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Sir James McGrigor (1771-1858)

Sir James McGrigor had an outstanding career as a military surgeon and was instrumental in founding the Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society.

Born in Cromdale, near Inverness, McGrigor attended the Grammar School and Marischal College in Aberdeen, graduating MA in 1788 (he was awarded an MD in 1804). He studied medicine at Aberdeen and Edinburgh and was apprenticed to George French (1765-1833), physician to the Infirmary in Aberdeen. On the 14th of December 1789 he and eleven other students founded the Aberdeen Medical Society (later the Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society) in order to supplement the level of medical teaching offered at that time by both King's and Marischal College.

McGrigor went on to become a surgeon in the 88th or Connaught Rangers, serving with the regiment in Flanders, the West Indies and Egypt. He was appointed to the post of Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals in 1805 and took part in the Walcheren expedition before his appointment as Inspector-General of Hospitals in August 1809. In 1811 he was appointed Chief of the Medical Staff of the Peninsular Army commanded by Wellington, serving in Spain, Portugal and France until the end of the war in 1814. McGrigor proved to be an excellent administrator and introduced the system of staged evacuation of sick and wounded men. He also persuaded Wellington, following the siege of Badajoz, to mention medical officers in dispatches for the first time. 

He came out of retirement in June 1815 to accept the post of Director-General of the Army Medical Department, a position he held until 1851. McGrigor introduced several important changes during his time as Director-General including the introduction of medical reports from all military stations, the provision of assistance to widows and dependents in the form of the Army Friendly Society (1816) and the Army Benevolent Society (1820), research into all aspects of army health and the development of chairs of military medicine in Dublin and Edinburgh. He also improved the system of selection of men seeking commissions in the medical services and secured the honour of royal commissions for medical officers.



Catalogue of manuscripts presented by Sir James McGrigor to the Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society with covering letter, August 1847
McGrigor gifted his personal medical records to the Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society in 1847, “being chiefly cases of disease which occurred in the Regimental Hospital of the 88th Regiment and of the Royal Regiment of Horse Guards when I was Surgeon of these Corps and subsequently when I was on the Medical Staff of the Army”. He retained a strong affiliation to the Society throughout his life and was keen to pass on his knowledge to the members after he left:

“In presenting these volumes I do so not on account of their value which I am very sensible is but small but as holding out to the Junior Members of the Society an instance of the persevering industry with which I prosecuted my profession from my first entrance into the Army and to which I mainly attribute my success in it.”

Page 1 of letter, August 1847
Pages 2 and 3 of letter, August 1847
Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society AMCS/4/1/1 Letter from August 1847, page 1 on the left and pages 2 & 3 on the right.


Minute book 1, 9 September 1791
McGrigor took an active part in the meetings held by the Society, regularly presenting discourses, contributing to discussions on medical subjects and suggesting improvements to the format of meetings and constitution of the Society. This extract from the first minute book of the Society records the presentation of a paper by McGrigor (President for the meeting) on typhus fever, and includes a humorous reference to his unique handwriting style.

“The Discourse delivered by the President possessed very great merit, but suffered greatly in the delivery, he being indisposed, and the gentleman to whom it was given to read, not being acquainted sufficiently with the hand.” 

Minute book 1, 9 September 1791

Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society AMCS/1/1/1/1



Minute book 8, 13 August 1799
McGrigor joined the 88th Regiment as Surgeon in 1793 and was stationed in a variety of places before being sent to India. During the voyage he sent the following letter to the Society.  

“A letter from James McGrigor, Surgeon in the 88th Regiment, sent from Cape Town, Cape of Good Hope, 29 March 1799, was read to the Society: 'On their voyage to India, the Dysentery broke out among the 88th Regt. In different parts of the world I have seen the superiority of a treatment of this disease by mercury - On the present occasion I have from the Case Book of the Regt. drawn up a statement of the cases that occurred in the ship of which I had the immediate care - If agreeable to the rules of the Society you may read the enclosed paper to the Society, and with sincerest wishes for the prosperity of the Institution…”

The paper, after being read to the Society, was inserted into the Thesaurus, in which the members maintained copies of discourses deemed to be of great merit.

