The Bipolar Bard: did Robert Burns have bipolar disorder (and does it matter)?

Published: 29 May 2014

The physical and mental health of Robert Burns is being explored at a unique symposium attracting experts from both the literary and medical world

The physical and mental health of Robert Burns is being explored by literary and medical experts at a symposium being organised by the University of Glasgow today (Thursday 29 May).

Robert Burns stained glassThe question of whether Scotland’s national poet suffered from a mental health disorder will be addressed as part of a symposium held at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow. ‘Robert Burns & Medicine: Exploring links between physical illness, mental disorder & creativity’ will look at the connections between Burns and the medical profession alongside addressing how mental disorders are linked to the creative process.

It is well documented that Burns suffered bouts of melancholia (severe depression) but the possibility of bipolar disorder is a more recent suggestion.  This will be the first time that academics from the medical and literary worlds have come together to address the issue specifically.

Dr Daniel Smith, Reader in Psychiatry at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing, said: “Burns had a complicated and some might say tempestuous personal history, with bouts of melancholic depression, heavy lifelong alcohol consumption and considerable instability in relationships, including a series of extramarital affairs.”

“Although it is difficult to prove conclusively, it is possible that his life history and his prodigious literary outputs may have been influenced by a recurrent disorder of mood, such as bipolar disorder.”

“The link between creativity and mental illness has been known since antiquity - for example, Aristotle observed that “No great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness” - but more recent epidemiological research suggests a specific relationship between creativity and bipolar disorder.  This link has important implications for our understanding of the causes of severe mood disorders and understanding it more fully might help to tackle stigma against those with mental illness.”

Professor Gerry Carruthers, Co-Director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow, said: “There are many fascinating links between the life and works of Robert Burns and the medical profession. We are pleased to be hosting this unique event at the University of Glasgow that will bring together experts from across the medical and literary worlds to explore these connections. We anticipate that this will stimulate further debate and identify areas for future research.”

The full schedule for the symposium runs as follows:

09.45 – 10.30

Medical Knowledge in Burns’s day, with reference to the poet’s work

Sir Ken Calman, University of Glasgow

10.50 – 11.35

Burns’s editors and commentators from the medical profession

Professor Gerard Carruthers, University of Glasgow

11.20 – 12.05

 Creativity & Mental Health: An Overview

Professor Jane Macnaughton, University of Durham

13.00 – 13.45

 Medical Theories about Burns’s Death

Professor David Purdie, Emeritus, University of Hull

13.45 - 14.30

 Bipolar Disorder, Intelligence and Creativity

 Dr Daniel Smith University of Glasgow


Media enquiries:

Nick Wade

Media Relations Officer, University of Glasgow



Notes to editors:

  • Dr Daniel Smith is a Medical Advisor to Bipolar Scotland, and chairs the Scottish Mental Health Research Network's Clinical Research Group for Bipolar Disorder. His research focuses on identifying genetic and environmental risk factors for bipolar disorder and major depression. 
  • The Centre for Robert Burns Studies undertakes research, scholarship and teaching in the area of Robert Burns, his cultural period and related literature: The aims of the Centre are:
    • to lead the development and coordination of research of excellence related to Robert Burns both in the UK and beyond; 
    • to encourage Robert Burns Studies through publications, seminar series, colloquia, conferences, performance events and other meetings both in the UK and internationally;
    • to foster links with other institutions working in the area of Robert Burns Studies and housing significant collections of Burns material;
    • to establish and maintain a centre of excellence in postgraduate studies and early career research;
    • to broaden interest in Robert Burns Studies by inviting visiting lecturers and by encouraging academic and student exchanges both within the UK and globally.


First published: 29 May 2014

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