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New book unites medicine and Scottish literature

POET Robert Burns described a very early bowel cancer screening programme in verse, according to a former Scottish Chief Medical Officer.

In Burns's poem Death and Dr Hornbook, a less than responsible medical man smells samples sent to him in cabbage leaves to diagnose disease and "what will mend it".

Sir Kenneth Calman, who became CMO for the Scottish office in 1989, says it echoes the principle of the way adults are checked for bowel cancer today by posting off stool samples.

He has included the tale among a range of other stories and poems in a book which brings together Scotland's strong traditions of literature and medicine.

The book, called A Doctor's Line, has grown out of a collection of literature which he has been compiling for more than 40 years. Sir Kenneth was inspired to pull together the works by his passion for reading as well as the way he used stories when teaching medical ethics students in Glasgow.

A Doctor's Line covers tales ranging from the tragic ballad of The Drunkard's Raggit Wean, written by James P Crawford in 1855, to Janice Galloway's descriptions of depression in The Trick is to Keep Breathing.

Sir Kenneth, who still lectures on medical morality, said one of theme of the book was "the power of the story".

"The story or what people tell you is the agent of change," he said. "If you take social media you can change the world in five minutes. If you read Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting that is the most powerful story about how bad bad living really is."

The book is being launched today at The Mitchell Library in Glasgow where Sir Kenneth will be interviewed by his daughter, the Scottish comedian and quiz show panellist Susan Calman.

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