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«I’m a Norwegian doctor» – a quotation with a life of its own

Ole Didrik Lærum, Ragnar Stien, Erlend Hem About the authors

«’I’m a Norwegian doctor,’ he stated simply, and the crowd stepped aside». The most famous quotation ever ascribed to a Norwegian doctor is from the crime writer Øvre Richter Frich’s series of novels on the surgeon Jonas Fjeld. The quotation has been reproduced in a number of versions, by the author himself as well as many others, but it cannot be found in exactly this form in any of Frich’s books. We believe that an explanation of this well-established turn of phrase is in order.

Øvre Richter Frich (1872 – 1945) studied both law and medicine in the early 1890s before he became a journalist, star reporter from many corners of the world and finally full-time author of crime and suspense novels (1). He became one of the most popular thriller writers in Norway in the inter-war period. He wrote a total of 50 books, sold at least two million copies and was translated into nine languages (1). «The blond giant», Dr Jonas Fjeld, is the hero and main character in 21 books, published over a period of nearly 25 years. The first novel, De knyttede næver («Clenched Fists»), was published in 1911, and the last one, Menneskejegerne (The Man-Hunters») in 1935.

The Fjeld character was most likely modelled on two of Frich’s fellow students and friends from the Norwegian Students’ Rowing Club: Olaf Tandberg (1879 – 1932) and Nikolai Nissen Paus (1877 – 1956). Both of them became surgeons, Tandberg in Lillehammer and Paus in Tønsberg. Tandberg had the book Olympieren («The Olympian») dedicated to him (2). Paus, also known as «Power-Paus», was a robust athlete. After especially long and difficult operations, he had the habit of jumping up and walking on his hands out of the operating theatre when they were finally done. In addition, Dr Fjeld may have some of the author’s own traits. His dapper brother Olaf Henrik Frich (1863 – 1935), Senior Consultant at the Modum Bad sanatorium, may also have lent some traits (2, 3).

As a hero, Jonas Fjeld was in fact rather well disguised. He was tall, blond and muscular, and worked as a highly respected surgeon at the National Hospital and the Red Cross Clinic in his contemporary Kristiania (now Oslo). Covertly, however, this blond athlete combats anarchists, socialists, communists and devious criminals. In addition to Norway, his field of activity extends far and wide, from Great Britain and other European countries to the most exotic locations in South America. Moreover, he saves entire populations from the most horrific dangers posed by unscrupulous villains, and he specialises in saving beautiful women from nefarious characters. His motivation for this activity is in fact quite honourable, while it is less laudable that he started his career by committing a bank robbery. The robbery remained unsolved, providing him with a capital base that allowed him to set himself up as an international hunter of criminals (2).

Frich’s condescending attitude to people other than the blond, Nordic type, a recurring feature in many of his books, has been widely discussed (2 – 4), but in private Frich was explicitly apolitical, with no affiliations to parties or associations of any kind (1).

A quotation in many versions

In the first literary history of Norwegian crime writing, the journalist Bjørn Carling (1919 – 2005) wrote in 1975 about Jonas Fjeld: «The hearts of readers swelled when «the tall, blond Norwegian made his way to the centre of events and quietly stated: ‘I’m a Norwegian doctor. My name is Jonas Fjeld’.» (4, p. 74). However, Carling provides no reference.

In 1992, one of us (ODL) wrote the article Legen som kunstner («The doctor as an artist») (5). Here, the quotation is reproduced thus: «‘I’m a Norwegian doctor,’ he stated simply, and the crowd stepped aside». At the time, ODL had had the quotation confirmed by Willy Dahl (born 1927), a Norwegian professor of literary history, expert on crime writing and with an interest in Frich’s works (Willy Dahl, personal communication). This version of the quotation has since been widely used (6 – 8).

