“THE face of London was now indeed strangely altered,” wrote Daniel Defoe in A journal of the plague year, his famous chronicle of that city’s bubonic plague outbreak of 1665–1666.
Although the book purports to be an eyewitness account, Defoe was actually only 5 years old when the plague occurred. The Journal was published more than 50 years later, but is clearly based on thorough research and is convincing in its detail.
There is much in Defoe’s account that resonates in our own dystopic year: the eerie quiet of the city, an obsessive focus on daily and weekly statistics, tension between the need to make a living and the desire to protect oneself from illness, the differing impacts of the calamity on rich and poor, the explosion of various forms of quackery and unscientific beliefs, even the baking of bread at home.
The face of all our cities, all our lives, has been strangely altered this year, and the full implications of that may take time to appear. We have discovered new things about ourselves, learned new ways of doing things, confronted new species of loss, and asked new questions about the ways our societies are organised.
With the forced quieting of our lives, we may have wondered whether we ever needed to be that busy, to struggle so much to keep all the balls in the air, to make that flight, speak at that conference, or get to that networking event.
In the face of disaster, we have seen greater political polarisation in some countries, a surge of extremism, and growing attacks on scientific thought.
But we have also noticed, more than before, the quiet goodness of people just doing their jobs to look after the rest of us, whether that’s frontline health workers or the supermarket employees confronted by customers trying to grab a century’s supply of toilet paper.
For many, this has been a year of grief, whether from the ravages of the pandemic or the catastrophic bushfires that ushered in the year for Australians. I lost my father last month, adding, as have many others, a personal grief to the swamp of loss that is 2020.
David McCredie was a paediatric nephrologist, the first to hold that position at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH). A long-time colleague, Dr Harley Powell, recently described him to me as the father of paediatric renal medicine in Australia. An obituary will be published by the Age in coming weeks, but in the meantime there is a short piece on the RCH website.
David began his career in the 1950s when chronic renal failure in children was almost invariably fatal, and was a pioneer of the new techniques and treatments that gave those children a future. He continued to get letters from former patients into his 90s, some from people he had treated more than half a century before.
David taught generations of medical students at the University of Melbourne. He was one of the founders of the International Paediatric Nephrology Association and trained doctors who went on to establish what was then a new specialty in other Australian states and countries around the world.
He continued to practise into his 80s, while also volunteering his services to asylum seekers and to help improve paediatric renal health in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.
Since David died, I have been overwhelmed by messages from medical and research colleagues around the world, speaking of his wide-ranging intellect, his generous mentoring of others, and his openness to new ideas. I’ve found myself wondering about what we might be losing as his generation of doctors leaves us.
Medical practice when David began his career was more paternalistic, less regulated and rather too accommodating of personal and professional lapses among its practitioners.
But the old ways had their strengths too. In the later years of his career, David lamented the increasing siloisation of medicine and a decline in the interdisciplinary exchanges that had been so central to his own practice and research. Colleagues tell me how excited he would always be by opportunities to share insights and ideas with specialists in other fields.
As well as all that, he was of course my Dad. He taught me to love nature and stories, respect science and care about social justice. There are more of my personal reflections on Dad in this Sydney Review of Books essay I wrote a couple of years ago.
Dad was a loyal reader, and occasional critic, of the columns I write for InSight+. It is a hard thought that this is the first one he will not be here to read, but I know his interdisciplinary mind would have enjoyed my quoting of A journal of the plague year.
He would certainly have appreciated Defoe’s thoughts on the good that might come out of a major health disaster:
“… a close conversing with death, or with diseases that threaten death, would scum off the gall from our tempers, remove the animosities among us, and bring us to see with differing eyes than those which we looked on things with before.”
The removal of animosities has hardly been a striking feature of this year, but perhaps it is something we could try to work towards.
As the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines begins, I’m hoping the hard-won lessons of 2020 won’t be forgotten but that our “differing eyes” will help us to build a kinder and better world.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and health writer.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.