‘This wretched state’: Robert Burns’s illness and the daybook of Charles Fleeming

Hansen, Moira (2024). ‘This wretched state’: Robert Burns’s illness and the daybook of Charles Fleeming. Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (Early Access).

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/14782715231223327


While now known globally as Scotland’s national poet, in November 1781 the daybook of surgeon Charles Fleeming simply records him as ‘Robert Burns, Lint Dresser’. Discovered in the 1950s, the daybook documents Fleeming’s treatment of Burns during a period of illness which would have a profound impact on the poet’s life and creative output. The book’s discovery added to the theories about the nature of Burns’s illness, often at odds with Burns’s own later descriptions. This paper presents a fresh examination of Burns’s treatment, challenging those theories by considering Fleeming’s prescriptions in the context of key medical authorities of the time. In considering Burns’s entry in the daybook in its entirety, the wider value of Fleeming’s daybook as a private record of medical practice at the time is highlighted, pointing to the potential value of this and other such volumes as underappreciated archival research material.

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