Indenture between Benjamin Bell, Andrew Wardrop and James Russell, surgeons apothecary in Edinburgh, and John Henry Wishart

James Russell

  • Roll Number
  • 260
  • Surname
  • Russell
  • Forenames
  • James
  • Date of Admission
  • 11th July 1777
  • Surgeon Database
  • Fellow
  • Other Information
  • James Russell was the first Professor of Clinical Surgery in the University of Edinburgh. He was appointed on the condition that he did not interfere with the rights of Alexander Monro Secundus, who at that time lectured on anatomy and surgery. As was the custom of the day, Russell was required to retire from surgical practice at the age of fifty whilst continuing to teach the subject. Despite this considerable impediment, he was able to successfully lecture and teach on the patients of other surgeons for the next thirty years. He amassed a collection of paintings, including old masters which one contemporary described at unsurpassed in Scotland.

    Some families were associated with the College over several generations and the Russells were one such..

    James Russell Senior was a cousin of Joseph Black, the celebrated chemist, and was the first to appreciate that air contained constituent gases. Russell clearly had a formative influence on his younger cousin as shown by the minutes of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Black we are told “… lived with his relation James Russell whose singular correctness and precision of thought in various branches of science could not fail to be of use to all who approached him”.

    In 1764, almost twenty years after being elected to the Incorporation of Surgeons, Russell became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in succession to another relative, Adam Ferguson, who had resigned the Chair to become the Professor of Moral Philosophy.

    James Russell Junior followed his father into a surgical career being admitted into the Incorporation in 1777, a year before it became the Royal College of Surgeons of the City of Edinburgh. He became a popular teacher of surgery teaching large classes in the extra mural school. The newly named College of Surgeons had been pressing for some years that the teaching of surgery in the University was of sufficient importance to justify a Chair in its own right. Earlier proposals had been resisted by Monro Secundus who regarded this as an infringement of his right to teach anatomy and surgery, although he was not a practising surgeon and never a Fellow of the College. Russell petitioned the Town Council to establish a Chair of Clinical Surgery and, in 1755, he was appointed the first Professor being paid by a Crown endowment of £50 per annum.

    Surgeons at that time were required to retire from Royal Infirmary practice at the age of fifty. Although no longer practising, he was able to continue teaching as a he regularly accompanied attending surgeons on ward and home visits. His lectures and tutorials in clinical surgery was confined to teaching on the patients of practising surgeons which, by all accounts, he accomplished with great diplomacy for the next twenty years. A contemporary description of Professor Russell is a reminder of the dress style of the day “… The Professor was a tall, thin gentleman of the old school, who wore a red wig, was always dressed in black with a white neck cloth - a choker of the “old Beau Brummell” style. He indulged in a broad frill on his shirt breast …. a morning coat …. knee-breaches and silk stockings.”

    Whilst not regarded as a profound thinker, he recorded several valuable clinical observations. A paper in 1803 entitled “A new and hitherto undescribed variety of hernia” is one of the earliest descriptions of direct inguinal hernia.

    His final paper was dedicated to the President and Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons “for the Patronage afforded to the class of Clinical Surgery and for the facilities and support granted me to promote the success of the undertaking”.

    He finally retired in 1833 at the age of eighty-one but only on the condition that his successor should pay him £300 per year for the period of his life-time. The contenders to follow him in the Chair were Robert Liston and James Syme. Liston contemptuously “and in rather coarse terms” refused to agree to pay. James Syme was therefore appointed to the Chair of Clinical Surgery.
  • Further reading
  • Miles A; The Edinburgh School of Surgery before Lister; p97-107
    Dictionary of National Biography; v49; p439