to

the next generation. This is such a complete reversal of former

opinions, such an open contradiction of popular beliefs, that the

subject merits thorough discussion from this newer standpoint for

medical applications. We must not forget that popular medicine, even

when egregiously wrong, is founded on opinions held by the medical

profession aforetime and, indeed, on this subject of heredity many of

the medical profession still cling to the former opinion.

Tuberculosis, which used to furnish the most serious argument in this

matter, has now come to be the best possible explanation that we have

for the fallacy of the transmission of anything acquired. The disease

followed families so constantly that it seemed impossible to explain

it unless the principle of its heredity was conceded. Now that we know

its contagiousness, however, it is comparatively easy to explain its

occurrence in families. When we recall how carelessly people coughed

and even expectorated around the house, while children crept on the

floors and carried the germs of the disease to their mouths on their

hands, the wonder is, not that so many members of the family acquired

the disease seeing the manifold opportunities for contagion, but that

any of them ever escaped. We know now that practically every

adult above the age of thirty either has or has had tuberculosis.

Careful autopsies show us remains of the disease even in the bodies of

those who, without any history of tuberculosis, die from other

diseases. One out of eight of the population dies of tuberculosis, but

the remaining seven are quite capable of resisting the disease and so

we find healed lesions at autopsies in this proportion of cases.

Family History Favorable.--It is certain, then, that tuberculosis is

not hereditary. On the contrary, as we have learned more about the

disease in recent years, it has been recognized by specialists that

patients who have a family history of tuberculosis are notably less

likely to succumb to the disease early than those who have no such

history. An acute case of tuberculosis with considerable loss of

weight has a very unfavorable prognosis unless there is a history of

the disease in the preceding generation, when at once the outlook

becomes more hopeful. This newer view is confirmed by what we have

learned from the ethnological pathology of the disease. Peoples

exposed to the disease for the first time rapidly succumb to it. This

is practically true for all the infectious diseases. Our American

Indians succumbed in large numbers not only to tuberculosis but also

to smallpox and even to measles when each was first introduced among

them. The same thing was true in the South Sea Islands. Where nations

have been exposed to the disease for some time they have acquired not

an immunity, but at least they possess a greater resistive vitality to

its ravages and while they still may be susceptible they are not so

subject to the fatal forms of the disease, and even if they acquire it

they live on for many years.

Many people may insist that this immunity or comparative immunity to

tuberculosis and increased resistive vitality against the disease is

transmitted and illustrates the principle of heredity. The reaction of

the system to the disease increases in each generation and this

increase is an acquired character which passes down with the family

strain. This immunity should be viewed from another standpoint,

however. Certain families possess a resistive vitality to the disease;

others lack it. The resistant families do not succumb to it, and

propagate themselves. The others gradually die out. What caused the

resistant families originally to possess this quality we do not know.

We have no trace of its being acquired. Like so many other characters

by which men differ from one another, we do not know the beginning of

it. Once it comes in as a family trait it is transmitted. In

successive generations we have no evidence that it is stronger, only

the danger is recognized from experience and better precautions are

taken; the consequence is that the original resistive vitality has a

better chance to make itself felt and so the family is preserved. This

is as true with regard to the conquest of the tendency to excess in

the taking of toxic substances, as alcohol and opium, as with regard

to disease. It is not the transmission of an acquired character, but

the descent of a family trait the origin of which we do not know.

Hereditary Syphilis.--Many physicians will protest that, at least, we

have ample evidence for the transmission of syphilis by heredity. We

have for many years talked of hereditary syphilis as if it were

absolutely sure that its transmission by inheritance took place. There

is no doubt, of course, that the disease is conveyed from mother to

child. If a mother is actively syphilitic, then her child will

surely have syphilis when it is born. This, however, is no argument

for the hereditary transmission of syphilis. We know now that if a

mother is tuberculous, in an active stage of that disease, her child

will almost surely have the disease, but this is a question of

contagion not of inheritance. If a mother with active tuberculosis

nurses her child she is likely to give it tuberculosis. Usually the

idea is that the milk is not infective unless there are tuberculous

lesions in the breasts, and in cattle it is well known that such

lesions in the milk apparatus inevitably bring tubercle bacilli into

the milk. The demonstration of tubercle bacilli in the blood of

patients in the active stage of the disease is now much more frequent

than used to be the case and there seems no doubt that the bacillus

can pass through glandular structures into the secretions.

In the same way syphilitic nurses are likely to infect nurslings,

though, of course, in this case there are usually syphilitic sores on

the nipples which directly communicate the disease. It is almost

impossible for a syphilitic woman to nurse a child, if she is in an

active stage of the disease, without the production of such infective

sores on her nipples. When children are born with syphilis it means

only that in the process of feeding the child through the placental

tissues, a mother has infected her child quite as she might infect it

by nursing afterwards, in case she acquired syphilis after the birth.

Lesions corresponding to those on the nipple occur in placental

tissues and can be demonstrated without much difficulty. Congenital

syphilis, however, can always be traced to contagion and the being

born with the disease or having the manifestations of it occur shortly

after birth is no argument for heredity at all. It merely emphasizes

the danger of contagion.

Mothers of Syphilitic Children.--But there are some cases in which

the child who shows symptoms of syphilis after birth is born from a

mother who never had any manifestations of syphilis and therefore it

has been supposed that the infection must have come from the sperm,

and that in these cases, at least, there is a true heredity. It is

perfectly possible, however, that syphilitic infective material may

accompany the spermatozoon and so bring about the occurrence of

syphilis in the offspring. Even this would be infection, however, and

not heredity. Much more frequently it would seem that the disease in

the infant was contracted from the mother while suffering from a

latent form of syphilis, rather than from the paternal contributory

particle to its existence. The mother gives no sign of the disease,

but Colles' Law is that the mother of a syphilitic child may, without

danger to herself, be allowed to nurse her own infant even though she

herself has never had any symptoms. This can only mean that she is

thoroughly protected against the disease. We would not think for a

moment of allowing an ordinarily healthy women to nurse a syphilitic

child. Such immunity in the mother of the syphilitic child can only

come, so far as the present state of our knowledge goes, from her

having had the disease. It has been said that as the result of the

intimate communication with her child in utero she has acquired an

immunity by the passage across the placental membrane which separates

maternal and fetal blood of protective substances of various kinds due

to the reaction against the disease already beginning in the child. As

a matter of fact, however, there is no evidence of any such reactive

substances in the blood of the child which after birth proceeds to

have a series of acute lesions that are, as a rule, indicative

of almost complete lack of resistive vitality. Maternal immunity is

evidently due to the occurrence of the disease in some form within the

maternal tissues which produces the usual protection against the

disease in a briefer time than usual. This certainly seems to be a

more satisfactory explanation than that of a transmission of an

immunity from the child to the mother which the child itself does not

possess. It is easier to understand the transmission of an infection

that does not manifest itself externally than of an immunity which

there has been no time to acquire. Both explanations leave a mystery,

but the mystery in the second case can be explained more in consonance

with what we know about syphilitic transmission and immunity than in

the other case. It does away with the transmission directly from the

father almost completely, of course, leaves practically no ground for

the heredity of syphilis, but it accords much better than older

explanations with biological principles.

Late Lesions and Heredity.--Many physicians will be likely to insist

that the late developments of syphilis in children, in which not only

three or five years afterwards, but even fifteen or twenty years after

birth, there are syphilitic manifestations, are beyond all doubt

examples of heredity. In the last twenty-five years, however, our

ideas with regard to the after-effects of syphilis have been entirely

modified by what we have learned of such diseases as locomotor ataxia,

paresis and the like. These are undoubtedly parasyphilitic diseases in

most cases, yet they not infrequently develop from ten to twenty years

after any manifestation of syphilis and they seem to occur, by

preference almost, in cases where the preliminary symptoms have been

very mild. In not a few cases, indeed, the symptoms of syphilis have

been so transient in these patients that the true significance of them

was missed until the later developments showed their real character.

Krafft-Ebing, at the International Medical Congress at Moscow in 1897,

detailed some experiments that he had made on paretics in Vienna. They

were patients in whom no history of syphilis could be found, yet they

were suffering from typical paresis. As they were in the ultimate

stage of the disease it did not seem unjustifiable to inoculate them

with syphilis, and in most cases it was found that they would not take

the disease, showing that they were probably protected by a previous

attack, though there was no history of it.

The development of the late symptoms of syphilis in the second

generation can then be much more satisfactorily explained on the basis

of a mild infection with very few primary symptoms, almost lacking in

secondary symptoms, yet followed by subsequent symptoms of great

severity consequent upon the deterioration of vitality produced by the

disease. As for the manifestations in the third generation, they are

not directly syphilitic, but are, whenever they occur, due to

conditions consequent upon the degeneration that had been effected in

the preceding generation and which directly weakened the offspring--on

the same principle that weak parents give birth to weak children, and

starving parents cannot have strong, healthy children--but not because

of any direct influence of the disease. It is worth while to discuss

this subject from this standpoint, since it disposes of the only

supposed evidence left for the hereditary transmission of disease that

we now have, though only a few years ago most diseases were supposed

to be hereditary.

Heredity in Cancer.--With regard to other diseases, the evidence for

any inheritance has been founded entirely on coincidence. All the

human race dies and must die some way, and so in families a

certain number will die of the same disease. The argument for heredity

in cancer is extremely weak. When all the relatives of a person

afflicted with cancer as far out as the third generation are taken

into account, only about one in five of them are found to have

suffered from cancer. When we remember, however, that more than one in

thirty of all those who die, die of cancer and that the death-rate of

this disease is greater than that of typhoid fever, smallpox, scarlet

fever, measles, and all other infectious diseases put together, it is

easy to understand how large a role coincidence plays in any such set

of statistics, and how little the significance of the occurrence of

cancer in different members of the same family means, unless possibly

there is an occasional element of contagiousness which must not be

left out of the reckoning.

Heredity in Other Affections.--Other ailments present much less

possibility or probability of any element of heredity. For instance,

over-indulgence in meat or drink may readily bring about various

ailments of the gastro-intestinal tract. These are, of course,

definitely acquired conditions, some of them temporary and some

persistent, that will continue to give trouble so long as the patient

continues to produce irritation of them. They may, of course, lead to

permanent pathological conditions. To say that any of these are likely

to be inherited would be quite as absurd as to say that a corn could

be inherited, or the permanent deformities produced in toes by wearing

badly-fitting shoes could be transmitted to the next generation. We do

not think for a moment that because a man has lost a finger his

children are likely to be born without a finger, and still less if by

some accident or abuse he has been deprived of the use of an arm or

leg, that that is likely to be transmitted to the next generation. Yet

people calmly talk of the heredity of similarly produced conditions

within the body, and even physicians are not entirely free from the

superstition, for such it is, of the influence of heredity in

producing pathological conditions.

Habits of various kinds, physical and mental, are calmly accepted by

many people as influenced by or having their origin in heredity. Under

Alcoholism and Drug Addictions we have discussed this phase of the

subject, but a word or two more may make it clearer. A tendency to

form the same habits may be a family trait and descend from one

generation to another. That a specific habit should be the subject of

heredity or transmission is as much out of the question as that a

facility for doing anything should be transmitted. The son of an

acrobat must practice quite as faithfully as did his father in order

to secure his father's skill. He may inherit from his father that

particular constitution of body, that specific combination of muscle

and sinew and bone that enables him to become an acrobat by practice,

though with a different kind of body it would be impossible, but his

father's acquired facility influences in no way the son's ability. We

often hear of a man being the descendant of a series of generations

each of whom has gone to the university, as if that somehow assured

him a readier and better facility for education, but we know very well

that this is not true and that the boys straight from the soil are

often the best students and far ahead of the scions of long-time

academic families.

Inheritance of Defects.--Acquired characters are not transmitted,

though family traits are the subject of inheritance. Disease is not

hereditary, but defect is. Crossed eyes occur very commonly in

families and are evidently a subject of transmission. Family noses are

often very peculiar and may be traced for many generations. The

Hapsburg lip has been noted in sixty per cent. of the Hapsburgs since

the family came into prominence in the thirteenth century. Features of

all kinds are inherited, as anyone who has ever spent some time in a

family portrait gallery where the ancestors were genuine and the

paintings reasonably true to life, knows very well. Certain features

of European families can be traced for many generations. The tendency

to have six toes or to have an extra finger runs in certain families.

