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Sir James McGrigor, the Adventurous Life of Wellington’s Chief Medical Officer

Sir James McGrigor, the Adventurous Life of Wellington’s Chief Medical Officer

Sir James McGrigor, the Adventurous Life of Wellington’s Chief Medical Officer

Tom Scotland

Helion & Company (2021)

ISBN 9781914059216

Paperback, 178 pages

Images: 22 figures, 5 maps, 4 tables


Created by Helion Publishing, in their excellent ‘From Reason to Revolution’ series (no. 65), this is an account of a charismatic, energetic, and brilliant medical officer, who rightly deserves a niche in military medical historiography perhaps more worthily than Sir John Pringle (1707-82), another leading army medical reformer of note. Sir James McGrigor (1771 – 1858), born 250 years ago, carried on the great tradition of Scots diaspora in medical pioneering and service to a new and higher level throughout the world, over the protracted wars against Republican and Imperial France.

The illustrated book is sectioned into 14 chapters, elaborating a remarkably varied career in military service. Following impressive educational achievements at Aberdeen Grammar School, during the Scottish Enlightenment, he entered the Marischal College in Aberdeen. After four years he graduated, Artium Magister from the university, he decided on a medical career. He studied medicine in Aberdeen and Edinburgh and was on of 12 men who founded the Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society. After war had been declared and a difficult transition to London to gain more experience, McGrigor purchased a surgeoncy in the robust 88th Foot in the autumn of 1793. Surviving typhus and dysentery, McGrigor served in the volatile and sickly Caribbean, battling to enhance survival of his battalion and many other patients. He then worked in India, where so much was learned about logistics and supply. Subsequently he saw service in Ceylon, India and Egypt, where Bubonic Plague and Ophthalmia, generated astute clinical observations and taxed McGrigor’s ingenuity. It was here that he met the great French surgeon, Baron Jean Dominque Larrey.

On return to Britain, McGrigor was promoted Deputy Inspector of Hospitals to supervise medical arrangements in the large and busy region of the South West of England. After involvement in the ghastly military and medical catastrophe of the Walcheren Campaign, McGrigor married and was then catapulted into the long Peninsular War, where he worked in close symbiosis with his Commander and did so much to keep as many men in the field as possible. It was in these years that he reached the zenith of his military medical career. Promoted Director General of the Army Medical Department on 13 June 1815, Sir James settled down to almost 40 further years of reforming military administration. He finally retired in 1850 having held the post until he was eighty years of age. James McGrigor was far ahead of his time and so many of his ideas are as applicable today as they were more than two hundred years ago.

This is not the first biography of James McGrigor, but this account adds fresh flavour to McGrigor’s background, the burgeoning medical environment and challenges of the day and also to military history. It tells of a life dedicated to preserving and improving lives of servicemen, rather than tales of their injury and destruction.

The author, a retired orthopaedic surgeon is a well-recognised military medical historian, whose wide interests have a particular focus on the medicine and surgery of the Great War. Recommended reading.

Michael Crumplin

December 2021