By Douglas Kerr


This is a true story. It begins with a rat. is one of those networking websites where university people can maintain their own page, post news about their work, and keep in touch with others. I have a page there, though I’m rather lazy about updating it. It was in May, I think, that I got a message from, asking me if I was indeed the Douglas Kerr who co-authored a paper on The Newborn of Diabetic Rat II.

This was not a question I had ever been asked before, and I don’t mind telling you it took me aback. But at least I knew the answer. I am a professor of English. It was with some confidence that I wrote back to tell them I was not the co-author of a paper on The Newborn of Diabetic Rat II.

That might have been the end of the story then and there. But I was not able to put it out of my mind. I can’t say I actually dreamed about Diabetic Rat II and her young family, but I was concerned for them. It’s hard enough being a parent, but even harder when you have a distressing medical condition. I worried about Diabetic Rat II, now that our fates had become so mysteriously entangled. I confess I felt in some obscure way responsible for her and her helpless children.

The next strange thing to befall was an invitation I received by email, in September I think it was, to give a presentation on the Roles of Muscles, Peripheric Receptors and Spinal Cord in Motor Regulations, at the BIT 3rd Annual Congress of NeuroTalk in Beijing. This was a bit of a shock. In a modest sort of way I have a reputation as a scholar of modern and modernist literature. Invite me to discourse on Conan Doyle or Conrad, and I can prattle on for hours. But I wasn’t at all sure I could speak in public for even five minutes on the subject of muscles or anything to do with the spinal cord (except perhaps as a metaphor, as in “moral backbone”), before an international audience. I decided not to accept the invitation.

I now realized, as you will have done, what was going on. I have a double. Douglas Kerr is rather an exotic name in Hong Kong but in Scotland – to adapt George Orwell’s pleasant phrase – you can’t throw a brick without hitting a Douglas Kerr. The name is as common as Wong in Hong Kong. And in the Scottish diaspora, which is more or less everywhere around the globe, there are thousands of us.

In November, unaccountably, I got another email from the Congress of NeuroTalk. They wanted to know if I had received their earlier mail. Would I like to come to Beijing and give a talk about muscles? Or perhaps I would prefer to give an oration on peripheric receptors?

In the meantime I had identified my double. Douglas Kerr is a professor at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, perhaps the premier medical school in the world. If you input the name to Google Scholar, you get deluged with his publications. You have to scroll through hundreds of Douglas Kerr’s medical outputs before you come to any mention of Douglas Kerr’s work on the poetry of Wilfred Owen, or the stories of Kipling. It’s quite humiliating actually. But our medical colleagues publish articles at a rate that the most prolific scholar in Arts subjects could never match. It’s the nature of the discipline. The discrepancy is all the more egregious because – and some of my readers will be shocked to hear this – in the science disciplines it’s entirely acceptable for a senior researcher to add their name as co-author to a paper they haven’t actually written. (In Arts you could get fired for this.)

No wonder Douglas Kerr was being invited to medical congresses. He was publishing away at a furious rate. Among his most popular works were Mutations in the X‐linked pyruvate dehydrogenase (E1) α subunit gene (PDHA1) in patients with a pyruvate dehydrogenase complex deficiency, and Recovery from paralysis in adult rats using embryonic stem cells. Yes, I had found the rat man. I was pleased to think of Douglas Kerr aiding in the recovery of paralyzed rats. I didn’t like to think of the possibility that he might well have paralyzed them in the first place.

Meanwhile my medical reputation seems to be growing. I have now been sent an effusive invitation to a Cytokines and Inflammation Conference organized by a pharmaceutical company, in San Diego. “Gain insight into what it takes to go from the bench to the bedside,” they say mysteriously, “and have the expert panel give their opinion on overcoming challenges that you may be facing today.” A tempting offer: I could certainly do with some expert help in overcoming the challenges I am facing today. And look, they want me to bring my whole team! And now the NeuroTalk people, not easily discouraged, have sent me a third invitation. Each time it’s harder to refuse. If they ask me again I think I’ll have to say yes.

This business of doubles is not, of course, a one-way street. Somewhere in Baltimore there is a man with a stethoscope round his neck, basking in the glory of having written Eastern Figures: Orient and Empire in British Writing and “Ruins in the Jungle: Nature and Narrative”. I like to think he takes a shy pride in these achievements too.


Published on: Jan 5, 2012 < Back >