'Medical Lives: Memories and Musings', compiled by Stefan Slater (published by the Senior Fellows Club: Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 2022)
Entrance to any medical school is a competitive business. Candidates require high grades in all subjects but especially in a range of science subjects. Training in medical school and for some years thereafter is narrowly focused with further examinations in several parts. Time and opportunity for interests outside this focus is very limited. But when opportunity arises, creative gifts which have been lying dormant for many years will suddenly blossom. In the case of the contributors to this book, the opportunity was provided by the enforced stay-at-home requirements of the Covid pandemic.
In case readers raise an eyebrow the Fellows of the RCPE who have contributed are retired so would not mainly be involved in the hectic life-threatening demands which Covid made on doctors. The authors are from the Senior Fellows Club which was founded in1992 and now offers free membership to all retired fellows of the College worldwide. Indeed, such is the prestige of the RCPE that there must be many members throughout the world. Readers will be interested to know that Anthony Seaton has contributed several essays.
The organisation of the contributions to a book of this kind must have taken much thought and discussion. But there is a discernible route through the contributions. They begin at the beginning with recollections of student life and the experiences of junior doctors. Then there is the hurdle of the membership of the college of physicians – the MRCP. A pass in this is the first step on the ladder to promotion in a hospital career. I do not know what the pass rate is like now but I have heard suspicions (unworthy) that the high failure rate was not just about maintaining standards but perhaps also about increasing the funding of the Royal Colleges through re-sit fees.
Doctors formed an influential part of the Scottish diaspora and there is a section on experiences abroad, and of course there had to be a section on unforgettable patients. Despite the huge advances in medical technology, this volume illustrates that it is patients who are still the major focus of the interests of a doctor. At least that is true of the contributors to this book and I can only hope that this approach is passed down to new generations of doctors.
I can remember being at medical conferences when some new whizz kid was offering a power-point presentation of great complexity. Sneaking a glance round the audience, I detected the glazed eyes. But in discussion after the presentation, a physician would get up and say 'I had a patient who…' and immediately the audience sat up and responded to something they could relate to.
The human side to medicine comes out also in another way. Some of the contributions concern memories of medical teachers of the past and their lasting influence. I used to look at the British Medical Journal
and was always impressed, indeed moved, by the section 'Portraits from Memory' which consisted of accounts of some of the influential medical teachers of the past. Why were they celebrated? Not for their use of power-point or making eye contact or any of these box-ticking 'measurements' of good teaching. They were celebrated for their enthusiasm for the subject and sometimes eccentric ways of getting their teaching across.
The collection includes some poems but most of it consists of articles and reminiscences. There are many other sides to the creativity of the medical profession. Some doctors are superb instrumentalists, and some are photographers and artists. But not everything can be celebrated in one volume. What this volume successfully and usefully offers is a slice of medical history, the history of events in medicine seen from a variety of points of view during a given period and written by the doctors who were involved.
Medical Lives: Memories and Musings, published in December 2022, can be found at www.rcpe.ac.uk/sfc-anthology. To purchase a copy, contact the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh's Senior Fellows Club administrator, Fiona Lubbe, either by writing to her at the College, 11 Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1JQ, providing your name and address and enclosing a cheque made payable to 'The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh' for £20 (+ £4.49 P&P if not collected from the College), endorsing 'SFC-Anthology' on the back; or phone 0131 247 3652, Tuesdays to Thursdays, to speak to her and payment can be made by card.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow