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Autobiography and Services of Sir James McGrigor, Bart
Late Director-General of the Army Medical Department (1861)


Though the merits and public services of men, who depart from among us in the quietude of retirement, at the close of a long life of usefulness, are more readily lost sight of than the merits of those who are suddenly snatched away in the midst of a brilliant career; yet not unfrequently the reminiscence of their names and works, is as much an act of justice to the individuals, as that of those who departed in the vigour of life, and in the freshness of their fame.

For, though they may have silently quitted the scene of their labours, forgotten in their retirement by the general public, as though they had never been ; when the tenor of their lives attests beneficence of action, and great personal deserts in the particular sphere in which they moved; the remembrance of these, merits to be recalled, no less than the record of the lives of those who achieved renown in a more dazzling sphere of the public service. As meriting such remembrance, Sir James McGrigor must be considered to have established no slight claims, both in a professional and official point of view.

In the former of these he may be regarded in the light of a prominent and instructive beacon, to guide and to encourage all entering upon the same career as that in which he so eminently distinguished himself; and in the latter, as the first zealous and enlightened administrator of a department of the public service, to the official constitution of which, before his advent to its directorship, a serious proportion of the calamities which befel British troops in the field had been justly attributed.

To those, also, who are meritoriously advancing in the same career of social and national usefulness; and to the now remaining few who were his friends and colleagues in the service, we cannot doubt that the publication of these autobiographical recollections of the most active period of his long and well-spent life, will prove both welcome and interesting. And the more so, that it will present a more enduring testimony, not only to that private worth which gained for him the esteem and friendship of many of the most distinguished men of his time; but to those zealous labours in the cause of the science of medicine, by which he so greatly contributed to the elevation of the professional character of the medical practitioner in the British army; and obtained for his brothers in science, that recognition of their status in our military system, which had been so ungraciously, and so impolitically withheld from them.

To the public at large, it will demonstrate the amount of public good which may be effected, by one willing to devote his mind and energies to the establishment of useful reforms; and will serve as another illustration of the truism, which happily is now becoming more generally recognised, that real advantage can accrue to the public service only when "the right man is in the right place."

It has been said, that the lives of few men are sufficiently diversified to be generally entertaining : but, however correctly this may apply to the lives of men in general, it may be safely affirmed, that the narrative of the career of Sir James McGrigor will be admitted as one more exception to the validity of that maxim; for though penned without effort to captivate by grace of style or diction, it often presents, colloquially, as it were, a narrative of much diversity of incident and interest, which derives, also, no slight charm from the frequent ingenuous abandonment with which the circumstances are related.

For the attainment of a correct estimate of a man's merits, and of the secret of his success, the mere consideration of the facts of his life, or of the progressive steps by which he evinced the one, and achieved the other, suffices but seldom. These present alone the material result, and leave the judgment uncertain as to the constitution of mind in the individual, which contributed more especially to the success obtained. The concurrent contemplation of this element, furnishes alone the real solution, and brings cause and effect at once in all the strength of their affinities before the mind. We will here, therefore, consider both the circumstances under which the Author entered upon his career, and those characteristics of the man, by the gift of which he was enabled to attain so eminent a rank in his profession, and establish so high a claim to the esteem of his countrymen.

It was the fortune of James McGrigor to enter upon his professional career, not only in an eventful time, but one in which his special characteristics and qualifications were the more likely to obtain an early appreciation, from the circumstance of their contrasting favourably with the deficiencies which then prevailed, even in the higher grades of the British Military Medical Department.

In 1794, no sooner had he joined the regiment, to the surgeoncy of which he had been gazetted, than he at once entered upon the active-service duties of the profession, for which he had evinced an early predilection. The short initiatory practice which he obtained in the field, in the disastrous campaign in Holland, was speedily extended on his return to England, in the medical superintendence of the large garrison of Norwich, where the typhus fever prevailed in every regiment that composed it. The experience thus acquired, was increased with little intermission in the expedition to the West Indies, under Sir Ralph Abercrombie; with service in the East Indies; in the Egyptian campaign, under Sir David Baird; and shortly after, in the expedition to Walcheren, so fatal to the health of the troops employed; and so strikingly indicative of the defects in the administration of the Medical Department of the Army at that period.

