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The silent sister, or die stumme Schwester, is a term in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain for a clinical thermometer without visible markings "to be used by those who wanted to cheat." Hans Castorp, the main character of the novel, first learns of the device from Herr Settembrini, a patient of the sanatorium for the tubercular that Hans is visiting:

... I, too, have seen some marvelous cases of acclimatization. There was Fraulein Kneifer just last year, Ottilie Kneifer, ... She was here for about a year and a half, and became so splendidly accustomed to life up here that once she had been completely restored to health -- and that does happen, people do get well up here sometimes -- she refused to leave on any account. She fervently begged the director to be allowed to stay-- she simply could not, would not return home. This was home to her, this was where she was happy. But there was such a press of people wanting to get in, and they needed her room. Her pleas proved in vain, and they insisted that they would have to dismiss her as healed. Ottilie came down with a high fever, let her chart just shoot up with a vengeance. Except they found her out--by substituting a 'silent sister' for her usual thermometer. You don't yet know what that is--it's a thermometer without any markings, and the doctor checks it by laying a scale up against it and draws the chart himself. Ottilie, sir, had a temperature of ninety-eight point four. Ottilie had no fever.

On its own, an unmarked thermometer is a ridiculous image: a measureless tool of measurement. Yet in the social climate of the sanatorium it serves an important purpose and becomes a symbol for the strange, insular culture that has developed amongst the patients. There's a poem by Lord Byron called Prisoner of Chillon this aspect of The Magic Mountain reminds me of. After a time, the prisoner becomes so used to his captivity he ceases to desire to be rid of it.

With spiders I had friendship made
And watch'd them in their sullen trade,
Had seen the mice by moonlight play,
And why should I feel less than they?
We were all inmates of one place,
And I, the monarch of each race,
Had power to kill-yet, strange to tell!
In quiet we had learn'd to dwell;
My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are:-even I
Regain'd my freedom with a sigh.

It's the same story in Magic Mountain; the patients sometimes become so accustomed to taking the cure that whether or not they are recovering becomes a superfluous detail.

The silent sister also illustrates the dark sense of humor shared by the patients, when, during the Walpurgis-Night celebrations, Frau Iltis styles her masquerade costume after the thermometer and is met with mirthful applause:

... dressed as a nurse; but her black uniform was marked off from head to foot by short white strips close under each other, with a longer one at regular intervals, like degrees on a thermometer. She had one finger laid to her pallid lips, and in her other hand a fever chart … What applause there was!

The silent sister, too, is an important symbol in the novel of the fluidity of time. Just as the thermometers sometimes lose their graduations atop the Zauberberg, so too are conventional ways of measuring time lost. When Hans Castorp tells the patients he intends to visit for only three weeks, he’s met with laughter. As Herr Settembrini says:

O dio! Three weeks! Do you hear, Lieutenant? Does it sound to you impertinent to hear a person say: 'I am stopping for three weeks and then I am going away again'? We up here are not acquainted with such an unit of time as the week - if I may be permitted to instruct you, my dear sir. Our smallest unit is the month.

Silent sisters do seem to have existed outside of The Magic Mountain, though information about them is scarce. Christian Virchow, in Medizinhistorisches um den ,Zauberberg', references Mann's silent sister and notes that a thermometer of that type had been presented by a Dr Mercier in 1896 to allow patients to take their own temperatures unmonitored, but in a parenthetical aside mentions he's been unable to discover whether or not the silent sister was still in use in 1912 in the Waldsanatorium in Davos the novel's setting is based on.1 However, as Mann's wife was a patient of the sanatorium for four months, where he visited her, he may have incorporated the detail on good authority.


1. "(Ob die "stumme Schwester" im Jahre 1912 in Davos noch im Gebrauch war, habe ich nicht eruieren können.)" Christian Virchow, Medizinhistorisches um den "Zauberberg": "Das gläserne Angebinde" und ein pneumologisches Nachspiel, Gastvortrag an der Universität Augsburg, am 22. Juni, 1992

 

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