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Death and Doctor Hornbook by Robert Burns: a view from medical history
  1. Malcolm Nicolson
  1. Correspondence to Dr Malcolm Nicolson, Centre for the History of Medicine, Lilybank House, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8RT, UK; wellmn{at}


Robert Burns's poem, Death and Doctor Hornbook, 1785, tells of the drunken narrator's late night encounter with Death. The Grim Reaper is annoyed that ‘Dr Hornbook’, a local schoolteacher who has taken to selling medications and giving medical advice, is successfully thwarting his efforts to gather victims. The poet fears that the local gravedigger will be unemployed but Death reassures him that this will not be the case since Hornbook kills more than he cures. Previous commentators have regarded the poem as a simple satire on amateur doctoring. However, it is here argued that, if interpreted in the light of the exoteric and inclusive character of 18th century medical knowledge and practice, the poem is revealed to have a much broader reference as well as being more subtle and morally ambiguous. It is a satire on 18th century medicine as a whole.

  • Robert Burns
  • death and doctor hornbook
  • 18th century medicine
  • satire
  • history of medical
  • literature and medicine
  • poetry

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.