"don't think zebras"

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Fri Feb 19 15:54:34 UTC 2010

I mentioned the same expression in the 1979 edition, but, for some
reason, the first edition (1969) didn't show--I found it since.

There are a number of variations in the early 1970s--most of them
critical, not prescriptive. That is, instead of telling students to look
for horses, a doctor (or a patient) may quip, "Why do we make them look
for zebras?", or something to that effect. Another variant is the
definition of specialty X as those who look for zebras when they hear


    The role of the surgeon in medical school education: transactions of
    the of the 11th annual meeting, Allen O. Whipple Surgical Society

    p. 65

> We all get a chuckle out of the definition of an internist as a person
> who, when he hears hoofbeats on the street outside his home, runs to
> the window to see the zebra.

There is a 1966 novel by Perdita Buchan, Girl with a Zebra, where there
is at least one situation where some is surprised to see a zebra after
first hearing hoofbeats. To add a twist, the story is about "students at
Harvard", as one reviewer put it. Given that the trail, so far, ends in
1969, may it be possible that someone--perhaps Dr. Theodore Woodward or
Dr. Koepke, perhaps someone else yet--took a fairly popular novel
(judging by the number of reviews I found) and adopted its premise as a
warning to medical students, Dr. Woodward's recollections
notwithstanding? Or perhaps it's the opposite--Ms.Buchan overheard an
expression among medical students that served as a premise for her novel.

The zebra/horse distinction as a premise for a witticism is not new,

The Open Court, Vol 22, No. 11, Nov 1908
Review of The Negro, A Menace to American Civilization. By R. W.
Shufeldt, M. D.
Boston, Gorham Press, 1907
p. 702
> From the first Dr. Shufeldt lays stress upon the fact that taking
> Africans out of Africa and settling them in this country by no means
> makes Americans of them. "It would be quite as reasonable to expect
> zebras to turn into horses when similarly transported. ...
> The unmixed African in this country is just as much of a negro today
> as his anscestors were before him in Africa."

Shufedt's despicable book is also on-line. (In multiple editions, no less.)

There seems to be no connection, however, between Shufeldt's comparison
and the medical school proverbial wisdom.


On 2/19/2010 7:56 AM, Charles Doyle wrote:
> In the files of the in-progress _Yale Book of Modern Proverbs_, we have this:
> 1969  John A. Koepke, _Guide to Clinical Laboratory Diagnosis_ (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts) 79:  "These three causes [of edema] should always be prime considerations, and after they have been ruled out, other less common causes may be considered.  As one 'philosopher' put it:  'When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.'"
> I don't know who the cited "philosopher" is.
> Of course, the saying is a figurative statement of the so-called "principle of parsimony," a correlary of "OckhamâEUR^(TM)s razor."
> --Charlie

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