One of the ablest doctors to come from Aberdeen, James McGrigor was a founder member of the Medico-Chirurgical Society.
Known also as ‘The Father of the Army Medical Services’, James McGrigor started his career as a regimental surgeon before being put in charge of the medical services in the Peninsular War being fought against Napoleon. He improved the morale of the army so well with setting up field hospitals, keeping accurate case records and mentioning doctors in dispatches home that Wellington said of him:
"I consider him one of the most industrious, able and successful public servants I have ever met with."
As the wounded were transported to base hospitals on the backs of mules or in bullock carts they were moribund on arrival. McGrigor set up temporary hospitals near the front for treatment of short term casualties while relay stations helped the movement of severe casualties to base hospitals. He also segregated those with illnesses from those wounded, thus preventing the spread of disease. For the first time accurate reports were received about the numbers of wounded or sick so that the generals knew how many men were fit for duty. McGrigor persuaded the Duke of Wellington to mention the work of doctors in despatches home and all these measures improved the morale of the troops.
Meanwhile Napoleon had left his brother Joseph as King of Spain while he began his campaign against Russia. He had said to his troops ‘The English cannot hold the Peninsula. Half of the army is on the sick list!’. Thus when Wellington entered Paris, victorious over Napoleon’s army, McGrigor rightly shared in the glory.
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, McGrigor served as Director General of the Army Medical Department, remaining in this post until his retirement in 1852. Chief of the medical department of Napoleon’s army was Baron Larrey. Although on opposing sides, McGrigor and Larrey became friends and indeed Larrey was made an honorary member of the Aberdeen Medico-Chirurgical Society in 1817, two years after the battle of Waterloo. Like McGrigor, Larrey’s administrative abilities had helped improve the treatment of the French troops. However he had been able to introduce small lightweight transport to convey wounded troops from the frontline to the hospitals quickly. McGrigor had suggested similar conveyances to Wellington but they had been dismissed as impractical and liable to get in the way of fighting troops. It was several years before these ambulances were introduced to the British army.
As his careful note taking, organisational skills and attention to detail had brought McGrigor to the notice of the Duke of York, the head of the British army, he was sent to Portugal when Wellington asked for assistance in 1812. He found the army in disarray with more soldiers ill from disease and drink than from wounds and set about improving the morale of the army.
The Duthie Park obelisk stood outside Marischal College until the new facade of the College was built in 1906. There is also a commemorative plaque on Aberdeen Grammar School.