Minute book 8, 13 August 1799
Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society AMCS/1/1/1/8


Result of the trial of various articles in Dysentery, 1799
McGrigor was always striving to discover the causes of particular diseases and to experiment with new forms of treatment, as highlighted by the record of trials he conducted for the treatment of dysentery by the use of nitric acid (taken internally and by the bath), Nux Vomica, Aqua Calcis [lime water],Vitriolated Zinc, Vitriolic Ether, Calomel, Pulv. _ Ipecac, Gum Camphor and Gum Asafoetida.

Result of the trial of various articles in Dysentery, 1799
'Result of the trial of various articles in Dysentery' (20 August-14 November 1799) ‘Effect of the internal use of Nitric Acid in Dysentery; Effect of Nitric Bath in Dysentery’. Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society AMCS/4/1/5/6


Case book 20, 5 July – 5 December 1801
The collection also includes a series of twenty-eight case books kept by McGrigor from 1795-1805. These demonstrate his attention to detail and concern with keeping accurate records of the diseases which afflicted the men under his care. McGrigor and his assistants kept detailed notes on all the patients, recording their daily condition and course of treatment and also summarising their weekly progress. The entries regularly include a note of the prevailing weather conditions which might impact on the health of the patients.


Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society AMCS/4/1/4/20


The above extract is from weekly remarks for the period 29 November-5 December 1801 when McGrigor was stationed in Bombay. In addition to comments on individual patients, he records his opinion on the causes of the illness among the new recruits and the practice of giving alcohol to the men:

“Almost all the dysenteries now prevailing among the recruits in England would be reckoned diarrhoeas occasioned by exposure to cold and other causes. In many the mouth is hardly affected before the stools are reduced considerably and the symptoms rendered much more mild. It is much to be regretted that the whole of them were not provided at Madras before embarkation with flannel or some other substitute to wear on board ship where they were much exposed to cold and moisture. Even now the prevailing sickness amongst them may be in part owing to them not being properly provided with clothing suitable to the season of the year.

There can be no doubt that the injudicious nay infamous practice of giving spirits to soldiers of every description particularly to young boys and new-comers is highly pernicious – and the sanction of the company who gave from their own stores spirits for the use of the troops at improper times and in too great quantities is highly pernicious in its effects and tendency and cannot be too much reprehended. It is much to be wished that this practice...should be either entirely discontinued, or placed under the most rigid restrictions should it be found at all of real use.”  



Letter book, 1809-1811
Prior to taking up his appointment as Inspector-General of Hospitals, McGrigor was sent to Walcheren and ordered to take command of the medical department at Middleburgh on 2 September 1809. A large number of the expeditionary force contracted fever due to the damp conditions and the medical provisions were found to be inadequate, problems which McGrigor refers to in this letter. There are in total a series of ten letter books, in which McGrigor or his assistants recorded copies of letters he sent to junior and commanding officers.

Letter book, 1809-1811, pages 58 & 59

Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society AMCS/4/1/2/4 Pages 58 & 59

Letter book, 1809-1811, pages 60 & 61
Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society AMCS/4/1/2/4 Pages 60 & 61


Journal No.1, 1811-1812
In this extract from McGrigor’s journals recording his experiences as Chief of the Medical Staff of Wellington’s army in the Iberian Peninsula, he records his first meeting with Wellington:

“Immediately on my joining head quarters a number of things pressed upon my mind, which I thought would be improvements in the medical department of the Army…I had visited most of the hospitals before I had seen Lord Wellington. I had examined the depots, some regimental hospitals, and I had _ witnessed the mode of sending sick and wounded to the rear, with that of sending the [recovered] from the hospitals to the army: and saw much of what appeared exceptionable to me. Nothing seemed worse than the mode of transporting the sick - this was oftenest done on the backs of mules, or in the carts of the country. There was besides a better provision to a certain extent, viz. by spring waggons.”

Journal No.1, 1811-1812

Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society AMCS/4/1/3/1


Journal No.12, May 1813
McGrigor placed great importance on keeping accurate records and consistently stressed to his junior officers the importance of this fact (see AMCS/4/1/2 Letter books, 1805-1815). He believed that to identify source of, and possible cures for, the many different types of diseases that afflicted the army, and to direct medical equipment and men to where they were most needed, depended on up-to-date and detailed records from each Regiment and Hospital Station.

