Laughs ironic, Byronic, and sardonic

27th May 1892

Three incidents have made me laugh to-day: the laugh ironic, the laugh Byronic, and the laugh sardonic!

Firstly, on visiting an elderly patient who has suffered acutely for many years from a form of tic douloureux, I found her overjoyed at the wonderfully beneficial effects of some pills which I had prescribed. They are composed entirely of bread. Like the patient in the Bible, she has suffered much from many physicians, among them myself; we have poured out the entire pharmacopoeia upon her, and now, having exhausted its resources, we revert to pil. mica panis, with wonder-working results! This episode supplied me with the laugh ironic.

Secondly, the inevitable girl came to consult me as to the inevitable symptoms which, she declared, baffled all conjecture or investigation. When informed that she was merely about to become a mother, she flew into the usual frenzy of expostulation, denial and furious indignation, directed solely at me and my unwelcome diagnosis. I tholed the storm of resentment philosophically, as a doctor learns to do; but when the door closed on her, protesting to the last, took refuge in the laugh Byronic as a solatium.

Thirdly, a woman whom I had attended in a severe and protracted nocturnal confinement, and to whom I had paid five subsequent visits, driving several miles each way, arrived to settle her account. One guinea – the sum in question – was extorted with the greatest difficult on my part, and the maximum amount of reluctance on hers. No wonder that a country doctor seldom leaves a penny! Left alone with my hard-earned guinea, I enjoyed laugh sardonic to the full.

Extracts from Leaves From the Life of A Country Doctor, Clement Bryce Gunn. (Foreword by John Buchan)


Leaves From the Life of A country doctor, written by the Scottish physician-writer, Dr Clement Bryce Gunn, is mostly set in Edinburgh and Peebles, where he established a buzzing medical practice. His writing feels astonishingly modern, the nature of patients and people little changed, but technology and Medicine transformed.

Describing a successful placebo effect for tic douloureux (Trigeminal Neuralgia), breaking the unwelcome news of pregnancy to a young girl, and struggling to be paid for his service – Dr Gunn sums up in three paragraphs some of the ups and downs of being a country doctor.

The appropriateness of his private sense of humour may be debatable. However, by reading his book we may come to a better understanding of him and his passion to write – and to practise. He wrote extensively about his life experiences as medical student, locum, assistant, and finally full practitioner with a very long career, with an intent to educate future readers.

Further info

  • Clement Gunn – A brief description of Dr Gunn’s personality from the history of Peebles website
  • More information about Clement Gunn and some of his other writings
  • Find Leaves From the Life of A Country Doctor at a library, or second hand online
  • Image: not Dr Gunn, but a deDion motor tricycle (original image via He purchased a 2-1/4 horse-power machine in May 1900, after insuring his life for £3000. ‘I am in hopes that this new method of transport will enable me to work the practice at less expense than with man, horse, and trap, as some retrenchment is necessary with a view to educating the children’.
  • More about Dr Gunn at Good Medical Practice, Speechless, What did I gain?

Contributed by

Lekaashree Rambabu

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