Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Two Scottish tales of medical compassion

James L. Franklin
Chicago, Illinois, United States


2 scottish talesDr. John Raffensberger has served both a literary and humanistic cause by placing in our hands two stories that highlight the most admired traits in a physician, the traits of empathy and understanding that patients and their families require. This slim but handsome volume brings together two Scottish tales that have been for Dr. Raffensberger a touchstone in his medical career. He has provided for his readers a useful introduction to the history of the Edinburgh School of Medicine and culture and ethic that engendered the physicians portrayed in the two tales reprinted in this volume.

The first of the tales, “Rab and his Friends” by John Brown, MD is one seen through the eyes of a young medical apprentice. It is of a humble man who lovingly cares for his wife Alison (“Ailie”) while she stoically endures a grueling surgical procedure for breast cancer in an era before anesthesia. Sadly this brave woman succumbs to the scourge of postoperative sepsis. The surgery depicted was performed in 1830 by James Syme who would become the mentor and father-in-law to Joseph Lister, the discoverer of antisepsis. Narrated with charm and a sweet whimsy, this story is one of a man’s courage and devotion to his dying wife whose suffering is deeply felt by the man’s dog, Rab, and his mare, Jess.

The author, John Brown was a Scottish physician and essayist who lived from 1810–1882. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh in 1833, he practiced medicine in that city. He is best known for his collection Horae Subseciva (Leisure Hours) of 1858, a collection of essays on art, medical history, and biography. In addition to “Rad and his Friends” of 1859, his essays “Pet Marjorie” (1863), “Our Dogs,” “Minchmoor,” and “The Enterkine” are noteworthy.

The second tale, “A Doctor of the Old School” by Ian Maclaren is set in rural Scotland, Drumtochty. It is a portrait of Weelum MacLure, the only doctor in a harsh and at times forbidding landscape. The doctor has devoted 40 years, day and night, to the needs of the families of this glen, never declining a call because of illness or indisposition, save when he was laid up with a broken leg having fallen from his horse. MacLure understands his patients and their character; he has faith in their unique constitution shaped by their harsh circumstances and pristine environment and he uses these as assets in his armamentarium. In one story he had all but given up hope of saving the wife of a simple farmer, but is persuaded to call in a surgeon from Glasgow—Sir George H. Macloed—whom he brings to the patient’s bedside through a harrowing journey to save her life. “Sir George” is so moved by the person of Dr. MacLure that he rejects the payment for his fee and loudly pronounces MacLure an honor to the profession. The story follows the doctor to his grave and the gratitude paid him by the parish will bring tears to one’s eyes.

Ian Maclaren is a pseudonym of Rev. John Watson, a Scottish author and theologian who lived from 1850 to 1907. He was born in Manningtree, Essex, and educated in Edinburgh. He served as a minister in Scotland and England. In 1896 he became a lecturer at Yale University. His tales of rural Scottish life achieved extraordinary popularity, and he published several volumes of sermons under his own name.

This volume is recommended to those interested in the medical history of the Edinburgh School of Medicine, Scottish literature, and inspiring medical tales of doctors and their patients. A word of caution: “A Doctor of the Old School” is rich in Scottish dialect and requires patience to read. It is well worth the effort, and reading it aloud may facilitate a feel for the charm of the language.



JAMES L. FRANKLIN, MD is a gastroenterologist and associate professor emeritus at Rush University Medical Center. He also serves on the editorial board of Hektoen International and as the president of Hektoen’s Society of Medical History & Humanities.

About the author

JOHN RAFFENSBERGER, MD is well-known to the Chicago Community. As a pediatric surgeon, he has served as surgeon-in-chief at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago and a professor of surgery at Northwestern University Medical School. He is now retired and lives in Sanibel, Florida. In addition to his scientific publications, Raffensberger’s publications include, The Old Lady on Harrison Street: Cook County Hospital, 1833–1999 (1997) and Ward 41: Tales of a County Intern (2004). Copies of the book can be purchased through the publisher, Cosimo, Inc., P.O Box 416, Old Chelsa Station, New York, NY 10011 or online at www.cosimobooks.com. The book may be also purchased at Amazon.com.


Spring 2012  |  Sections  |  Books & Reviews

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