So small a thing as a patch of white hair in a particular part of the

head may be the subject of hereditary transmission. Moles on a

particular part of the body are inherited. All these, however, are

characters with regard to the acquisition of which we know nothing,

but that have somehow found their way into the family strain and have

become subjects of transmission from generation to generation. They

provide no evidence, however, as to the transmission of acquired


Variation.--What is even more surprising in biology, however, is that

there is another marvelous force at work quite as incomprehensible in

its way, perhaps even more so, than that of heredity. This is

variation. All creatures have a tendency to vary from their parents. A

very small proportion of the offspring resemble parents so closely as

to be quite similar. The great majority of them, however, have

noteworthy, individual, distinctive qualities. Occasionally these

qualities may be traced to the less immediate ancestors and then we

talk about reversion. Occasionally there appears in a child some trait

or anomaly supposed to be remotely ancestral and it is spoken of as

atavism. Whenever there is a tendency of the offspring of exceptional

parents to regress toward the racial average, we talk of regression.

Tall parents often have tall children, some of them may, by a special

tendency of heredity, be taller even than themselves. Most of them

will be shorter, however, and tend to regress toward the racial


Few people understand what a wonderful power among living things is

exerted by this very opposite of heredity--variation. All the

possibility of improvement not only in humanity but among all living

things is dependent on variation. It does not seem difficult to

understand how offspring resemble parents. They are of them, therefore

they are like them. When we analyze the problem of heredity, however,

and find that the connecting link between offspring and parents is

always only a single cell of less than one one-hundredth of an inch in

diameter, the mystery of heredity looms up in all its immensity. This

minute bit of protoplasm, so small that it requires a rather strong

power of the microscope to see it, somehow contains compressed within

itself all the qualities that characterize the parent and are to be

transmitted to the offspring. Among animals, the color of the eyes and

hairy covering, the form and height of the animal, its generic

characteristics, and its individual characters--all are contained

within this minute spherule. The white blaze on the horse's hind leg,

the black blotch on the puppy's face, the white lock on a human head,

are all carried over from one generation to another with all the other

qualities in this small package. That is the mystery of heredity.

To this must be added another mystery quite as great and even more

difficult to understand--variation. This tendency to vary is the

basis for whatever evolution there is in the world. Some living things

vary in such a way as to be better suited to their environment than

they were before and then these outlive others because more favorably

situated, and natural selection brings about a maintenance of the

favorable variation. Instead, then, of patients being impressed with

the unfavorable influence of heredity, they should rather be made to

feel the weight of the idea that whatever evil tendencies the parent

has the child is more likely to have less of them than more, so that

variation tends to make the race better. We have had too much stress

laid on the heredity of unfortunate qualities and entirely too little

made of the variation tendency, which is constantly lifting the race

up. It is, of course, only what happens in everything else,

unfavorable are likely to have more weight than favorable suggestions,

and unless these latter are emphasized their influence becomes

swamped. This has happened with regard to variation. It is quite as

important a biological element as heredity and it makes for the

removal of unfortunate qualities, yet it has never become a popular

idea and is little appreciated even by physicians.

Patients who are worried about their heredity will, after a frank

discussion of our present knowledge of heredity and its co-ordinate

factor of variation, lose most of their dread of this specter of

supposed evil influence which so often proves the source of

discouragement and failure to react properly against pathological

conditions. There is probably no phase of modern biology in which the

so-called popularization of science has done more harm by providing an

abundant source ol unfortunate suggestions. Whatever influence

heredity has in relation to disease is favorable to the human race. It

is true that this is exerted by the elimination of the unfit, yet the

very consequence of this is that the children of parents who have

suffered from a particular disease are likely to have greater average

resistance to it than the generality of mankind, since their parents

passed the age up to reproductive activity without succumbing to it.

For cancer, tuberculosis and syphilis this teaching is of special

value and is probably more effective than any other single means could

be to prevent the ravages of the disease if it should occur, since it

keeps the patient from interfering with his own resistive vitality by

the discouraging conviction that there is no possible hope for him

because his parents also suffered from the disease.



