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Dr Robert D McIntyre
Chapter 11 - Greenock at War


Shortly after his experiences at Hawkhead Hospital, Robert McIntyre took up a position under Glasgow’s Department of Health as Port Boarding Medical Officer based at Greenock.

This involved his being part of a team which had the responsibility of ensuring that ships were free of infections before they proceeded up-river, and also liaising with the vessels’ medical staff.

During the war years, passenger activity across the North Atlantic was suspended and large liners like the Cunard’s "Queens" were put to use as troopships. Both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth were converted to carry around 14,000 troops, although Dr McIntyre recalls, on one occasion, that the Queen Mary brought 18,000 troops across the Atlantic. He comments ruefully that this presented a considerable problem for Chief Stewart Jones: "Imagine providing 36,000 eggs for breakfast each morning!."

Obviously the organisation and provision of medical facilities, both on board and ashore, for such numbers was of vital importance and ensuring that the ships were clear of disease and fever was an essential task.

Not only were British ships commissioned for such purposes but some vessels from allies like the Dutch were put into troop carrying service. One such vessel was the Holland-America Line’s NIEUW AMSTERDAM, built in 1938 and converted to carry 8,000 troops. Records show that during the period of its war-time service, the Dutch ship, under Cunard management, carried 350,000 service personnel. It was on this vessel that Robert McIntyre made his only war-time voyage across the Atlantic - not a pleasure cruise - but strictly, on the grounds of professional medical business.

His medical advice became necessary when there were repeated outbreaks of gastro-intestinal disorders among the troops on the Nieuw Amsterdam.

Concern heightened because, as the war drew to its close, plans were being made to return the vessel to its commercial passenger use. Such a reputation was not the best advertisement for troop carrying and certainly could hardly be expected to do well as a passenger liner.

A thorough investigation of the problem was required and Dr McIntyre obtained the approval of the Medical Officer of Health in Glasgow, Sir Alexander McGregor, to join the ship on a trans-Atlantic voyage in order to try to discover the cause of the problem.

On the journey to Halifax, Nova Scotia, various investigative devices were used to try to find which item of food or cooking method might be the culprit. Courses and specific items were eliminated from meals but the vessel arrived in Canada with a number of serious complaints and discomfortures among the personnel and no solution found.

McIntyre’s skill as a bacteriologist was deployed but, even with the assistance of equipment at Dalhousie University, progress was not made. There was one brief respite from work. Another vessel, The Empress of Scotland (formerly Japan) was in port and McIntyre knew the ship’s surgeon, James Prendergast, very well and he decided to pay him visit. He boarded the Empress, went along to the Doctor’s cabin, knocked the door and entered. The ship’s medical practitioner had been asleep in his bunk. McIntyre’s entry produced a startled awakening coupled with an astonished cry, "Good heavens, Greenock already!".

On the voyage back to Scotland, Dr McIntyre’s diligence (and his grandmother’s wisdom) paid dividends. He had no criticism of the ship’s galley and cooking facilities. All Dutch ships were spotless and no fault could be found there, but he used his tours of inspection to strike up a relationship with the Chief Cook. On one occasion, he queried, "Do you put soda into the water when cooking your vegetables?". Some cooks did add baking soda to vegetables in order to retain their colour. The Chief Cook acknowledged that this was the practice. "My grandmother disapproved of that", McIntyre replied. Little more was said but, when the ship returned to the Clyde, he was able to report back to the Glasgow Health Department that the inconvenience and discomfiture of passengers and crew on the Nieuw Amsterdam were at an end. He did not reveal that what had happened was that his grandmother’s stricture had produced queries on the part of the Chief Cook who had discovered that, instead of adding baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) in the cooking process, what had happened was that some inexperienced person had been adding washing soda which is toxic, and thus the cause of all the problems and the near destruction of the ship’s reputation, to say nothing of the physical fitness of those on board.

As it happened, the Nieuw Amsterdam did return to passenger carrying on the North Atlantic and continued in service into the 1970’s.

The Dutch merchant marine and those who comprised the 1,600 passengers which the Nieuw Amsterdam could carry owe a debt to Dr McIntyre and, of course, his grandmother Morison.


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