Øvre Richter Frich’s biographer, Christopher Hals Gylseth, wrote the following in the preface to a reissue of De knyttede næver (9): «But who is he then, this towering, blond doctor – this legendary Norwegian who in a series of 21 novels makes his way all over the world with his customary, brusque comment: ‘My name is Jonas Fjeld. I’m a Norwegian doctor!’» Gylseth provides no reference either. Gylseth’s biography of Frich contains this statement – likewise with no reference: «Long before anybody had as much as thought of James Bond, this giant Norwegian elbowed his way around the world, with the brusque comment: ‘My name is Jonas Fjeld. I’m a doctor!’» (2, p. 12).

On the occasion of the centennial of the Norwegian Medical Association in 1986, an advertising campaign was launched. Over a two-week period, altogether five full-page advertisements were run in Norway’s two largest dailies, Aftenposten and VG. One of the advertisements bore the headline: «‘I’m a doctor, he stated simply’ … and the crowd stepped aside.» (Figure 1). This advertisement was also printed as a poster and distributed to doctors all over the country. A footnote to the advertisement said: «Freely after Øvre Richter Frich» (10, 11).

https://tidsskriftet.no/sites/default/files/styles/default_scaling_w1500/public/2013--T-13-0907-01-ENG-MK.jpg

Figure 1  When the Norwegian Medical Association celebrated its centennial during the first week of June 1986, it launched an advertising campaign in the press, with an allusion to a Jonas Fjeld quotation (10, 11).

The quotation has thus been used in various contexts and with a slightly varying phraseology. So from where is the quotation taken? Was it Carling who first used this phraseology, so that it has later circulated as a quotation whose origin is actually unknown?

Our investigations

We wished to solve this mystery once and for all. What is the original quotation? It cannot be found in collections of quotations (12 – 15).

The National Library has digitised 16 of the 21 books on Jonas Fjeld. These are searchable in full-text versions through bokhylla.no (1 April 2013). A search for «I’m a doctor» returns hits in seven of the books. He occasionally also introduces himself as a «Norwegian doctor». The search term «crowd» returns six hits, but none in the form reproduced by Willy Dahl.

Since the digital library is not fully complete, we have read the five Jonas Fjeld novels that are not available through bokhylla.no: Hammerslaget («The Hammer Blow») (1917); Lucifers øie («Lucifer’s Eye») (1920); Jorden som dræper («Earth that Kills») (1921); Nordlysets datter («Daughter of the Northern Lights») (1934) and Menneskejegerne («The Man-Hunters») (1935).

Our closest hit is a passage in Lucifers øie (1920) (Figure 2). Jonas Fjeld walks past a crime scene in London where a lifeless person is lying in the street, but people gather around and he cannot reach through the melee to provide help: «Fjeld elbowed his way through the little cluster of people. ‘I’m a doctor,’ he said, ‘and I’m at your service.’» (16, p. 80 – 81).

https://tidsskriftet.no/sites/default/files/styles/default_scaling_w1500/public/2013--T-13-0907-02-ENG-MK-NY.jpg

Figure 2  In Lucifers øie (1920), the 13th book in the Jonas Fjeld series, we find the quotation: «Fjeld elbowed his way through the little cluster of people. ‘I’m a doctor’, he said, ‘and I’m at your service.’» Facsimile from the book (16).

A quotation with a life of its own

Our conclusion is that the best-known version of the quotation is a construction or a compilation of several of Frich’s descriptions of his doctor and hero (Table 1). The term «apocryphal quotation» is probably an adequate description (8).

Quotation

Source

«Fjeld elbowed his way through the little cluster of people. ‘I’m a doctor’, he said, ‘and I’m at your service.’»

Lucifers øie, 1920 (16)

«I’m a Norwegian doctor. My name is Dr Jonas Fjeld.»

Carling, 1976 (4)

«‘I’m a Norwegian doctor,’ he stated simply, and the crowd stepped aside.»

Willy Dahl, personal communication, 1992 (5)

«My name is Jonas Fjeld. I’m a Norwegian doctor!»

Hals Gylseth, 1997 (9)

«My name is Jonas Fjeld. I’m a doctor!»

