James Burn Russell - Times Past

In partnership with the Glasgow Times, our archivists are exploring Glasgow's fascinating history. This week, Irene O'Brien writes about Dr James Burn Russell (1837 - 1904).

Dr Russell was appointed in 1872 as the city’s first full-time Medical Officer of Health. He worked tirelessly for the city’s poor and his crusade to improve living conditions and health provision lasted over a quarter of a century. He was one of the truly great figures of late Victorian Glasgow.

He was born in Glasgow in 1837 in Robertson St, alongside the noise and bustle of the Broomielaw.  He was brought up not in the city but in his Grandfather’s house in the more rural surroundings of Rutherglen. He went to the High School and then to Glasgow University, where he graduated with a BA in 1858 and Doctor of Medicine and Master in Surgery in 1862.  

His first job was as House Physician in the Royal Infirmary and City Poor House before being appointed Physician Superintendent of Glasgow’s first municipal hospital, the Parliamentary Road Fever Hospital.  These early experiences convinced Russell of the need for improvements in living conditions as a first step towards effective preventive medicine.  In 1872 he became the Medical Officer of Health for Glasgow. Sanitary reform had already begun with the Loch Katrine Water Works. His predecessor Dr Gairdner had taken steps to establish a proper Department of Public Health, including the passing of the City Improvement Act to clear Glasgow slums, the formation of Health Committee in the Town Council, appointment of a Sanitary Inspector, and the opening of new hospitals, such as Belvidere.


Glasgow, which at the beginning of the Victorian era was judged to have the worst living conditions in the ‘civilised’ world, was at the end of the 19th century internationally renowned for its Public Health Service and the remarkable progress made in the development of Glasgow towards a clean and healthy life for all its citizens. From the beginning he took a modern and broad view of his duties. He brought together all the scientific advances by Pasteur and Lister to establish better protection against the spread of disease in the slums which had made Glasgow so easily the victim of epidemic disease. 


He was constantly out and about in the poorest part of the city and his accounts of what he saw and heard offer incomparable insights into slum conditions. He sought to raise a sense of social responsibility towards the less fortunate and their struggle of life.  He used his papers such as ‘Life in One Room’ to relate the condition of life in such a house and the whole of the disadvantages which it imposed on the unfortunate inhabitants. He advocated parks and open spaces, children’s playgrounds, and areas for sport, to be located near their dwellings. He planned local baths and washhouses.

He succeeded in persuading the Town Council to play an active role in improving sanitation, pollution control and slum clearance.  Reforms such as compulsory notice of infectious diseases helped reduce the city's death rate, which in turn established Russell's world-wide reputation as a public health pioneer. 

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