Sir James McGrigor

Sir James McGrigor (1771–1858), by William Ward (after John Jackson)


Sir James founded the Museum of Natural History which was moved to Netley from Fort Pitt.


McGrigor, Sir James, first baronet (1771–1858), military surgeon, was born at Cromdale, Inverness-shire, on 9 April 1771, the eldest of the three sons of Colquhoun McGrigor (d. 1800), merchant of Aberdeen, and his wife, Anne, daughter of Lewis Grant of Lathendrey in Strathspey, Inverness-shire.

Education and beginnings of army career

McGrigor was educated at the grammar school at Aberdeen, and at Marischal College, where he graduated MA in 1788. He studied medicine at Aberdeen and Edinburgh, and after his return to Aberdeen in 1789, while an apprentice to George French, surgeon to the County Infirmary, he was one of the founders of a local medico-chirurgical society among the students. Wishing to become an army surgeon, he went to London, where he attended Mr Wilson's lectures on anatomy, and after the outbreak of war with France purchased the post of surgeon to De Burgh's regiment, later famous as the 88th or Connaught Rangers. His appointment was dated 13 September 1793, and his name was at first spelt MacGregor in the army list. He served with the regiment in Flanders, and in the winter retreat to Bremen in 1794–5, in which his health suffered severely. When the 88th was at Southampton soon after its return, Lieutenant-Colonel William Carr Beresford, afterwards Marshal Beresford, was appointed to the command of the regiment. Beresford quarrelled with McGrigor, blaming him for the highly insanitary condition of the regiment, although the regimental infirmary was admitted to be in excellent order, and, among other arbitrary acts, insisted on his attending all parades. McGrigor protested and applied, without success, for exchange to another regiment. However a better understanding prevailed between the two men after Beresford made a favourable report of McGrigor's services. Later in the year (1795) the regiment was ordered to the West Indies. Mistaking a sailing signal, the transport in which McGrigor had embarked set off and reached Barbados alone, long in advance of the other troops. She was thought to be lost, and a replacement was appointed to fill McGrigor's post. McGrigor accompanied a detachment of the 25th regiment to suppress the revolt in Grenada, but was shipwrecked on the way. Meanwhile the 88th had embarked with Admiral Sir Hugh Cloberry Christian but the transports were shattered and dispersed in a storm in November 1795. Only two companies of the 88th reached the West Indies, with which, after serving in Grenada and St Vincent, McGrigor came home in the autumn of 1796. In May 1799 he landed with the 88th at Bombay, proceeding with it afterwards to Ceylon, and in 1801 was appointed superintending surgeon of the force of 8000 European and Indian troops sent up the Red Sea to join the army in Egypt, under Major-General David Baird. McGrigor received a commission from the East India Company, so that he might take charge of the Indian details. Baird's force landed at Quseir in May–June 1801, and after crossing the desert to Qena, descended the Nile to Rosetta. There McGrigor had to deal with a serious outbreak of the plague among the troops. When the army evacuated Egypt, McGrigor crossed the desert to Suez, and returned to Bombay and thence to England.

McGrigor was transferred to the Royal Horse Guards (Blues), and served with them at Canterbury and Windsor, where he was noticed by George III and Queen Charlotte.

Deputy inspector-general of hospitals

McGrigor proceeded MD at Marischal College on 20 February 1804, and on 27 June 1805 was made one of the new deputy inspectors-general of hospitals, and placed in charge of the northern district (headquarters York), where he introduced many improvements and stimulated the officers under him through a mixture of courtesy, criticism, and advice. His talents attracted the notice of the duke of York, who transferred him to the south-western district (headquarters Winchester), subsequently placing the Portsmouth district and Isle of Wight and a part of the Sussex district under him as well. At this time McGrigor had in medical charge the counties of Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset, Gloucestershire, and Worcestershire, and south Wales; the medical organization of numerous expeditions dispatched from Portsmouth at this period was also entrusted to him. The south coast was the landfall of troops returning from abroad. During his time in this post, McGrigor must have pondered on the problems of disposal of sick and wounded. Infectious disease was the predominant cause of sickness. On the return of troops from Corunna, heavily infected with what was then called ‘fever’, he declared the difficulties ‘unsurmountable’. Nevertheless, he overcame them. It is not impossible that the experience gained then helped him to formulate his system of evacuation, described below.

McGrigor's reputation now stood very high. His old chief, Beresford, applied for his services as principal medical officer (PMO) of the Portuguese army, but before he could take up his posting, he was ordered to Walcheren, where the British camp site was under water and 3000 men were ill with malaria. The Walcheren campaign was one of the disasters of British military medicine. McGrigor was on board HMS Venerable when she was wrecked at the mouth of the Scheldt. After long delay the crew were rescued by the small boats of the fleet from Flushing. Sir Eyre Coote the younger, who had succeeded to command, testified to the important services rendered by McGrigor, who was himself infected with malaria.

Promotion and marriage

After his return McGrigor was promoted inspector-general of hospitals on 25 August 1809. Not long after resuming duty, on 23 June 1810 he married Mary (1779–1872), youngest daughter of Duncan Grant of Lingeistone, Moray—sister of his old friend Lewis Grant (afterwards Sir Lewis Grant MD), of Brigadier-General Colquhoun Grant (1780–1829), and of Colonel Alexander Grant CB, Madras army—with whom he had three sons and one daughter.