A state of mind that disturbs many people seriously, sometimes even

producing physical results, because of the burden of dread that hangs

over them, is that in which attention is paid to premonitions of evil.

There are two of these general conditions to be considered. In the one

there is a definite feeling that some special evil, occasionally very

particularly outlined in the mind, as a railroad accident, fire, or a

street accident of some kind, is to occur. In another mental condition

there is a generic premonition of evil, as if the worst were

sure to happen and the patients must be constantly preparing for it.

Occasionally this takes on some such form as an assurance of early

breakdown in health, or of death at an untimely age, or of some

crippling infirmity. This represents, of course, only one form of lack

of control over the mind, but it is surprising how much physical

suffering it may occasion. Only those who have had much to do with

patients who suffer from this state of mind realize it. Sympathetic

knowledge of the conditions that bring it about and of the real

significance of premonitions will do more to help patients than

anything else.

Every now and then newspapers tell the story of someone who had an

impending sense of danger, perhaps of a particular form of accident or

misfortune, which he could not shake off and which finally came true.

Sometimes it is a fire that was anticipated, though without any reason

except the dread, and precautions that eventually proved life-saving

to the patient were taken, or at least friends were told of it so that

the person seemed actually to have had some warning beforehand of the

danger that was to come. Sometimes it is the story of a railroad

accident, which some particularly fortunate individual escaped,

because of a premonition that made him take another train or make a

happy change of cars. Nothing is said of the times when premonitions

failed, nor of the disappointments of such dreads. Most people laugh

at the stories, but a few individuals become seriously impressed with

the possibility of such warnings and then make themselves miserable by

having frequent premonitions.

Etiology.--As to the origin of these premonitions it is hard to say.

They occur more frequently on dark days than in bright weather and are

complained of much more in spring and fall than during the cold brisk

winter or during the summer time. A succession of very hot days,

however, brings a series of premonitions, especially with regard to

accidents by heat, that is not surprising since the newspapers have

many accounts of sunstrokes and there is every suggestion of the

possibility of danger of this kind. How large a role suggestion plays

in the matter can be realized from the fact that after some

particularly serious railroad accident many people have premonitions

that they may be hurt and occasionally they put themselves to

considerable inconvenience in choosing the car in which they will sit,

if the last serious preceding accident of which they have heard

happens to have brought death mainly in a particular car of a train.

It is always suggestible people who are likely to have premonitions.

The thought comes very simply at first, they dwell on it a little

unwillingly, then they find it impossible to banish it and finally it

may become a positive obsession. The soil and the seed for suggestion

are both needed to produce premonitions.

Royce suggests that many of the supposedly fulfilled premonitions are

really only pseudo-presentiments and represent an instantaneous and

irresistible hallucination of memory, which may give rise to the

impression that there has been a previous dream or other warning

presaging the facts, though no such phenomenon actually took place. In

other words, there would be an auto-suggestion consequent upon the

hearing of other fulfilled presentiments that sometime some such thing

must also occur to us, and then when a happening that reminds us of

something in the previous stories of presentiments comes there

is the sudden responsive feeling "why, this is what I saw or must have

seen in my dream."

Podmore suggests an illusion of memory magnifying or rearranging the

details of a recent dream or premonitory impression, so as to make it

fit into the happenings. Dreams are so vague that unless they have

been written down we are not quite sure of them an hour after they

occurred and a day or two later we have only the merest hint of what

they were. If this can be made to have any connection with a casualty

of any kind that happens subsequently we may very readily recreate the

dream with its details concordant to the event. Certainly no reliance

can be placed on a story of a dream fulfilled unless the dream was

told before the happening.

Premonitions of Death.--Certain premonitions are common and are

frequently brought to the physician's notice. Among old people it is

not unusual to find that a premonition of death will hang over them

for days, seriously disturbing them and their friends, hampering often

a healthy reaction against disease and always lowering resistive

vitality. Many of them have heard stories which make them credit the

belief that such premonitions are likely to come true and therefore

they cannot shake them off. They have heard stories of people who have

become convinced that they were going to die at a particular time on a

particular day and whose conviction has been proven by the event. Like

all the other premonitions, whatever truth there may appear to be in

them, is due entirely to the fact that nearly everybody has

premonitions and occasionally, therefore, one of them must come true.

