Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Russell, James (1754-1836)

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RUSSELL, JAMES (1754–1836), regius professor of clinical surgery in Edinburgh University, born at Edinburgh in 1754, was son of James Russell, professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University, and Margaret, daughter of James Balfour of Pilrig. He was educated at Edinburgh, and was admitted a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh on 11 July 1777. In 1796–7 he was president of the College of Surgeons, and he materially promoted the interests of its museum. He resided at first in St. Andrew Square and subsequently in Abercrombie Place, Edinburgh. In early years he was surgeon to the Royal Infirmary, and soon afterwards engaged in active and successful practice. From 1786 to 1803 he gave clinical lectures in practical surgery in Edinburgh. In 1802 he petitioned the town council to found a chair of clinical surgery under the title of ‘the clinical and pathological professorship of surgery.’ The chair, founded entirely through his exertions, was created in June 1803, with an endowment of 50l. a year out of the ‘Bishops' Rents,’ and to it he was appointed on 7 July. Sir R. Christison comments on the ‘singular manner in which clinical surgery was taught by him.’ In lecturing he merely described groups of cases which had come under his notice. He was not an acting surgeon to the infirmary at the time, as the clinical professor has always been since. He received, however, the appointment of permanent consulting surgeon, in which capacity he regularly accompanied the attending surgeons in their visits, was cognisant of all that went on, and was in some measure answerable for all acts of surgical interference. He was allowed by the acting surgeons to lecture on the cases, and gave much useful information to well-attended classes. He is said to have been a somnolent lecturer—a quality which was fomented by an evening class-hour, and betrayed by an inveterate habit he had of ‘yawning while he spoke, and continuing to speak while he yawned.’ In 1834, when in his eighty-first year, with the sanction of the lord advocate, he sold his chair to James Syme for 300l. a year for his lifetime. He was a member of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, and one of the original fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; he was subsequently vice-president of the society, and contributed two papers to the ‘Transactions’: (1) ‘An Account of Experiments on Antimony,’ i. 16, and (2) on ‘A Singular Variety of Hernia,’ v. 23.

He was all his life much interested in art and literature; he made a collection of pictures, including old masters, which was scarcely excelled in Scotland. He also sketched himself in crayons and sepia. He used to have fortnightly suppers at his house, and there entertained many of the celebrities of ‘old Edinburgh,’ among them Sir Walter Scott (a connection of his wife's) and Sir William Hamilton.

Russell was a member of the church of Scotland and a conservative in politics. He died at his country residence, Bangholm Bower, on Sunday, 14 Aug. 1836, and was buried in old Greyfriars churchyard.

He married, on 21 Sept. 1798, at Dinlabyre, near Castleton, Liddesdale, Roxburghshire, Eleanor, daughter of William Oliver of Dinlabyre, a landed proprietor, and had by her a family of five sons and four daughters. Mrs. Russell used to relate how Sir Walter Scott came to her for information about Liddesdale local manners and customs when he was writing ‘Guy Mannering.’ The fourth son, Francis Russell, was for twenty-five years sheriff-substitute of Roxburghshire.

There is a life-sized oil painting of Russell by Watson Gordon at the house of Dr. F. R. Russell of Guildford, Surrey, and a second oil painting by Martin, the master of Raeburn, taken in youth, along with his father, the professor of natural philosophy, which is now at Churtwynd, Haslemere, Surrey, in the possession of the Rev. J. B. Russell.

Russell published: 1. ‘Practical Essay on a Certain Disease of the Bones termed Necrosis,’ 8vo, 1794. 2. ‘On the Morbid Affections of the Knee-joint,’ 8vo, 1802. 3. ‘A Treatise on Scrofula,’ 8vo, 1808. 4. ‘A System of Surgery,’ 4 vols. 8vo, 1809.

[Biographical Dictionary of Living Authors, 1816; Sir Alexander Grant's The Story of the University of Edinburgh; Life of Professor Syme; Bower's History of the University of Edinburgh; Minutes of the Royal College of Surgeons; Edinburgh Evening Courant, 1836; private information.]

W. W. W.