On 13 June 1811 McGrigor received the sinecure position of physician to the Portsmouth garrison, but soon afterwards was promoted once more, this time to become chief of the medical staff of the Peninsular army under command of Wellington. He arrived in Lisbon on 10 January 1812 and was present with the army throughout the rest of the campaign, serving from Ciudad Rodrigo to Toulouse, including the siege of Badajoz, the terrible Burgos retreat, and the major battles of Vitoria, the Pyrenees, and Toulouse.

It was during this war that McGrigor made his name as a medical director of the first rank. Although it was George James Guthrie, the surgeon, who has the credit for introducing the Guthrie pony cart to transport wounded in the winter campaign which followed the taking of Ciudad Rodrigo to hospitals manned by regimental medical officers—so that wounded men were kept with their own comrades, and in contravention of the general order that sick and wounded be sent directly to general hospitals—it was McGrigor who instituted the ‘chain of evacuation’. McGrigor had the concept of ‘stages’ on the ‘way back’, as the RAMC puts it, and his methods are still the basis of evacuation today. Thus he had field hospitals in which less severely wounded could be treated, allowing them to be returned to duty more readily, while maintaining space in the general hospitals for those needing more major treatment and longer care. His allocation of food for the wounded was the reason for the famous exchange with Wellington, at Madrid, when the Iron Duke asked McGrigor in anger: ‘Who commands the Army, Sir, I or you?’. McGrigor stood his ground. Wellington went on: ‘As long as you live, Sir, never do anything without my orders’ (McGrigor, 302). But he invited his medical director to dine with him the same evening. McGrigor's administrative ability, and the courage and self-reliance which enabled him to accept grave responsibility at critical moments, speedily won the confidence of Wellington, who later declared that McGrigor was ‘one of the most industrious, able, and successful public servants I have ever met with’ (Dispatches of the Duke of Wellington, 7.643). On McGrigor's representations, the services of medical officers were recognized by their being mentioned in dispatches, something never granted before. This happened first after the battle of Badajoz. It is worth recording, however, that it was not until thirty-seven years later, that he, as director-general, eventually persuaded the high command to award decorations for doctors.

Knight and director-general

After the peace of 1814 McGrigor returned home, was knighted, and retired on an allowance of £3 a day. The medical officers who had served under him presented him with a service of plate valued at a 1000 guineas. He applied himself anew to his favourite subjects, anatomy and chemistry; but on 13 June 1815 he was appointed director-general of the army medical department, and held the post until 1851. The salary was £2000 a year, with the equivalent rank of major-general. McGrigor founded the Museum of Natural History and Pathological Anatomy at Fort Pitt, Chatham; its library was later moved to Netley near Southampton.

Now director-general of the Army Medical Services, McGrigor carried out six reforms of importance. The first was the inauguration of medical reports from all military stations, which twenty years later formed the basis of the Statistical Returns of the Health of the Army, perpetuated as the annual blue books of the army medical department. The second was assistance to widows and dependants—in 1816 he started the Army Friendly Society, for help to widows of medical officers and in 1820 the Army Benevolent Society, for assisting the orphans of medical officers. Third, he instituted research into all aspects of army health, and fourth, in connection with this, was responsible for the development of chairs of military medicine in Dublin and Edinburgh. Fifth, he enhanced the whole system of selection of men seeking commissions in the medical services, personally interviewing candidates, and later seeing that in their early careers they were well guided. And lastly, he won the honour of royal commissions for his medical officers.

After thirty-eight years in post, McGrigor retired on pension at the beginning of 1851. He died at his residence at 3 Harley Street, London, on 2 April 1858, aged nearly eighty-seven. He was survived by his wife and his son Charles Rhoderick succeeded him as second baronet.

Honours and publications

McGrigor was elected FRS on 14 March 1816. He received the freedom of the cities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen. The University of Edinburgh made him an honorary LLD; Marischal College, now part of the University of Aberdeen, chose him as rector in 1826, 1827, and 1841. He was created a baronet in September 1831. He was a fellow of the colleges of physicians of London and Edinburgh, honorary physician to the queen, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a member of the council of the University of London, and of many learned societies at home and abroad. He was made a KCB on 17 August 1850. He had also the Turkish order of the Crescent, the commander's cross of the Portuguese Tower and Sword, and the war medal with five clasps.

McGrigor was author of a Memoir on the Health of the 88th and other Regiments, from June 1800 to May 1801, presented to the Bombay Medical Society in 1801; Medical Sketches of the Expedition to Egypt from India (1804); A Letter to the Commissioners of Military Enquiry (1808), a reply to animadversions on the 5th Report of the Commissioners of Military Enquiry which had been published by Edward Nathaniel Bancroft; a memoir on the fever that appeared in the British army after the return from Corunna, in Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, 6, 1810; a ‘Memoir on the health of the army in the Peninsula’, in Transactions of the Medico-Chirurgical Society, London, 6; also Report of Sickness, Mortality, and Invaliding in the Army in the West Indies (1838) and a similar report for the United Kingdom, Mediterranean, and British North America in 1839.


Oxford DNB

H. M. Chichester, ‘McGrigor, Sir James, first baronet (1771–1858)’, rev. J. S. G. Blair, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 28 May 2017]


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