When researching, look at the original material…

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the British Medical Association vehemently opposed the introduction of the NHS. But it is an untruth. In the mid 1930s it was a BMA committee that produced the first report setting out in detail how a national health service could be provided. The ideas were reworked after the Second World War and many of the key safeguards were lost in the revisions, so the bill presented to Parliament by Aneurin Bevan was criticised for the devil in the new detail. It’s essential to get your historical facts right.

I was once sent a short paper to review; four cases of an unusual problem, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, had followed attacks of shingles. The report stated that this was the first report in the English scientific literature.

RSD seems to be set off by many things. It was first described by a German called Sudek, so I set off to trawl the continental literature. I found a monumental review paper with hundreds of references, from which I uncovered the original paper written by Sudek – in German. Guess what. He had already described his syndrome post-shingles. The moral of this was that the Royal Colleges, in their exams, were perhaps over-hasty in removing French and German from their Membership examinations. Now, of course, almost all the literature is in English, and Google Scholar makes easy work of searching (in the old days we had to plough through huge volumes of “Index Medicus” in the library). So maybe today’s researchers will be more diligent, although one could nit-pick and say that strictly they were right because the paper was not in English. But it is easy to quote references that were quoted by someone else, without checking the original, and mistakes will occur as a result.

There is a postscript to this.  I have been reading Anne Somerset’s book “Unnatural Murder: Poison at the Court of James I (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997).  It has been sitting on my bookshelf unread since I bought it, thinking it looked a ripping yarn, but it has taken me 18 years to get round to it.  Sir Edmund Coke, the Lord Chief Justice, was in charge of investigating the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury.  He was by all accounts a fearsome man.  Somerset writes “He had won his very first case – a libel suit – by catching out the lawyer on the opposing side who had quoted from a faulty English translation of the relevant statute, rather than consulting the original text in Latin.  Though at times ‘so fulsomely pedantic  that a schoolboy would nauseate it’, Coke had gone on to win great renown as a lecturer at one of the Inns of Court, characteristically enjoining his students ‘always to read to the statutes at large and not to trust to the abridgements’.  We are talking about the beginning of the seventeenth century.  Plus ça change…

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