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Feature Libel laws and scientific debate

An old battle: England’s libel laws versus scientific debate

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c1227 (Published 10 March 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1227

Rapid Response:

Hall of mirrors

I have drawn so much pleasure from Oliver Dearlove’s recent re-
emergence
on these pages – or should I say site? – that I hesitate to halt him in
mid-
flow.

I must however point out that John Rowan Wilson's novel Hall of
Mirrors had
nothing to do with the Drummond-Jackson affair. It couldn’t have. John
wrote
it in 1965 and it was published in 1966, three years before the BMJ
published
the editorial that provoked medicine’s answer to Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

It is true, however, that John Rowan Wilson, like Richard Gordon
before him,
worked for a spell as an assistant editor at the BMJ to bring financial
stability
to his life while he strove to establish himself as a novelist. (The other

traditional refuge for medical writers in those days was to sign on as a
ship’s
doctor.)

The only use he made of that experience was in his 1968 novel On the
Side of
the Angels in which he used some attributes of the BMJ offices as a
template
for a bleak Soviet institution from which a Russian scientist defects to
the
west. People who worked at the BMJ at the time recognised many of the
details, particularly the squeaky shoes which warned the inmates of the
approach of, in the novel, the spooky Institute Director and, at the BMJ,
the
editor.

I knew John well. For the last decade of his life he was one of my
closest
friends. We disagreed about many things but arguments between us always
dissolved into mischievous laughter. I suspect he would have enjoyed
reading
Oliver Dearlove’s rapid responses. He certainly shared the Dearlove
attitude
to medical editors. Sadly he died young when he was on the brink of
achieving the reputation predicted for him by such as JB Priestley and CP
Snow, and, more significantly, by one of the 20th century’s most respected

publishers’ editors, Richard Ollard

Because of the research he did for Hall of Mirrors he knew as much,
and
possibly more, about the complexity of our libel laws than many of the
inhabitants of BMA House and the MDU. As the Drummond-Jackson saga
moved oh so slowly towards financial catastrophe he was, by turn amused,
bemused, and dismayed by the excess of pomposity and shortage of nous
displayed by the medical establishment.

If Oliver Dearlove were to e-mail me at mod@doctors.org.uk he might
hear
something to his advantage.

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

23 March 2010
Michael O'Donnell
Retired GP turned journeyman writer
Loxhill GU8 4BD