Successive and ample scope was thus presented to Dr. McGrigor, for the development of those abilities which, directed by a perspicuous judgment and natural administrative tact, were to bring him, in the Peninsular war, to the front rank in that department of the service, of which, under the eye of a commander, than whom none was more skilled to discriminate the fitness of the man for the occasion, he was eventually to stand forth in the more prominent capacity of chief and administrator.

But apart from those abilities with which he was gifted for the profession of medicine, he possessed an individuality of character, which especially fitted him for the achievement of a successful career as a military medical officer.

A clear and determinate conception of duty in its strictest military sense, induced in him that rigid regard for its punctual observance under every circumstance of time and place, which, combined with an untiring zeal, and general courtesy of manner, first attracted the notice, and then won the confidence and esteem of his commanders. His was not a mind to content itself with a mere respectable observance of the duties which the routine of the service imposed upon the medical officer. No intervals of remission from the toils of active service were welcomed by him as opportunities for a slothful respite from the object which he had mentally marked out as the one, constant, prescribed aim of his life.

When the period of practical exertion ceased, or was for a while suspended, the study of the science of his profession, the organisation of plans for remedying the defects he had found in the department of the service to which he belonged; or the careful noting of every phase of the diseases which had come under his observation, with their varied treatment, and the inductions arrived at, became for him new duties of paramount interest.

In those moments, therefore, when the majority of men seek rest, as it were, in the indulgence of other pursuits and tastes, he was assiduously preparing himself for the eventualities of a wider sphere of activity. With the increased labours of a more extended field of action, so his zeal and assiduity in their performance exhibited a corresponding expansion; and, in his case, the capacity to fulfil them became but the more evident, in the ratio of their increase. Gifted with no ordinary share of tact, in his relations with his subordinates, as with his superiors, evincing no less aptitude to conciliate, and win respect for his suggestions, than to detect deficiencies, he possessed an inherent faculty for organisation, surpassed by no medical officer of his day1

Upon his return from the Egyptian campaign and India, his assiduous discharge of the superintendence of the medical concerns of the Northern District of England, led to his promotion to the inspectorship of the South-west District. In his zealous performance of the more extensive and onerous duties which there devolved to him, the same appropriate direction of the means to the end, whieh had become the habit as it was the object of the mind that kept it constantly in view, characterised the labours of Dr. McGrigor. And on his return from the expedition to the Scheldt, where his able'superintendence of tbe medical service as Inspector of Hospitals, was particularised in a despatch from Lieutenant-General Sir Eyre Coote to Viscount Castlereagh, as most unremitting and praiseworthy the wide sphere of duties which he had so effectively discharged in the South-west District was again confided to him. It was thus that each successive stepping-stone, by which he rose to eminence, may be said to have been wrought and laid, rather by his own meritorious exertions, than by the mere fortuitous aid of circumstances and of friends.

This was made especially evident when, in 1811, his reputation as one of the ablest and most energetic officers of the service, brought to him unsought, and almost against his wishes, his appointment to the Inspector-Generalship of the Medical Department of the Army engaged in the Peninsular War.

In that year, the Duke of York received a letter from Lord Wellington, urging His Royal Highness to send him an Inspector-General of Hospitals, in whose talents and judgment he could place entire confidence, to conduct the Medical Department of the army under his command, in the place of Dr. Frank, incapacitated by illness.

In the Duke's despatch dated Frenada, Oct. 3rd, 1811, this wish is also expressed in the following words: that he "should have the most active and intelligent person that can be found to fill his station."

