Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Russell, James (1786-1851)

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RUSSELL, JAMES (1786–1851), surgeon and philanthropist, was son of George Russell, who was at one time a prosperous merchant in Birmingham, but who was ruined by the outbreak of the American war. His mother was Martha, daughter of John Skey, and sister to James Skey of Upton. He was grandson of Thomas Russell, low bailiff of Birmingham. His father and others of his family were unitarians, and prominent members of Dr. Priestley's congregation; the house of his uncle (James Russell) at Showell Green was burnt during the ‘Priestley Riots’ of 1791, and his father's house was threatened.

James was born on 19 Nov. 1786 at 1 New Hall Street, Birmingham, and was educated at a private school near Warwick. He became the pupil of Mr. Blount, the Birmingham surgeon, on 17 Nov. 1800, and about 1806 he proceeded to London, where he entered as a student at Guy's Hospital. He received his diploma from the Royal College of Surgeons on 6 May 1808, and obtained the post of ‘visiting apothecary’ to the Birmingham Dispensary. This office he resigned on 30 Sept. 1811. The winter session of 1811–12 he again spent in London, attending Abernethy's lectures. He had to borrow money in order to pay the expenses of his education, but paid it off at the earliest opportunity. In 1812 he settled in practice at 67 New Hall Street, whence he removed to No. 63 in 1821. On 18 Jan. 1815 he was elected honorary surgeon to the Birmingham Dispensary, a post which he held until 9 Nov. 1825; he also held the office of surgeon to the town infirmary, but he failed to obtain election on the staff of the general hospital, owing mainly to the fearless expression of his religious opinions.

When sanitary inspectors were appointed for the borough, Russell was selected, together with his lifelong friend Mr. Hodgson, to discharge the duties of the office, which he held till his death. Many important improvements in the sanitary condition of Birmingham originated with him, especially those in relation to drainage and ventilation. In 1851 he wrote an elaborate report on the ‘Sanitary Condition of Birmingham,’ and he gave evidence before the parliamentary committee concerning the Birmingham improvement bill. Throughout his professional career, in addition to the time and energy which he gave to charitable institutions, he devoted much of his time to the relief of the sick poor. To midwifery he devoted special attention, and he accumulated many valuable and interesting observations, chiefly of a statistical character. He left behind him notes of upwards of 2,700 cases of midwifery which he had attended, and he published in the ‘Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal’ a paper on the results of his midwifery practice. He took an active part in the establishment of the Medical Benevolent Society in Birmingham, and all literary and scientific bodies there derived much assistance from him. Of the Philosophical Institution he was for many years treasurer. He delivered lectures before the Philosophical Institution and the Literary Society on ‘The Influence of Certain Occupations on the Health of the Workpeople,’ on ‘The Nature and Properties of the Atmosphere,’ on ‘Natural and Artificial Ventilation,’ and ‘On some of the more aggravated Evils which affect the Poorer Classes.’ He also read papers in 1840 and 1841 on ‘Infanticide’ before the Literary Society, and a paper on ‘The Natural History and Habits of the Tereti Navalis.’ He took a prominent part in establishing the Birmingham Geological Museum.

He was a liberal in politics, and took an active interest in the passing of the Reform Bill. When Earl Grey left office in 1831 he at once—at great risk of injury to his practice —publicly enrolled himself as a member of the Birmingham Political Union, under the leadership of Thomas Attwood. On the institution of the fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, he was in 1843 selected as a fellow.

He died suddenly on 24 Dec. 1851, and was buried in the vault of his family, under the old meeting-house, on 31 Dec. On 5 May 1817 he married Sarah Hawkes of Birmingham, and by her was the father of three children, of whom the eldest, James Russell (d. 1885), was for many years physician to the Birmingham General Hospital.

An oil portrait is inthe possession of Mr. James Russell at Edgbaston, Birmingham; it was engraved.

[Lancet, 10 Jan. 1852; Gent. Mag. 1852; Churchill's Medical Directory; private information.]

W. W. W.