Those that are fulfilled create such an impression that they are

remembered, while those that fail are forgotten, until, though it is

not realized, it becomes true that fulfilled premonitions represent

exactly that much misunderstood principle that the exception proves

the rule. The rule is that premonitions fail. Exceptionally, however,

a premonition comes true. Instead of proving that premonitions mean

anything, the rarity of their fulfillment proves the rule of their

non-significance and demonstrates that they are merely coincidences.

Persuasion of Short Life.--Much mental suffering occurs in nervous

people as a consequence of a premonition or persuasion which comes to

them in middle life that they are destined not to live very long. This

is a commoner impression than is usually thought and comes to nearly

everyone at some time in life. Especially is it likely to come to

those who have suffered some severe illness and who know how weak they

were during their convalescence and, in spite of their thorough

recovery of strength, cannot quite persuade themselves but that an

ailment which made them so weak must surely have sapped their vitality

so as to make long life for them impossible. It is, of course, one of

the vague dreads that men always seem to be harboring, but there are

times that it becomes so prominent and so influential in the

production of depressive feelings that it is worth while to have the

means at hand to counteract it as far as possible. In the last ten

years I have made it a practice to ask, not only all my patients but

most of my acquaintances above 70 years of age whether they had ever

experienced such a premonition. I have particularly asked what were

their feelings with regard to the hope of long life for them when they

were in their forties and fifties. Without exception I have been told

by all those who had the education and leisure to be at all

introspective, that they had felt sure that they would not have long


Most of the men consulted took out life insurance in such a way as to

benefit their families after their death rather than themselves during

life. Indeed it seems not an unusual thing for men to have some

experience with an ailment between 40 and 55 which makes them realize

their mortality much more than the deaths of their friends around them

had succeeded in doing. Premonitions and impressions, then, of this

kind evidently mean nothing, so far as the prospect of long life is

concerned. Practically everyone has them, and since, of course, the

great majority of men do not live to die of old age, it would seem

that their premonition of comparatively short life was fulfilled.

Occasionally a man will be found at the age of fifty unwilling to take

up further work or develop his business because of the dread that has

come over him that he may not live long enough to make it worth the

while. Where there is serious kidney or heart trouble such an

abstention from business is commendable, but in many cases it leaves a

man without occupation or with insufficient occupation and he becomes

short-circuited on himself with more serious results from worry than

would have come from work.

Publication of Fulfilled Premonitions.--The publication of fulfilled

premonitions has always seemed to me to be an especially fertile

source of premonitions for other people. Every now and then someone

goes to bed in a hotel having communicated to friends the idea that he

fears there may be fire before morning. I do not suppose that one out

of ten people who sleep in a strange hotel fail to have some such

thought, they do not consider it a premonition, however, but only a

suggestion for the taking of proper precautions so as to know where

exits and fire escapes and other means of escape are situated, so that

in the excitement of the fire they may not have to do any thinking,

but may have already made up their minds what they shall do. This sort

of premonition, if we call it by that name, has a definite useful

purpose. Occasionally it seems marvelously provident. The other makes

its possessor toss sleepless a portion of the night, does no good and

much harm. If, however, the premonition has been communicated to

someone else and then a fire should occur, the reporting of the

fulfilled premonition comes to a lot of weak-minded people as a

confirmation of their worst fears. It is, of course, only a question

of coincidence in a succession of events by no means connected in any

causal relation, yet by the unthinking set down as showing the

possibility of such premonitions being supremely significant. If we

had all the stories of unfulfilled premonitions also published then

the true significance of the others would be clear.

An Unfulfilled Premonition.--There is an excellent story of a strong

but unfulfilled premonition told by Carl Schurz in his

"Recollections," which seems to me such a good antidote to the

influence of supposed premonitions, that every physician should know

its details for their psychotherapeutic value with patients prone to

be troubled in this way. The ease with which the depression consequent

upon the premonition was relieved as soon as another forcible

suggestion that the danger was past took possession of him, shows how

such states of mind can be altered with no more real reason for the

alteration than there was for the original depression.

