Kenneth Calman, as a former Chief Medical Officer at the Scottish Home Office as well as Chancellor of Glasgow University, is well placed to combine a history of medicine in Scotland with its literature, and in his preface to this volume, he also stresses the personal nature of the enterprise.
He talks about a "commonplace book", which is how this book began: "an anthology of novels, poems and short stories" which linked his major loves of medicine and literature.
It's an appealing mix, and for many this gentle volume will provide great pleasure. It is an unchallenging, linear format, which comprises a general and brief introduction to each period, followed by some literary excerpts and short biographies that exemplify the place that medicine has in the lives of the writers themselves, or in their characters' lives. Thus, for instance, the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century is given a short introduction, followed by chapters on Robert Fergusson, Robert Burns, Tobias Smollett, Dr John Armstrong, Allan Ramsay, Robert Balir, the Reverend John Skinner, Henry Mackenzie, Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair and James Beattie.
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These sections might alight on the treatment of syphilis as described in the poems or prose selected, or on the link between poverty and ill health, on the general diet and other illnesses like smallpox. It is an expansive approach that has the value of giving cohesion and narrative to historical figures and periods, and highlights how doctors were viewed by past communities - which is not very highly, if these selections are anything to go by. Doctors were expensive and gave out ineffective treatments, or so most of these writers and their characters seemed to think, but Calman points out the scientific advancements that were, perhaps unbeknownst to poets and novelists, being made at the time.
What the volume lacks, however, is any real in-depth analysis of the literature used here. That is perhaps an unfair criticism - Calman is not a literature specialist and one might not expect a deconstruction, or even a questioning, of the extracts he has used, that a literary scholar would supply. But the claim he makes throughout for the personal - the idea of the "commonplace book" - might have made this a more dynamic volume had he injected more of the personal into it. Many readers would like to know the reasons behind his literary choices, and what impact specific literary extracts had on his own life and work. Did any of them make him question his own attitudes, or help at dark moments? Did they encourage him, or help forge a bond with patients? Instead of simply giving us a standard biography of Burns, for example, it would have been interesting to know what Burns meant to Calman himself, and to his work.
Because of this lack, the volume feels unexpectedly cold when it should have been warm, trepidatious when it should have been bold, and as a result it doesn't really go far enough in informing our relationship between science and the arts. Calman cites Edinburgh as a seat of medical excellence, and quotes extracts from writers like Hogg and Stevenson, but he doesn't really question the treatment of mental illness in Scottish literature at a time when medicine was exploring new ideas about the mind and the brain. Stevenson is a particularly interesting example of the effect of illness on the creative process - how did he rise to its challenge? As for Burns's melancholia - what impact did that have on his poetry? We see the place of alcohol in Scottish society reflected in some of the poetry and prose but we get no real analysis of its role.
What Calman does show is how many Scottish writers throughout the ages had a medical background of some kind. Surprisingly many of the male writers in the volume did, and this raises further questions about the relationship between the arts and science, how closely entwined the two are, and how much they inform one another.
This volume doesn't propose such questions let alone answer them, and in many respects it is disappointing. A bolder approach would have transformed it.