The journals (thirteen in all) provide a summary of the reports received by McGrigor from medical officers and staff surgeons, and record McGrigor’s thoughts on the difficulties faced by the army at this time. The extract below refers to the diseases which prevailed in the various divisions of the army, beginning with the Cavalry Division:

“Owing to the army being in a state of motion, during this month, the reports are more scanty from corps and divisions than they are when they are stationary: indeed the difficulty is considerable to the army at such time.

Cavalry Division… Ague had now got quite the ascendancy, and become the prevailing disease, he [Mr. Higgins] says however that it was very mild, and quickly gave way to Bark exhibited after an emetic…This division bivouacked frequently, the exposure to damp, and night air, and the season readily account for the disease which prevailed in the cavalry.”

Journal No.12, May 1813

Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society AMCS/4/1/3/12



Record of diseases which prevailed among the British troops in the Peninsula, 1812-1814
This volume contains a record of the diseases affecting the troops admitted to the various Hospital Stations in the Peninsula on the 20 November 1812. The following entry is from the station at Castello Branco in Portugal. It is recorded that the prevailing diseases were intermittent and continued fevers, dysentery and rheumatism. Of 92 patients admitted, 22 had intermittent fever, 27 had continued fever, 1 had typhus, 22 had dysentery, 9 had rheumatism and 11 were admitted suffering from various other diseases. Of 281 patients treated 14 died: 7 from dysentery, 4 from continuous fever, 1 from apoplexy, 1 from cholera and 1 from hydrothorax. Nearly all the convalescents from continued fever were attacked with intermittent fever and it is recorded that the treatment of intermittent and continued fevers did not vary from the previous month: “almost every remedy recommended in dysentery was resorted to but the patient in almost every instance sank under this fatal disease”.

Record of diseases which prevailed among the British troops in the Peninsula, 1812-1814

'Abstract of Diseases principally prevailing at the Hospital Stations in the Peninsula’ (20 November 1812) – page 4. Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society AMCS/4/1/5/3. Also see AMCS/4/1/5/2 Abstract of admissions and fatalities in general and regimental hospitals in the Peninsula, 1811-1814.



Letter: J. McGrigor, Peterhead, to Dr James Moir, Aberdeen, 14 August 1820
McGrigor subscribed a large sum of money to help fund the building of the Society’s hall at 29 King Street, designed by Archibald Simpson. This letter from the University archives is written to Dr. James Moir, one of the founding members of the Society along with McGrigor, and highlights his continuing enthusiasm and concern for the Society. He comments on improvements to the building and the provision of a library and museum for the Society. These motions were agreed to at the meeting of the Society held on the 29 August 1820 (Minute book 18).

Letter: J. McGrigor, Peterhead, to Dr James Moir, Aberdeen, 14 April 1820. Page1
Letter: J. McGrigor, Peterhead, to Dr James Moir, Aberdeen, 14 April 1820. Pages 2 & 3

Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society MS 2909/5/1/16 Letter from August 1820, page 1 on the left and pages 2 & 3 on the right.

Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society's hall. MSU 1332/7/12

A memorial to McGrigor was erected in front of Marischal College in 1860. McGrigor was appointed Rector of Marischal three times, in 1826, 1827 and 1841. This obelisk was subsequently moved to Duthie Park in Aberdeen in 1906. Image from the George Washington Wilson Photographic Archive. 'Marischal College Aberdeen'' (FO152).


The papers of Sir James McGrigor, and those of the Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society, were recently catalogued as part of a Wellcome Trust funded project:
Catalogue to the archives of the Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society

Related material in the University archives:

MS 3693: Autograph letter from James McGrigor (1771-1858), Chief of Medical Staff, to John Gunning [Deputy Inspector of Hospitals], 9 February 1813

MS 2581: Letter from Sir James McGrigor to James MacCartney in Dublin, 14 April 1842

MS 2630: Aberdeen Medical Club, 1868-1875

MS 1163: Records of the Garioch and Northern Medical Association and Buchan Medical Society, 1854-1935


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