On the morning of the battle of Chancellorsville General Schurz awoke

with the absolute persuasion that at last his time had come and he was

to be killed that day. He had never had such a premonition before. He

had heard of many cases in which such premonitions proved the

forerunner of death. He realized how ridiculous was the idea that he

should know anything about what the future held for him, even vaguely,

and he tried to shake it off. He found it impossible to do so. He

thought that after he took up the routine work of the day the force of

the premonition would be lost. It was not, but, on the contrary,

seemed to increase in power over him. Finally the idea became so

imperative that he sat down and wrote letters of farewell to his wife

and friends, telling them that he had been tempted to do so because of

this premonition of danger. When he went into battle--and it may be

recalled that the Eleventh Corps did some fighting at Chancellorsville

that day--he was sure that now the end was not far off. It did not

take away his courage, however, and though he was well in the zone of

danger, he issued his orders and kept his troops well in hand as we

know from the history of the battle.

Finally his aide-de-camp, riding toward the front of the line beside

him, was killed by a cannon ball. All in an instant the thought came

over him that this was the only danger that was likely to be near him

for the day. The burden of premonition lifted from him as if the fact

that a friend had been killed beside him gave him an assurance that he

himself was not to be taken. There was absolutely no reason for his

thinking so, but his feelings of solicitude with regard to himself and

his fate faded completely and at once. He continued in the thick of

the fight and of danger and was untouched. He himself called attention

to the fact that if his premonition had come true, as well it might in

the midst of the very serious danger which he faced, it would have

seemed a strong confirmation of the impression that premonitions have

a meaning other than that of coincidence. It was, however, a

magnificent example of a failed premonition quite as striking as any

of the stories that are told about premonitions that came true.

Role of Coincidence.--This must be remembered in many of our arguments

in medical and other scientific matters. Most diseases are

self-limited, therefore anything that is given as a remedy for them

just about the time that nature has succeeded in conquering the

virulence of the disease and bringing about the cure of the patient,

seems to be curative. Such cures, often remedies of supposed wonderful

potency, come and go in medicine by the hundred every ten years. Such

curious doctrines as that of the influence of maternal impressions in

producing deformities and defects in the unborn child are founded on

nothing better than these coincidences. They are often very startling,

but the rule by which they must be judged is the number of times in

which in spite of similar conditions no premonition takes place.

Literally thousands of people go to bed every night who are to be

waked by the danger of fire before morning and yet have no premonition

of it. Literally millions of people have gone to bed in recent years

without any premonition of earthquake, yet have been wakened before

morning with their houses tumbling around them. If a few people have

premonitions in these cases it is easy to understand that it is

coincidence and not anything else, for these are exceptions, and this

again is a case of the exception proving the rule.

Premonitions and Superstitions--Thirteen.--Occasionally premonitions

are connected with certain events that are themselves, even though

happening quite accidentally, supposed to be portentous. How many

people, for instance, feel quite uncomfortable if they sit down

thirteen at a table. The very fact of the gathering of thirteen is

supposed to be a spontaneous or automatic premonition that is a

forewarning of evil that has to come to some of them. Unfortunately,

this superstition continues to have a vogue and an influence over

people's minds because stories are told that are supposed to confirm

it. Needless to say, when these stories are true, they are merely

coincidences. Out of any baker's dozen of people who sit down to

dinner it is not surprising if one should die or be killed during the

year. Some of the stories, however, are merely sensational inventions

worked up to be given to the public because a number of people are

interested in this sort of thing. Probably one of the stories that has

gone the rounds most and that has served to confirm many people in

their uneasiness over the number 13 is that which is told as happening

to Matthew Arnold and some friends, supposedly the year the great

English litterateur died.

The story runs that just as Mr. Arnold and his friends were about to

sit down to the table it was discovered that there were thirteen

present. According to the old tradition in the matter it is the one

who first gets up from table under these circumstances that is likely

to be affected by the malignant influence. When the end of the dinner

had arrived, by previous arrangement Mr. Arnold and two very healthy

friends, brothers, arose simultaneously. According to the widely

diffused newspaper account of years afterward, Mr. Arnold himself died

within the year and one of the brothers was lost in the wreck of an

English passenger vessel off the coast of Australia in six months,

while the other brother committed suicide before the end of the year.