Upon the receipt of Lord Wellington's letter, the Duke of York sent an order to Dr. McGrigor, then Inspector-General of Hospitals at Portsmouth, toproceed to the head-quarters of Lord Wellington; and wrote at the same time to his Lordship, expressing his confidence that, in the officer he sent him to conduct the Medical Department of the army, his Lordship would find all he could desire; having been well acquainted with his merits for a long time. How well the Duke of York's estimate of the thorough efficiency of Dr. McGrigor to discharge the onerous and responsible duties of the post to which be appointed him, was justified; was made evident, both after the siege and capture of Badajoz in 1812, in a despatch from Lord Wellington to the Earl of Liverpool, (April 8th, 1812); and at the close of the Peninsular War, by the terms in which the Duke of Wellington wrote of Dr. McGrigor: "I have every reason to be satisfied with the manner in which he conducted the department under his direction, and I consider him one of the most industrious, able, and successful public servants I have ever met with."

That his professional merits, his services, and his character were no less appreciated and warmly recognised by his medical brethren of the army, was evinced on his return to England, by the presentation to him, in 1814, of a costly service of plate, from the physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, and purveyors, who had served with him in the > Peninsular War. In the same year, Dr. McGrigor had received the honour of knighthood; and the year following, was appointed a member of the Medical Board, of which he was shortly afterwards constituted chief and administrator, as Director-General.

He had now achieved the position which was to enable him to carry out those plans of improvement in the executive, and in the working details of the Army Medical Department, which he had so long conceived and kept in view.

In conjunction with the multifarious duties of his office, the elaboration and introduction of those plaus, was a self-imposed duty accompanied with no ordinary labour; and an approximate estimate may be formed of the task he assumed, and so ably accomplished, by a cursory glance at the constitution and administrative system of the Army Medical Board, previous to and at the period of his entry upon his professional career in 1793, many remaining defects of which still required correction.

Up to the period of the Military Inquiry instituted in 1808, into the administration of the Board, as constituted in 1794; the Medical Department of the British Army had been conducted in much the same manner as every other department of the public service, whether civil, naval, or military, since the days of George II.

The well-known motto from Horace, "Decipimur specie recti," had so long been applied to express the official estimate of the intelligence of the public, that it had become a traditional maxim in every department; and the constitution and working system of each, evinced the fullest reliance on the correctness of that estimate. Hi ere were doubtless grounds sufficient for such an appreciation of the public mind.

From the want of sufficient general knowledge to see things as they really were, they had been accepted for what they seemed to be. The name and the . appearance were quite sufficient to effect the deception; and from the year 1747 when a warrant of George II. created him Apothecary General "perpetual furnisher, with remainder to his heirs, of all the medicines necessary for the general service of the land forces of Great Britain," an imposing authoritative precedent was established for the exercise of a system of monopoly, of exclusive patronage, and collusions in the Army Medical Service, prejudicial alike to the army itself, and to the interests of the public.

Some intrusion upon these vested rights of the Apothecary-General would appear nevertheless to have been made at a subsequent period ; since, until the close of 1796, the surgeon of each regiment, aided by a surgeon's assistant, received a sum proportioned to the strength of the corps, on the condition that he furnished all the necessary medicines. It was then, however, regulated that those medicines should be provided anew by the Apothecary-General; that hospital allowances and all contingent expenses should be paid by the public, and that the pay of the surgeons should be increased; obviously to indemnify them for the loss of the emoluments previously enjoyed.

Though the supreme Medical Board constituted in 1794, for the better administration of the medical affairs of the army, was an improvement upon the pre-existing system, and received further modifications in 1798, yet the regulations then devised for its governance still left open a wide field for misrule. The Board as then constituted, and as it remained up to the accession to office of Sir James McGrigor was composed of a physician-general, a surgeon-general, and an inspector-general of hospitals. Each of these members exercised an exclusive and independent patronage over one branch of nominations and promotions. By the regulations laid down in 1798, it was the province of the physician-general to nominate to office all the physicians of his department, and to inspect the medicines furnished to the army by the apothecary-general, whose accounts he was to control jointly with the surgeon-general. He was further to preside in all matters concerning medical science; the examination of candidates for offices in the Medical Department of the Army, and in the military hospitals.

