Opinion: Dr’s casebook

Dr Keith Souter
Dr Keith Souter

I was down in Gloucester, attending a medical conference over the weekend.

As is often the case, the conference literature referred to the old nursery rhyme about Gloucester.

‘Doctor Foster, went to Gloucester

In a shower of rain.

He stepped in a puddle

Right up to his middle

And never went there again.’

I was intrigued to find out who this Doctor Foster could be, but was surprised to discover that it wasn’t a doctor at all, but a king.

It is believed to be about King Edward I. The story goes that he visited Gloucester, but fell off his horse and landed in a puddle of water.

He felt so humiliated that he never visited again.

Nursery rhymes are often based on historical events. Take Ring a Ring o’Roses. Some authorities suggest that it referred to the bubonic plague and its symptoms.

‘Ring-a-ring o’roses,

A pocket full of posies,

A-tishoo! A-tishoo!

We all fall down.’

It is thought that the ring of roses refers to the rose-like rash that occurred, the posies meant the posy of herbs that people carried around with them to fend off the plague and the smell of death.

The respiratory symptoms of sneezing and coughing indicated the far advanced disease, which so often proved fatal.

‘Mary Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockle shells

And pretty maids all in a row.’

This is said to refer to contrary Queen Mary, who succeeded her father King Henry VIII, and the increasing sizes of cemeteries as she had protestants tortured and executed during her short reign.

The silver bells were thumbscrews used to crush thumbs and the cockle shells were used as a singular crushing torture for males.

And of course everyone knows the nursery rhyme about the Grand Old Duke of York. Here authorities debate about whether he was Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, the father of Kings Edward IV and Richard III. It sounds plausible, since he died at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460.

However, it is thought likelier to refer to another individual, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, son of King George III. It may refer to a campaign in Flanders in 1794.