Sunday, 20 September 2009

Very old rope

Various newspapers, including the The Scotsman, have been reporting this:

A doctor's letter written more than 400 years ago has revealed the medical profession were even then concerned about the risks of smoking to young people. The letter, by Dr Eleazar Duncon, was unearthed by librarians at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE) as they prepared for an exhibition.

Professor Sir Neil Douglas, the president of the RCPE, said it gave a "fascinating insight into historical concerns" about smoking and young people.

The amount of attention this little story has been receiving is rather puzzling. As readers of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist will know, various people warned about the health effects of tobacco, almost from the moment it arrived on European shores. 

More puzzling, though, is the suggestion that this particular example has only just been "unearthed". The letter has been on the National Library of Australia's database since 1999, and has long since been known by various academic institutions

One could argue that the RCPE has only just become aware of it, but that defence is undermined by the fact that the letter has been on the RCPE website for at least a year. I know, because that's where I first saw it. If you need proof that it's been there a while, see Michael Siegel's blog, where a reader mentioned it in this comment last December. 

In light of this, the idea of Scottish librarians happening upon this "fascinating" letter by chance whilst rifling through dusty old files lacks all credibility. Quite obviously, this was a well-prepared PR exercise directed at newspapers with column inches to fill. And it's been a successful one. The Sunday Express reported it with the headline 'Doctors wanted smoking ban in 1600s', which is not what the letter says at all.

So why has this fairly inconsequential snippet of history suddenly appeared now? The Scotsman provides the answer:

Its existence emerged just days before MSPs at Holyrood consider the principles behind a Scottish government plan to curb the sale of cigarettes and tobacco to youngsters. The matter is due for discussion on Thursday.

Truly, no stone goes unturned in the publicity drive for this campaign.


Witterings from Witney said...

Nice post Chris - will link.

Unknown said...

Just when you think that they have overturned all the anti this, anti that stones you are confronted with another! Truth needs no spin, lies do, simples.

Unknown said...

Wittering from...somewhere said:

"Nice post Chris - will link."

PS: HELP don't know how to link at the bottom of other blogs.

Witterings from Witney said...


Question: Has any work been done on the correlation of cancer deaths in say 1950 from cancer as a percentage of those who smoked? And if so, what is the difference in percentage compared to the population today?

Personally would not know where to go to start, but thought you might know or have the figures?

Christopher Snowdon said...

Big Yin - I don't know either!

WFW - Stats like that are surprisingly difficult to come by. Such information usually has to be put together piece-meal. Cancer Research has quite a few graphs of cancer incidence over time.

Frank Davis said...

PS: HELP don't know how to link at the bottom of other blogs.

I don't know either!

Do you mean like this link to my blog? Or this one?

Or neither?

Frank Davis said...

Just in case the answer is either or both, the Best Answer on Yahoo Answers gives a perfectly good explanation of how to create a 'hot link'.

It uses HTML, which is HyperText Markup Language, which is what web pages are made out of. But all you need to know is the general formula for how to create links.

Most people don't know any HTML, because most people don't create web pages. And if they do create them, they'll almost certainly be using some sort of editing software that shields them from all the nasty HTML under the bonnet.

Anyway, if that didn't help, or you know that anyway, you can tell me to eff off.