Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74.1 (2000) 171
[Access article in PDF]
Glasgow's Doctor: James Burn Russell, MOH, 1837-1904
Edna Robertson. Glasgow's Doctor: James Burn Russell, MOH, 1837-1904. East Linton, Scotland: Tuckwell Press, 1998. xii + 248 pp. Ill. £12.99 (paperbound).
James Burn Russell (1837-1904) was a typically atypical medical officer of health in the second part of the nineteenth century. His bailiwick was Glasgow, a city renowned throughout Europe for its overcrowding, destitution, and disease. Arguably, the ethos of austere, humorless, teetotal Presbyterianism could be seen as the cause of much of Scotland's misery in the nineteenth century; arguably too, however, when embodied, it was the source of the alleviation of much suffering. It was these qualities in Russell that drove him to denounce the conditions in which the poor in Glasgow lived and, coupled with his Scottish university education, allowed him to administer efficiently a medical department that saw a gradual decline in death rates during his lifetime.
This book is very much a local and personal history. On the personal side there is a great deal about Russell's childhood and later the certification and death of his relatively young wife. Robertson writes well and with a great local knowledge of the life of Glasgow in the nineteenth century. Her well-researched, well-footnoted biography is a splendidly detailed account of the day-to-day work of a medical officer of health in the face of rampant typhoid, typhus, scarlet fever, and all the other everyday pathological disasters of life in Victorian times. Interesting in this connection is how the tracking of sources of contamination of milk and water was a commonplace activity long before germ theory was widely accepted. Noteworthy too is how, in Glasgow, the work of the sanitation department and that of the medical officer of health were administratively distinct--once again underlining that the medical historian should not conflate all public health with medicine.
The book has no great aspirations to be a global history. There is no mention, for example, of Robert Koch or Charles Darwin. Indeed, the germ theory itself is scarcely noticed--but this may be a faithful indication of how little impact it made on everyday public health procedures, which were in place well before bacteria came on the scene. Robertson is sufficiently close to Glasgow to make it come alive, yet sufficiently a historian to make the past a strange place; her biography of "Glasgow's Doctor," if not quite in the Royston Lambert, John Simon 1 category, is well worth reading.
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine
1. Royston Lambert, Sir John Simon, 1816-1904, and English Social Administration. (London: Macgibbon and Kee, 1963).