James Burn Russell - Times Past

Posted on 06 April 2022
A pencil portrait of James Burn Russell with an oversized head and beard and a small body, wearing a suit and holding a written note.

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 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 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. 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. This was 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. This included 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 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 the victim of epidemic disease.

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

A black and white photograph of a baby on a swing holding onto the swing chain, wearing dirty clothes. There is an older child on the other swing and buildings in the background.