How to invent a Drummond Rennie

Today at the eighth peer review congress in Chicago people will be paying tribute to Drummond Rennie, the founder and soul of the congress. I’ve known, admire, and loved Drummond for a long time, and I wanted to make a contribution. So I’m sharing this piece I wrote some year ago about how to invent a Drummond Rennie, which we will need to do.

To be honest, I was intimidated by having to write something for and about Drummond, who is such a gifted writer, and I think my intimidation shows in the piece being contrived and including too many quotes. But I had fun writing it and thinking of Drummond as I did so.

If Drummond Rennie didn’t exist we’d have to invent him. The world of medical journals cannot flourish without his wit, wisdom, erudition, skill with words, capacity for innovation, and Old Testament prophet visage and ways.

But if we did have to invent him how would we go about it? We’d turn first to books because Drummond has not only read every book you’ve read he’s usually reread it. Despite Thomas Hardy’s stern warning that “Compared to the dullest human being actually walking on the earth [the antithesis of Drummond], the most brilliantly drawn character in any novel, is nothing more than a bag of bones,” we can find components of Drummond in the world’s great books (and some awful ones).

The place to start is with Drummond’s school, Winchester, where the old boys are known as Wykehamists. In Britain the rulers, many of them stupid, go to Eton, whereas the clever ones go to Winchester. The old boys, who date back to the 14th century, include not only flocks of Archbishops of Canterbury, poets, satirists, cricketers, and crooks but also Sir Thomas Browne, polymath, scholar, prose stylist, Sydney Smith, essayist and satirist, Anthony Trollope, author, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, poet and “companion” of Oscar Wilde, Montague John Druitt, suspected of being Jack the Ripper, George Mallory, climber of Mount Everest, Sir Oswald Mosley, British fascist leader, and Charles Scott Moncrieff, translator of Proust. Wykehamists feature in hundreds of novels by Dickens, Trollope, Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, and others.

So now you know where Drummond gets it from.

Now I’m not suggesting anything here, but we may be tempted when inventing Drummond to borrow from a contemporary of his at Winchester, William Donaldson. He died in 2005, and his obituary began “William Donaldson… was described by Kenneth Tynan as “an old Wykehamist who ended up as a moderately successful Chelsea pimp”, which was true, though he was also a failed theatrical impresario, a crack-smoking serial adulterer and a writer of autobiographical novels.

What we want to borrow is Donaldson’s waspish and irreverent sense of humour not his wicked ways. He’s best known through his alter ego, Henry Root, “a right-wing nutcase and wet fish merchant from Elm Park Mansions, SW10, who specialised in writing brash, outrageous and frequently abusive letters to eminent public figures, enclosing a one pound note.”

He sympathised with the Queen about the “problems” she was having with Princess Anne (“My Doreen, 19, is completely off the rails too, so I know what it’s like”) In his letter to Sir James Goldsmith (another right wing nutcase) he urged the elimination of “scroungers, perverts, Dutch pessary salesmen and Polly Toynbee [a left wing columnist]”. “Dear Mr Root”, Goldsmith replied, “Thank you for your letter which I appreciated enormously.” The Queen was at least canny enough not to reply.

There were hundreds of these, and they were published in a book in 1980 that shot to the top of the bestseller list. This gift for exposing and ridiculing pomposity and hypocrisy will be needed in the reinvention of Drummond.

Next I would look to Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford to find an important ingredient of Drummond. The hero, Christopher Tietjens, is a formidably clever and terrifyingly upright and brave individual. He is proud that like Drummond he is from Yorkshire and so hard, very hard. Southerners are soft, hopelessly soft. Their house, like the house where Drummond grew up, is on the wild and barren moors. Christopher fought, as did Drummond’s father, in the trenches in the First World War, an experience that always scarred. His brother, Mark, expresses what it is to be an Englishman (and Drummond, although from Yorkshire, is more Scottish than English): “An Englishman’s duty is to secure for himself forever reasonable clothing, a clean shirt a day, a couple of mutton chops, grilled without condiments, two floury potatoes, an apple pie with a piece of Stilton and pulled bread, a pint of Club Medoc, a clean room, in the winter a good fire in the grate, a comfortable armchair, a comfortable woman to see all those were prepared for you, to keep you warm in bed and to brush your bowler and fold your umbrella in the morning.” This illustrates how far Drummond has moved beyond his English origins, our loss and America’s gain.

