Sir Kenneth Calman possesses a wealth of academic degrees, and has occupied several high-ranking positions in medical councils. Included amongst an enviable list of healthcare publications is 2001’s British Medical Journal article “Storytelling, humour and learning in medicine”, and it is with this overlying theme that he has produced A Doctor’s Line. Calman’s prognosis for this title, as he makes clear in the preface, is for the book to “make Scottish literature on health and medicine readily accessible”. They are made accessible, true, but not with ease.
A Doctor’s Line traces the overlaps in Scottish literature and therapeutic practice through the last seven centuries. Calman’s opening assertion is “Health is increasingly important to all of us”; yet the examples he gives suggest that, far from being a recent development, personal wellbeing has been a priority for humankind for as long as there has been a distinction between fitness and illness.
Much of the content of the opening chapters is superfluous, indicating either a topic to which he will return later in the book, or to repeat in a different manner (and occasionally in the same precise words) information that has already been conveyed. Stylistically, the many times a similar author or text or notion is referred to in passing, followed by a needless caveat, e.g. “…which will be discussed subsequently” is wearying. The book’s third chapter, “A short history of Scotland”, is simply a collective summary of the openings of subsequent chapters on, for instance, the Wallace/Bruce era of Scotland, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. This condensed history, or its fragmented iterations later on, could easily be excised.
Further into the book, full names and life-spans, and even poetic passages, are repeated in their entirety. Mention of William and John Hunter, their respective years, and the fact they were brothers, is given twice over within two pages in the Enlightenment chapter. The book is also too frequently self-referential, with jarring first-person intrusions from the author as he justifies his reasons for a given section being presented the way it is.
Once we are finally into the close analysis of writers, however, the book obtains a new lease of life. The breadth of Calman’s research is clear, as shown in his choice of subjects to represent each stage of Scotland’s literary maturity and medical development. Moreover, some of the material he has gathered within is fascinating. Personal letters from Robert Burns to friends decry “the heavy hand of sickness” that ailed him in the months before his untimely death, whilst an essay penned by King James VI in 1604 describes tobacco as “harmefull to the braine” and “dangerous to the lungs”, centuries before it became considered ubiquitous knowledge.
Calman’s accompanying evaluations sometimes offer interesting insights into the history of the Scottish medical profession, delivered with the occasional flourish of dry wit; at other times his analysis is very obvious, or offers little more than a simplified translation of the work in question.
Proofing throughout is also problematic – for instance, the author of Trainspotting is Irvine Welsh, not “Irving”. Burns is purported to have written “The Fete Champetre” in 1834, almost forty years after his death. The grammar is inconsistent, introducing different indented quotations with a comma here, a colon there, a full stop elsewhere. Paragraphs explaining or evaluating literary material come before some quotations, and after others – the decision as to which seems entirely arbitrary. At its worst, whole words are clearly missing, leaving syntactical faults such as “where the of the” mid-sentence.
As an intriguing and well-chosen collection of Scottish writings on the topics in question, A Doctor’s Line might be given a clean bill of health. However, as a concerted and assiduous study of the bonds between Scotland’s literary and curative limbs, it unfortunately falls short.