Ludwig Wittgenstein may have been a brilliant philosopher, but he was only a so-so porter at Guy’s

by Christine Kenyon-Jones

Arguably the finest philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was described by his mentor Bertrand Russell as ‘the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived’. During the Second World War, that genius was voluntarily applied to the humble task of portering at Guy’s Hospital – a little-known fact Wittgenstein always kept private, and which remained a secret until the late 1950s.

He came to Guy’s from the University of Cambridge, where he was a brilliant lecturer, because he was eager to be, as he put it, ‘where the bombs are falling’. In September 1941, through Guy’s Professor John Ryle (brother of Wittgenstein’s friend the philosopher Gilbert Ryle), he began work.

Wittgenstein was employed first as an orderly, taking drugs to the wards (where, however, he advised the patients not to take them). Later he was a laboratory assistant, mixing ointments for dermatology. He slept at Nuffield House in a room bare except for the stacks of detective magazines he loved.

The director of the Guy’s Pharmacy recalled: ‘After working here three weeks he came and explained how we should be running the place. You see, he was a man who was used to thinking.’

Another report says that when he had to undergo a gallstone operation, Wittgenstein had such mistrust of English doctors that he asked to be allowed to stay conscious, with mirrors arranged around the operating theatre to observe the procedure.

At Guy’s, Wittgenstein met Drs Roland Grant and Basil Reeve, who were working on ‘wound shock’. There was no general agreement on the symptoms of ‘shock’, and Wittgenstein dissuaded the researchers from using the word.

Soon after the Blitz ended, Wittgenstein moved with Grant and Reeve to the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne, as a laboratory assistant on £4 per week. In 1944 Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge, but resigned his chair three years later. Writing to a former dispensary colleague in 1950, Wittgenstein commented that he didn’t suppose ‘they are erecting a huge statue of me in front of Nuffield House? …Of course, no monument of stone could really show what a wonderful person I am.’ Perhaps the time has now come to put up a statue to Wittgenstein at Guy’s, to match the one of John Keats erected there in 2008?

Article posted: August, 2015

 

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