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Sometimes Victorian sentimentality masks fundamental truths. William Small’s nineteenth century portrait of what we would today describe as an ambulatory/community paediatrician could be seen within such a sentimental light: but this is a mistake.
Painted in an era where charges for medical consultations were routine, any doctor freely ministering to the poor and needy was welcome to those who otherwise could not afford their services.
We can comment on how the child who is unwell is held up instead of being examined lying down, but we should first consider how well our own practices will stand up when examined at a similar period in the future. Or we can look at the meagre dwellings and how all the children are unshod. We can at least be thankful that some things have improved, though there is still a very long way to go before poverty is eliminated.
This picture, The Good Samaritan, is inspired by the Biblical parable. It does not fully show the face of the doctor and it is not based on any one individual. We are left to construct the doctor’s face for ourselves and in it we see those paediatricians who continue to inspire us.
It stands for a selfless ideal of a doctor who did not pass by a child in need.
We do not know why the doctor stopped in the midst of a busy working day, only that he has done so. The field is his consultation room and he kneels to better examine the child.
The painting reminds us that in medicine, just like life, the unexpected can happen at any time. How we respond when we see that child in need is the acid test of our professional calling and the true legacy of our inspirational predecessors.