The setting is the children's ward of a hospital in Paterson, N.J. during the Great Depression. Alternating between a cynicism born of desperation, and empathetic concern, the physician-narrator describes the sorry condition of his young patients, virtually abandoned by their parents. He muses that they would be better off left untreated so that they would not have to live the inevitably wretched lives ahead of them.

One child in particular has captured his attention. She is Jean Beicke, an eleven month old, malnourished, deformed girl suffering acutely from broncho-pneumonia. The nurses and he look after her, and she responds to their care by taking nourishment and gaining weight. This is tremendously rewarding and reinforces their interest in her, but to their consternation she continues to be very ill. "We did everything we knew how to do except the right thing." "Anyhow she died." The benumbed mother is persuaded to allow an autopsy; the physician wants to understand what went wrong although he "never can quite get used to an autopsy."

The postmortem uncovers an infection of the mastoid process which has spread to the brain. The narrator and the "ear man" berate themselves for having failed to take proper steps to identify and treat the infection. In the end, however, the physician is still unable to resolve the dilemma of wanting passionately to have saved his patient's life, and knowing that the life saved would have been one of misery.


First published in 1938 in book form, the story is also available in a collection of stories and poems by Williams, concerning physician experiences, in a book compiled and introduced by Robert Coles, "The Doctor Stories"(New Directions, 1984). For those reading Williams in a literature and medicine context, Hugh Crawford's book, Modernism, Medicine, & William Carlos Williams (annotated in this database), may be of interest.


First published: 1938

Primary Source

The William Carlos Williams Reader


New Directions

Place Published

New York


1966 (paperback)


M. L. Rosenthal

Page Count


Secondary Source

The Doctor Stories