Medicine and Books

Remarkable contributions to medicine

The Quality of Mercy: the Lives of Sir James and Lady Cantlie.  Jean Cantlie Stewart. (Pp 277) George Allen and Unwin. 1983.

Some great names in the history of tropical medicine in Britain are so well known that their mention conjures immediately the face of the person and his deeds. This is the case with Patrick Manson, Ronald Ross, and perhaps a few others. Other names, however well known, remain just names of worthy men or women, shadows with little substance. This might have been the case with Sir James Cantlie, prominent surgeon, gifted writer, tropical medicine specialist, founder of the Hong Kong Medical College, one of the early presidents of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, and a Scot par excellence. Now, however, we can read of the life and work of Sir James and Lady Cantlie in a thrilling story written by their grand-daughter. She wrote the book when, thanks to the first aid services her grandfather had initiated and perfected almost 100 years ago, her own son was rescued after a skiing accident in the Cairngorms.

James Cantlie was born in 1851 on a farm at Keithmore in Banffshire, where the hard life amid upland rocky-soil steels the body but gives the soul a courage and resilience, tempered with warmth and humour. We follow the impetuous Scottish laddie through his school days, through his graduation at Aberdeen and his move to London, where he joined the anatomy department at the Charing Cross Hospital. Young James soon deployed his prodigious energy as a promising surgeon, and gifted teacher and writer. The work of St John Ambulance attracted his enthusiasm for action, and he organised the first aid service at the Medical Congress and Sanitary Exhibition in London in 1881. This brought him in touch with the Army Medical Department and through his initiative, drive, and powers of persuasion an efficient volunteer medical staff corps was formed. In search of wider horizons Cantlie and his family went to Hong Kong, where he accomplished an amazing amount in a short time. A busy surgeon and teacher, he promoted the setting up in 1892 of the College of Medicine for the Chinese, galvanised the activity of the local sanitary board, opened an institute for making smallpox vaccine, dealt with an outbreak of plague, organised the St John Ambulance Brigade, founded the public library, and, naturally, started Highland dancing classes. Four years later his deteriorating health obliged the Cantlies to return to London, to his beloved Charing Cross Hospital and busy professional life. Then a political event caused a sensation. Dr Sun Yat Sen, one of the first graduates of the Hong Kong Medical College, founded an active revolutionary movement against the autocratic Manchu imperial dynasty in China and planned to seize Canton as a base for the change of government. He had to flee China and, after spending some time abroad, came to London in 1896. One day Sun Yat Sen was kidnapped and kept prisoner in the Chinese embassy. Cantlie was informed of this capture by an anonymous letter and succeeded in securing Sun Yat Sen’s life and securing his release.

Only a few episodes of the last 30 years of Cantlie’s busy and full life can be given here.  His writings on various subjects of tropical medicine and his tremendous energy were a great help Sir Patrick Manson in the controversial but successful attempt to set up the London School of Tropical Medicine at the Albert Dock and in laying the foundation of the Colonial Medical Service.

The medical disasters of the Boer war emphasised the need for better organisation of the army medical services, largely along the lines proposed by Cantlie. Together with Manson and Ross, Cantlie was instrumental in founding in 1907 the present Royal Society of Tropical Medicine. Through their friendship with Sun Yat Sen the Cantlies were caught up in the political turmoil following the China-Japan war and the proclamation of the first Republic of China. Soon, however, all the efforts had to be concentrated on the medical needs of the first world war. Some of the jealousies and personal conflicts between the professional nursing services and the civilian Voluntary Aid Detachment are well described. We also learn about certain little known aspects of the Belgian King Albert I Hospital in Rouen, of which Mabel Cantlie was commandant. After the war Cantlie continued with his work for the disabled and developed a liking for some quite sound but unconventional lectures and writings. The press had a field day in describing him as “John Knox in a frock coat with a touch of Harry Lauder.” Mabel Cantlie’s death in 1921 broke his heart and five years later Sir James, after returning to his beloved Scotland, passed peacefully away.

This book is much more than a story of the life of a remarkable man and his equally remarkable wife, told reverently and well by their affectionate granddaughter. It is a well researched, valuable contribution to medical history generally and particularly to the history of the first aid movement, Army Medical Services, and the progress of tropical medicine in Britain. The book is well printed and lavishly illustrated. A few wrong or misspelt medical terms (ovarsectionomies, asepticism, epithedorinden, colotomy) are but minor blemishes of this excellent biography.

L.J. Bruce-Chwatt, “Remarkable Contributions to Medicine”, British Medical Journal
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