Sir James Reid

23 October 1849 – 28 June 1923

Son of the local Ellon doctor, James Reid was born in 1849 and educated at Aberdeen Grammar School. He had an outstanding academic career, graduating from Aberdeen University MA (1869) and MB CM with highest honours in 1872. He spent two years in general practice in London before taking up a post as tutor to the son of the Governor of Carinthia in 1874, in order to learn German to a fluency sufficient to allow him to undertake postgraduate study in Vienna, then an international centre of medical excellence.
He spent 1876 and '77 in Vienna undergoing training in gynaecology, ENT, dermatology, syphilis, ophthalmology and general surgery. Dr Reid returned to Scotland in 1877 and joined his father's GP practice in Ellon. When Queen Victoria was looking for a new Scottish medical attendant who was conversant in German, James Reid was chosen. Dr Reid's biographer Michaela Reid describes that what appealed to the Queen were his " shrewdness tact honesty and a great sense of humour" while Victoria's biographer A.N. Wilson writes "It was one of her shrewdest appointments, since Reid was an excellent doctor - indeed, almost ludicrously overqualified for his role - the soul of discretion and an affectionate man who quickly saw what was undoubtedly always there, the loveable side of his royal employer's character."

In 1881, owing to the illness of Dr. William Marshall, the resident physician to Queen Victoria, he was given medical charge of the Royal Household at Balmoral. The post became permanent on Marshall’s death, and he moved with the Court to London. Here he worked under Sir William Jenner’s direction, and in 1887 was appointed Physician-Extraordinary to the Queen. Two years later, on the failure of Jenner’s health, Reid succeeded him as Physician-in-Ordinary.

The Queen was very preoccupied with her health and Dr Reid saw her several times each day. Victoria respected his political neutrality and complete discretion, so she confided in him regarding all personal and even political matters. Victoria's trust in Dr Reid's absolute confidentiality was such that she used Dr Reid to communicate directly with politicians on highly sensitive non-medical matters, such as persuading Rosebery to accept the position of Prime Minister on Gladstone's retirement. Politicians in turn used Dr Reid as a means of communicating with the Queen and in the later years of her reign access to the Queen through Dr Reid was the route most trusted by the Queen.

The recent film "Victoria and Abdul" presented a highly sympathetic picture of Victoria's Indian "Munshi" Abdul Karim and portrayed the Royal Family's and Household's opposition to him -including that of Dr Reid - as being purely based on racism and snobbery (and also had Dr Reid as an Edinburgh University graduate!) In fact, today we would regard Victoria as being a vulnerable adult victim and Karim's treatment of her is classic of elderly abuse and financial exploitation.

Dr Reid recognised this and through addressing the issue with the Queen and confronting Karim with the truth of his abusive behaviour, he was able to limit Karim's behaviour to a less dangerous level although Abdul Karim remained in post until the Queen's death.

Dr Reid ensured that he maintained medical expertise by additional studies at Charing Cross Hospital so that in 1889 he passed the membership exam of the Royal College of Physicians and in 1892 was elected a Fellow. He kept up interest in Aberdonian medical matters and in 1892 arranged for Princess Louise to open the new Aberdeen Royal Infirmary buildings at Woolmanhill. With absolute discretion he earned the trust of the Royal Family through treating or advising on sensitive matters such as Princess Beatrice's miscarriage and subsequent successful deliveries, Princess Helena's opium misuse, Crown Prince of Germany Friedrich's laryngeal cancer and his wife Princess Vicky's breast cancer.

Dr Reid's high degree of medical skill, ethics, confidentiality and professionalism resulted in a major and lasting improvement in the status and dignity of medicine among Britain's ruling class. This meant that the Queen deferred entirely to Dr Reid in the Honours system pertaining to medicine. Ambitious society doctors would try to influence Dr Reid in their favour but he regarded such approaches as wholly inappropriate and only recommended medical honours to the Queen if the candidate had made a genuine and important contribution to patient care. Dr Reid recognised medical innovation and distinction and sought to promote medical excellence through the Honours system.

In 1897 Queen Victoria created Dr Reid a baronet, which further elevated the status of medicine as a profession. He was created CB (1889), KCB (1895), and GCVO (1901). He remained the Queen's personal physician until her death. During her final illness in early 1901 Sir James Reid managed her end of life care in a manner which would be recognisable today as meeting the high standards palliative medicine demands. Lord Rosebery wrote to Sir James afterwards praising "the service you have rendered to the Queen and so to your country."

King Edward VII retained Sir James as Physician-in-Ordinary and also had him appointed Physician-in-Ordinary to his son, the future King George V. He was no longer a regular member of the Court, however, and took a house in London. He became consulting physician to the King Edward VII Sanatorium at Midhurst. Like his mother, Edward VII also sought Sir James' help in especially confidential delicate non-medical matters, such as in 1904 when the son of the Balmoral factor Dr Profeit, who was in possession of a collection of extremely sensitive letters from the Queen to his father on the subject of her highland servant John Brown, tried to blackmail the King by threatening to reveal their contents publicly. The King entrusted Sir James to negotiate the return of his mother's letters to the King, which Sir James successfully managed. Dr Reid never revealed the contents of the correspondence, which Edward VII destroyed.

During King Edward's final illness, Sir James was called to care for the king.

His role as medical adviser diminished but he remained a friend of the family and was called for when Prince Albert needed help in 1914. Three weeks after the outbreak of the First World War, Sir James Reid received notification from London telling him ‘to go to Wick and meet Prince Albert (‘Bertie’) who has appendicitis and is to be landed there from the Collingwood tomorrow.’ On board the hospital ship Rohilla, Sir James sailed with the Prince for Aberdeen. Travelling via Scapa Flow they passed the battleships and destroyers awaiting action. The Rohilla being too large to enter Aberdeen harbour, Prince Albert was disembarked in a cot by crane into a tug and brought ashore. The Prince had suffered abdominal symptoms for much of his life but this time, in 1914 he had his appendix removed by Sir John Marnoch, Professor of Surgery. The future king made a good recovery. Telegams and letters were exchanged between Sir James and George V, keeping the king informed about his son’s health. This correspondence is in the Medico-Chirurgical Society’s archive.

In his obituary in The Times, King George V's private secretary Lord Stamfordham wrote of Sir James' "honesty", "straightness and integrity of purpose" which "scorned all intrigue or self-seeking" "Beloved and respected by the medical hierarchy, he stood in their estimation for all that is honourable, independent and true"

Reid served in a volunteer battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, reaching the rank of surgeon lieutenant-colonel. He was a man whose tact and wisdom eminently fitted him for a career that demanded a high degree of both qualities. He married in 1899 the Hon. Susan Baring, daughter of Baron Revelstoke, one of the Queen’s Maids of Honour, and had two sons and two daughters.

Image: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Biography prepared from the nomination made by Dr A Fraser to the University of Aberdeen 525 Alumni project.