Posted by: Bystander PJ26 APR 2011
In its 5 March 2011 issue (p278), The Journal announced that the British National Formulary has revised the text for cautionary and advisory labels to make them more easily understood. Just two months later, 5 May 2011 will mark the 60th anniversary of the death of the poet and comedian Marriott Edgar. What, you may well be asking, connects medicine labelling to a comic poet?
Marriott Edgar (1880–1951) wrote most of the Lancashire dialect monologues made famous by the actor, singer and comedian Stanley Holloway (1890–1982). The best known of these is “The lion and Albert” (1932), about the young Albert Ramsbottom’s fatal encounter with an inmate of Blackpool Zoo. But among Edgar’s earlier tales of Albert and his family is “The recumbent posture” (1931), recounting the confusion caused by an unclear label on a medicine supplied by a doctor for the sickly Albert.
Verse 5 of the 18-verse poem reads: “He sent up a bottle of physick, / With instructions on t’ label to say, / ‘To be taken in a recumbent posture, / One teaspoon, three times a day’.”
After the Ramsbottoms have scoured the town searching for a “recumbent posture”, Verse 16 reports: “The last place they tried was the chemist, / He looked at them both with a frown. / And told them a recumbent posture / Were Latin, and meant lying down.”
I am not surprised that it was the pharmacist who put them right. In the 80 years since Edgar wrote his tale, pharmacists have generally taken the lead in making sure that prescription labelling is as clear as possible. The latest BNF labelling revision, which I hope has now been adopted throughout Britain, was the result of an intensive pharmacist-led programme of user testing.
But however lucid labels might now be, there will sadly always be patients and carers who fail to heed their advice, just like the Ramsbottoms, for the final verse reads: “ ‘They’re not dosing my lad with Latin.’ / Said Mother, her face looking grim, / ‘Just plain Castor Oil’s all he’s getting / And I'm leaving the posture to him.’