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The taste test

Published: July 1, 2011 at 7:42 am
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This week's Friday funny, brought to you as ever by author and journalist Eugene Byrne, takes a look at an old joke especially popular with medical students, which actually has its roots in a true story involving Joseph Bell and Arthur Conan Doyle

The joke

The eminent surgeon was about to give an important lecture to his medical students. Before the lecture he prepared, in a laboratory flask, a concoction of paraffin, mustard, castor oil and some other choice ingredients, in order to create the vilest-tasting liquid he could contrive.


"Ladies and Gentlemen," he addressed his students at the start of the lecture, "today I want to talk to you all about the importance of observation."

He produced the flask and said: "Now, I would like you all to pass this liquid around and I would like each one of you taste this liquid, and tell me everything you can about it. Let me demonstrate."

He dipped his finger into the liquid, and then sucked on his finger. He then handed the flask to the first student.

The wretched medics each dipped a finger into the mixture, then tasted. By the time the much-depleted flask returned to the surgeon, many of the students looked quite ill.

"And that ladies and gentlemen, is the point I wish to make. As doctors you will have to make far, far better use of your powers of observation than you did today. If you had been observing properly, you would have noted that the finger which I dipped into the flask was not the same finger which I put into my mouth."

The story


This is a hairy old story, which is still told to this day (particularly by medical students). According to the Internet, it even makes an appearance in one of Richard Gordon's 'Doctor' comic novels from the 1950s or 60s.

Modern versions are rather more icky; in some, the surgeon is suggesting the students taste a urine sample by way of diagnosing diabetes. Yet another version concerns veterinary students and a dead cow, but let's not go there. But the interesting thing is that this joke began as a true story.

Dr. Harold Emery Jones, writing in the 1930s, told of how when he was a student, Edinburgh surgeon Joseph Bell (1837-1911) presented them with a mysterious liquid: "This, gentlemen, contains a very potent drug. To the taste it is intensely bitter. It is most offensive to the sense of smell. But I want you to test it by smell and taste; and, as I don’t ask anything of my students which I wouldn’t be willing to do myself, I will taste it before passing it round" Here he dipped his finger in the liquid, and placed it in his mouth.

The tumbler was passed round. With wry and sour faces the students followed the Professor’s lead. One after another tasted the liquid; varied and amusing were the grimaces made. The tumbler, having gone the round, was returned to the Professor. "Gentlemen", said he, with a laugh, "I am deeply grieved to find that not one of you has developed this power of perception, which I so often speak about; for if you watched me closely, you would have found that, while I placed my forefinger in the medicine, it was the middle finger which found its way into my mouth."


Oh but (assuming you didn't already know this) it gets better ... another of Joseph Bell's students back in the day was a young Arthur Conan Doyle. Dr Bell, Conan Doyle later wrote, "would sit in his receiving room with a face like a Red Indian, and diagnose the people as they came in, before they even opened their mouths. He would tell them details of their past life; and hardly would he ever make a mistake." And Conan Doyle happily admitted that Bell had been a major inspiration for the great detective Sherlock Holmes.


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