To the Surgeon-General was assigned the appointment of all the surgeons of his department; and as the exigencies of the service required, the discretion of placing those who were disposable, in the hospitals, camps, and military districts. It was further his duty to demand by way of requisition, of the Inspector of Hospitals, apothecaries, hospital assistants, &c.; and to examine and check the charges of the Apothecary-General relative to surgery. To the Inspector of Hospitals devolved the appointment and promotion of the apothecaries, purveyors, and their deputies, assistants, nurses, and servants for the hospital; the direction of the transport of medical supplies to the army and hospitals ; and lastly, in conjunction with the Surgeon-General, the examination of the claims of military officers for wounds and loss of limb.

From this separation of the service and patronage into three branches, made wholly independent of each other, though in reality they were mutually dependent by the very nature of things, arose many great inconveniences.

The Surgeon-General was debarred of all right to present either the physicians of the army, or the inspectors, the purveyors, apothecaries, or hospital assistants to promotion. Yet, was he held responsible for the functions of all those officers, since he had the disposal of them in the different posts of service in the army. In like manner, the Inspector-General of Hospitals chose on his own responsibility for the service of those hospitals, the surgeons and assistant surgeons who were nominated and promoted on other recommendation than his own. But a yet greater evil resulted from this independent partition of authority. Each of the three chiefs of departments, as head of a particular branch of the Medical Service, did his utmost to increase the importance of that branch; and to augment the number of officers under his personal orders, to a much greater extent than was required.

Upon numerous occasions, moreover, when the different talents and acquirements of the three heads of departments, might have been combined with the greatest advantage upon questions of high importance to the service, each of them jealous of his authority, preferred deciding for himself, even though in an imperfect or erroneous judgment, rather than consult with his colleagues, lest he should be controlled.

By a regulation, also, of 1798, the regimental surgeons were made at once medical officers, contractors, and managers of expenditure; a triple faculty of action that opened a field for abuses, which could be turned to account by any who in the spirit of common contractors might be disposed to see an occasion for making money in the furnishing of supplies. It would, however, be difficult to believe, so powerful in the learned professions is the sentiment of the honour of their calling, that even at that time, when the subordinate class of medical officers was not always composed of men of the high standard of a later period, advantage was taken of such opportunities for malversation.

Such nevertheless, might have been, and were too frequently in other departments, the pernicious effects of all regulations which granted privileges to those who made the necessary supplies for the service of the state; abuses made evident by several orders of the day of the Duke of Wellington in Portugal and Spain up to 1810.

The correction of the defects, and the curb put upon the profuse expenditure brought to light by the Military Inquiry which terminated in 1812, led, however, in the latter case, as is frequently the result when a too trenchant economy is aimed at, to errors of another kind in the Army Medical Department. The pruning knife was applied to trivialities, and to those merely, in the most inexorable manner. Thus the official relations between the Board and the medical officers of the service, became matters of figures, and little else ; in which the higher professional interests and those of science, were almost wholly sacrificed to pence.

These prefatory remarks to the Autobiography of Sir James McGrigor, as defining somewhat, for the reader, the earlier part of his career, his character, his abilities, and his capacity to fill the high office he subsequently obtained, may herewith be concluded. We now refer the reader to the Author's own narrative, and the successful issue of his long official labours, rewarded as they were with high and well-earned honours, and the gratifying consolation at the close of his life, that he had passed it usefully, in the service of his country, and in the cause of humanity; winning from all men, according to the relations in which they were connected with him in service, in office, and in private life, either their friendship and esteem, or their love, respect, and gratitude.

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