So where could we look for the Scottish element in Drummond? I can’t resist turning to P G Wodehouse, sadly an Englishman, and his famous quote that “It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.” I hesitate to say that this could be true of Drummond, but perhaps there is a scintilla of truth.

And so to America. We have to begin with Philip Roth, a favourite author of Drummond. Here in Britain I’ve watched Drummond slug it out with deans rigid with their rightness, and I imagine him on the plane home thinking, as Roth writes: “My God! The English language is a form of communication! Conversation isn’t just crossfire where you shoot and get shot at! Where you’ve got to duck for your life and aim to kill! Words aren’t only bombs and bullets —no, they’re little gifts, containing meanings!” And when he gets home to his Oregon eyrie he writes his finely crafted editorials and knows: “Literature takes a habit of mind that has disappeared. It requires silence, some form of isolation, and sustained concentration in the presence of an enigmatic thing.” So from Roth we can get Drummond’s talent with words, a talent unequalled in the world of medical editors.

For the doctor in Drummond we come back across the Atlantic, to Middlemarch, “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” said Virginia Woolf snobbishly. Dr Tertius Lydgate was a reformer, a Lancet reader (there was no JAMA then), and man of science and was attracted to medicine by its scientific possibilities as well as by its potential for good. And “There was another attraction in this profession: it wanted reform, and gave a man an opportunity for some indignant resolve to reject its venal decorations and other humbug, and to be the possessor of genuine though undemanded qualifications.” What Lydgate tried to do for medicine but failed Drummond has succeeded in doing with medical journals, raising standards of peer review, introducing contributorship, acting on conflict of interest, and pushing innovation ceaselessly. But just like Lydgate Drummond has been up against some puffed up, incompetents like Dr Spraque, whose “standing had been fixed for 30 years before by a treatise on meningitis of which at least one copy marked ‘own’ was bound in calf”; Dr Minchin, who diagnoses a case of cramp as a tumour needing an operation; and Mr Wrench, who diagnoses a case of typhoid as a “slight derangement” and prescribed dangerous drugs. I leave you to think who the puffed up incompetents may be in our world.

While enjoying myself tying to patch together a Drummond from books, I want to turn aside for a moment and remember a splendidly ludicrous time we had together. Drummond was staying in my 15th century palazzo (yes, MY palazzo, only not now) in Venice, and we went together to talk at a meeting in Modena. It was organised by the blessed Alessandro Liberati, who promised us as a reward a tour of Ravenna, once the capital of the Western Roman Empire and one of the finest and most intact Byzantine cities in the world. Unfortunately, but entirely predictably, the meeting over-ran with fist waving Italians making stupendously long political speeches. As we had to catch a particular train home to Venice, time was short in Ravenna. We sprinted past the Baptistry of Neon (430), the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (430), and the Arian Baptistry (500), ran full pelt through the Archiepiscopal Chapel (500), Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (500), and Mausoleum of Theoderic (520), and hurtled breathless though the Basilica of San Vitale (548) and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe. It was all over in 20 minutes, we glimpsed immortal mosaics as we flashed by. Surely we hold the world record for a visit to Ravenna.

Returning to reinvention, now we have something close to a complete Drummond it occurs to me that we could clone him. We could have dozens of Drummonds. But could we cope? Imagine JAMA edited by 20 Drummonds. What an oracle it would become? But it would, I fear, be too much for us. The world is not yet big enough for more than one Drummond at a time. Indeed, it has struggled to contain the energy and vision of the original, a true original who has given us wonders and friendship.








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