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Edinburgh Fringe 2013

Dear Doctor Cullen

Sibbald Library Productions

Genre: Spoken Word

Venue: The Royal College of Physicians


Low Down

"Sibbald Library Productions return for the fourth time with a new show. Bloodletting, diet and inoculation all feature as Professor David Purdie, College Librarian Iain Milne and actress Elayne Sharling reveal the secrets of the 18th century’s greatest doctor’s mail-order medicine business in the spectacular surroundings of the RCPE.  Discover the how much it cost to use the equivalent of NHS direct in 1770. Hear the story of William Cullen’s fascinating life. Learn why visits to the doctor could be painful experiences. See the evidence of the actual letters sent to Doctor Cullen and his replies."



Put simply, the Royal College of Physicians is Edinburgh’s finest interior. It is a monument not only to scientific medical progress but also a memorial to those who have done most to advance the art of medicine. Few are more celebrated than William Cullen FRS FRSE FRCPE FPSG.


Cullen practised at the moment when Enlightenment in Edinburgh was at its zenith. Cometh the man, cometh the hour. At a time when medicine was moving into the vernacular, Cullen wrote the groundbreaking textbooks which would carry his reputation well into the age of Kumar and Clark. This legacy was a flame cherished by his students who included Joseph Black, discoverer of carbon dioxide; Benjamin Rush, a signatory to The Declaration Independence; John Morgan, founder of the Medical School at the College of Philadelphia; Sir Gilbert Blane, medical reformer of the Royal Navy; and John Coakley Lettsom, the founder of the Medical Society of London.


In the endarkened age before universal, world-class healthcare free at the point of delivery, Cullen was a shrewd business operator who corresponded copiously with his patients – for a price. These letters to and from those in his care are the primary source for the lecture. They are a chronicle of lives lived politely, and impolitely, in the milieu of 18th century society. The presentation is made by Professor David Purdie along with the College’s Librarian Iain Milne as well as actress Elayne Sharling. This dynamic trio are a well balanced set.


Life is poured into ensemble by Purdie, Edinburgh’s best after-dinner speaker and occasional expert. His Rumpolian distractions, someone needs to nail his feet to the floor, are gracefully mastered by Sharling who animates the letters’ cast of characters with a series of subtle dialects and carefully picked accents. Milne is a polished performer of pre-scripted material whose lectures Cullen’s students would have been falling over themselves to attend. Because like Fringe Goers today medical students of the Cullen era were required to obtain tickets for their education and entertainment.


This is a show which deserves an audience but which may struggle to find space in the Fringe. It is a great shame that almost half of its short run has occurred during the relative calm of preview week. As the only show on at the venue it will struggle to cross-pollinate audiences –  a real pity given how many doctors attend the Fringe to perform – including the Birmingham Medics’ Performing Arts Society or Adam Kay’s How to Be a Bogus Doctor.


Although the structure of Dear Doctor Cullen belongs to the same genus as later RCPE lectures such as Safe Prescribing and Administration of Medicines in Scottish Hospitals or Diabetes; Past Triumphs, Current Challenges, Future Horizons –  this show will appeal to anyone with an interest in the social history of medicine or who simply wish to pass an hour in the gilded tree house of Scotland’s most respected profession. Throughout this highly enjoyable, informative and entertaining hour I was reminded of the great bromance between Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin in the Master and Commander novels. Especially the following passage:


“The physicians had taken note of the new wings being added to Ashgrove Cottage, of the double coach-house, the long line of stables, the gleaming observatory-dome on its tower at a distance: now their practised eyes assessed the evident wealth of the morning-room, its new and massive furniture, the pictures of ships and naval engagements by Pocock and other eminent hands, of Captain Aubrey himself by Beechey in the full-dress uniform of a senior post-captain…The physicians looked about them as they sipped their wine, and with a visible satisfaction they gauged their fees.” (Patrick O’Brian, Desolation Island, 1978)