Careful investigation of the details has shown, however, that the

story was made out of whole cloth. Mr. Arnold himself, who was

suffering from heart trouble towards the end of his life, was not

likely to take part in any such arrangement because of the constant

danger, well-known to himself, of sudden death in his case. This might

happen at any time and might seem to confirm the superstition. The

dates of the story, moreover, are all wrong. Matthew Arnold's death

and the loss of the English passenger vessel in Australian waters,

referred to, do not occur within five years of each other. The story

has gone round the world. The correction will never reach so far. The

story is startling; the explanation commonplace. Many people will

continue to believe that here, at least, was one striking confirmation

of their superstition.

It is curious how the force of this "13" superstition has continued in

spite of education and enlightenment. Most passenger vessels now built

have no staterooms numbered thirteen. On certain streets in large

cities one finds the number 12-1/2 (until this year it was so on my

own) substituted for thirteen. Sometimes one finds "twelve a" or

something similar. In the large hotels, where they have immense

banquet halls with the tables numbered so that guests may be able to

find their places, I have often noted that there was no table number

thirteen. It is said that in some of the new skyscraper buildings

twenty stories and more in height there has been question of skipping

the thirteenth floor as a designation, because while most people

would be quite undisturbed about it, some do not care to have an

office on the thirteenth floor, giving as an excuse that clients or

patrons do not care to come to the thirteenth floor. In automobile

races men are willing to risk their lives by going a hundred miles an

hour on roads never intended for such performances, but they refuse to

race behind the fell number thirteen. This, after all, can be readily

understood. The slightest thing that takes away a man's complete

confidence in himself may be serious in an automobile going as fast as

these. Men must not think of fear or they lose some of their power and

control over themselves and their machine. They must simply forget

everything except the task before them.

The belief in the thirteen superstition is one form of acceptance of

premonitions. That of itself should be enough to enable sensible

people to throw them off. Above all, it must be remembered that such

supposed malignant influence, when allowed to affect people, impairs

their presence of mind and may thus lead up to the accident or mishap

which it is supposed to foreshadow. This is the serious feature of

such premonitions and dreads. Unless people can be persuaded sensibly

to be rid of them they handicap themselves whenever they are placed in

danger that causes them to recur to the thought of the premonition or

dread. While there is absolutely nothing but coincidence in even the

supposed true stories, and many of the stories are merely sensational

inventions, yet people need to be persuaded to rid themselves of the

incubus that settles over them because of such ideas.

Premonitions and Telepathy.--There are many people who think that

premonitions have something to do with telepathy. Somehow the future

event is supposed to be able to send some message to specially

susceptible minds. Either that, of course, or there is some being in

another world whose interest is sufficient to convey some inkling of

the future. A little consideration of this subject, however, shows the

utter lack of rationality in any such opinion. Future events, having

as yet no existence, cannot in any way influence intelligence. Such

future events, when dependent on human free will, are quite impossible

of being foretold and, as has been said, no being except the Creator

Himself knows anything about them. It would be only from Him, then,

that information might be supposed to come and it would be hard to

think such information would be so vague and indefinite as to leave

room for doubt and, besides, often defeat its purpose of protection by

seriously disturbing patients and lessening their presence of mind.

There is no reasonable explanation by which a human being can be

supposed to obtain knowledge of a future event unless there is a

complete overturning of the ordinary laws of nature and then it would

be reasonably supposed that no doubt of the significance of the event

would be left.

Nearly all of us have premonitions that fail. Only a few especially

introspective people who are constantly afraid of what will happen to

them, and who are sure that the worst is always preparing for them,

have their premonitions come true more than once or twice in life. The

striking fulfillments of a few premonitions could be paralleled by an

endless number of just as striking failures, only that most people

dismiss the idea completely from their minds as too foolish to be

further talked about. It is quite the same with dreams. All the world

dreams and there would be a serious violation of the theory of

probabilities if some dreams did not come true. The great

majority of mankind, especially after the age of thirty, is fearful

lest something ill is going to happen to them and their premonitions

are rather frequent. If some of these did not come true then the

mathematics of coincidences as based on the theory of probabilities

would prove false.