The girl who fetched the doctor

Doctor Silas Weir Mitchell, an eminent 19th-century physician and nerve specialist known for his discovery of causalgia (complex regional pain syndrome) and erythrolalgia, fell asleep in his chair one winter evening after an exhausting day’s work in his surgery.

He was awakened by the ringing of his doorbell. When he answered, he found a very skinny, shivering young girl, donning rags and pulling a threadbare shawl around her shoulders due to the extremely bad weather. The girl begged the doctor to come and treat her mother who, she explained, was very ill.

Dr Mitchell, being the compassionate man that he always was, agreed to take care of her mother. The young girl guided the doctor through the snowy streets to an old tenement, where she told him to go upstairs.

There, the doctor found the sick woman-whom he recognized as a former servant of his household. Dr Mitchell diagnosed her condition as pneumonia and arranged for the medicines that she needed. After making her as comfortable as he could, he congratulated her on having such a fine and dutiful daughter.

Daughter was dead

To this, the woman, aghast at the doctor’s compliment, looked up and said: ‘My daughter died a month ago. Her shoes and shawl are there in that little cupboard.’

The doctor looked and found the exact same shawl that was draped around the shoulders of the poignant girl who rang his doorbell. It was folded and dry, and could not possibly have been worn outside that night.

The girl who brought him there was nowhere to be found.

This was a story published by Dr Mitchell that he was never able to lay to rest. A 2011 study suggested that this story was likely originally told by Mitchell himself as entertainment, and then took on a life of its own. In his 1910 book “Characteristics,” Mitchell wrote about a man who told a story “about a little dead child who rang up a doctor one night, and took him to see her dying mother;” the man was then constantly bothered by believers and disbelievers, and unable to stop the story. In context, it seems pretty clear that Mitchell was describing his own situation.

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