Hals Gylseth, 1997 (2)

In our opinion, Willy Dahl’s variant is the best: «‘I’m a Norwegian doctor,’ he stated simply, and the crowd stepped aside». This is because it demonstrates fully the respect people had for the medical profession by immediately stepping aside, even though Fjeld stated this quite simply. There are, however, a couple of interesting differences between the original in Lucifers øie and Willy Dahl’s version: The crowd did not draw aside in reverence; Dr Fjeld had to elbow his way forward. Moreover, in the original he introduces himself by offering his services – in other words, the obliging, perhaps self-sacrificing doctor is portrayed here, not the more brash type that Dahl’s quotation hints at.

The varying situations in which Fjeld introduces himself have no obvious features in common, and there is nothing to suggest that the crowd would be naturally assumed to step aside. So why has this quotation come to exist? Most likely, it is related to the prevailing view of the doctor, of the role of the doctor with its assumed respect and arrogance. In this regard, Carling’s quotation stems from a time when there was increasing scepticism of the doctor’s authority.

Medicine has a number of apocryphal quotations. «Rarely cure, often alleviate, always comfort» and «primum non nocere» – above all, do no harm – are the best known (17). Their origin may be unclear, but such constructed quotations are alive and well. What has given them their longevity? Most likely because they are so apt that someone ought to have uttered them.

Rather immodestly, we maintain that this information on the Jonas Fjeld quotation is something of a breakthrough in Norwegian medicine as well as Norwegian literary history. The quotation is not exactly as we have thought and used it. Nevertheless, the history of one of the best-known quotations about doctors is valuable and thought-provoking. It shows how quotations can come to exist and live a life of their own.

We wish to thank Einar Skoglund for information on the anniversary of the Norwegian Medical Association in 1986 and Willy Dahl for his valuable input.
1

Gylseth CH. Øvre Richter Frich. I: Norsk biografisk leksikon. http://nbl.snl.no/%C3%98vre_Richter_Frich/utdypning (31.5.2013).

2

Gylseth CH. … seg selv til det ytterste. Øvre Richter Frich og hans forfatterskap. Oslo: Cappelen, 1997: 12, 24 – 30, 114 – 28.

3

Dahl W. Dødens fortellere: den norske kriminal- og spenningslitteraturens historie. Bergen: Eide, 1993: 62 – 7.

4

Carling B. Norsk kriminallitteratur gjennom 150 år. Oslo: Gyldendal, 1976: 64 – 6, 73 – 5, 88 – 92, 129.

5

Lærum OD. Legen som kunstner. I: Husebø S, red. Medisin: kunst eller vitenskap. Oslo: Ad Notam Gyldendal, 1992: 158 – 81.

6

Aabø S. Sylvia mot legemakta. Dagbladet 27.2.2008: 3. www.dagbladet.no/nyheter/2008/02/27/528122.html (31.5.2013).

7

Haug C. Hva er en lege? Tidsskr Nor Legeforen 2011; 131: 927. [PubMed]

8

Myhre JE. «Askepotterne blant landets embetsmænd» – legenes vei til samfunnstoppen 1811 – 1960. Michael Quarterly 2011; 8: 532 – 44. www.dnms.no/index.php?seks_id=137088&a=1 (31.5.2013).

9

Gylseth CH. Forord. I: Frich ØR. De knyttede næver: en storforbryders roman. Oslo: Cappelen, 1997.

10

Annonsekampanje. Tidsskr Nor Lægeforen 1986; 106: 1872 – 3.

11

Stor festivitas. Tidsskr Nor Lægeforen 1986; 106: 1342.

12

Roeim J, red. Den store sitatboken. Oslo: Ex libris, 1994.

13

Holmgård JB, red. All verdens sitater. Oslo: Aventura, 1995.

14

Jensen B, red. Ordspråkleksikon. Oslo: Schibsted, 1996.

15

Gundersen D, Evensberget S, red. Bevingede ord. 4. utg. Oslo: Kunnskapsforlaget, 2006.

16

Frich ØR. Lucifers øie: en roman om lys. Kristiania: Helge Erichsen, 1920: 80 – 1.

17

Hem E. Tilbake til Hippokrates? Tidsskr Nor Lægeforen 2003; 123: 3577 – 8. [PubMed]

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