In October 2016, work started at the Royal College of Surgeons Library and Archive on arranging and cataloguing the correspondence collection of surgeon Thomas Goldie Scot. While the collection comprises some medals and a small collection of surgical instruments, priority was given to the substantial correspondence, on account of the incredibly rich historical insight they offer. As an Archives and Records Management student, with a History background, I was especially excited to work with this collection – I’ve been able to follow Thomas Goldie Scot’s interactions with his family and friends, his experiences as a newly-qualified surgeon (one faced with outbreaks of unfamiliar diseases away from home), while simultaneously developing my skills as an archivist.
Thomas Goldie Scot MD LRCSEd was born in Madras on 17 July 1820, to William Scot and Helen Scot (nee Goldie). His family, on his mother’s side, were based primarily in the counties of Kirkcudbrightshire and Dumfriesshire, with records showing that his ancestors were living in the area from at least the 1640s. His family appear to have been based in the Haddington area of East Lothian. Goldie Scot’s family home of Craigmuie, in Kirkcudbrightshire, was situated just north west of Loch Urr and was described as a “small but neat mansion with offices, a garden and a considerable tract of land attached” (Kirkcudbrightshire OS Name Books, 1848-51, vol. 41). A large portion of the correspondence received from his family are written either at Craigmuie, or refer to the home, and often go into detail about the health of nearby villagers.
Goldie Scot’s own family history is rather illustrious. On his mother’s side, his grandmother Helen Lawson (1752-1829) inspired Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian; his great grandfather was John Goldie (1708-1776), Commissary of Dumfries; and his great-great-great grandfather was Sir Alexander Baronet Gordon (1650-1726), a prominent Covenanter who also inspired a character in Scott’s The Battle of Bothwell Bridge. On his father’s side, his aunt, Margaret Lindsay Scot, married David Skirving, son of the songwriter Adam Skirving (1719-1803) and half-brother to the artist Archibald Skirving (1749-1819). Thomas Goldie Scot’s cousin was the elder Robert Scot Skirving (1821-1900), father to the surgeon of the same name; the younger Robert rose to eminence in Australia, at the turn of the 20th Century. The Scots, therefore, had ties to a number of well-known and well-regarded families in Scotland’s south-west, members of which are often referred to within this collection’s correspondence
Having gained his MD at the University of Edinburgh in 1841, writing a thesis titled “On apoplexy, its varieties, diagnosis and treatment”, Thomas Goldie Scot – that same year – achieved his Licentiateship of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and then accompanied the 9th Lancers on their voyage to India. The resulting correspondence includes accounts from Goldie Scot to his parents and brothers, covering the voyage, his boat journey from Calcutta to Cawnpore, as well as marching from Cawnpore to Ferozepore, before sailing to Sukkur in Scinde. It was in Sukkur that he joined his regiment, the 13th Highland Light Infantry, as Assistant Surgeon; shortly after his arrival, in a letter to his father, he mentions that “many have died” from “severe fever”, and states that
“It appears that of 168 men who were sent here [in 1842-43], quite healthy, […] of these 85 have died, and of the rest, there are only two men who are not affected with organic disease. All the rest are unfit for anything, and have either enlarged spleens or livers” (5 January 1844)
India Service and Disease
In the letters between Goldie Scot and his father, in the early stages of his career, we see the development of Goldie Scot’s surgical pursuits – and a kind of mentoring from father to son. For example, in one letter from William Scot to his son, dated 25 July 1842, the younger surgeon is advised to gain “all the knowledge [he could] concerning [cholera]”, as its danger was “often aggravated by injudicious treatment”. Four months later, in November, reporting on a cholera outbreak in his regiment, Thomas Goldie Scot pays special attention to incidents of fatalities that occurred 4-6 hours after the first appearance of the disease, and in January 1843, his father asks how his opinions on cholera are developing. This sharing of knowledge and medical theory between father and son is even more notable when we consider William Scot’s own reputation as a surgeon. Serving in the Madras Medical Service between 1802 and 1835, he was tasked by the Madras Medical Board to collect and document the “various observations ” regarding cholera, as a result of the 1818-19 epidemic. With a view to publish a report on the matter, Scot sent requests to “all surgeons of the [Madras] presidency”, and collected not only medical information of the troops, but weather conditions dating back half a decade, ultimately completing his work in 1824 (Report on the Epidemic Cholera, as it has appeared in the Territories subject to the Presidency of Fort St. George) His assessment of the evidence provided by other surgeons, the medical records made available by the colonial authorities, and analysis of “traditional Indian medical writings” that may have unknowingly referred to cholera, led Scot to redefine – and identify different strains of – the disease. His son notes his reputation in a letter dated 25 November, 1842, reporting that a Dr. Leckie of Edinburgh thinks that the work by William Scot on cholera is “by far the best on the subject”.
The correspondence between Thomas Goldie Scot and his father also addresses a variety of illnesses, diseases, and other medical concerns, such as:
- typhus fever;
- apoplexy (following on from Thomas Goldie Scot’s own 1841 MD thesis on the subject);
- the theory of hydropathy;
- the effect of “low-quality” food on rates of illness;
- observations and remedies regarding the younger Scot’s own rheumatism;
- the distribution of duties among assistant surgeons
In the correspondence, there are also thorough details regarding the numbers of officers, assistant surgeons, and surgeons in the Indian Service, in addition to thoughts on the easiest path of promotion through the ranks. This is great insight to how both military and medical career progression are discussed in the mid-19th century, and also how knowledge or guidance regarding overseas posts are passed from generation to generation.
In addition to Goldie Scot’s early career in India, the collection also contains letters detailing his observations while at Shorncliffe Military Hospital in Kent, in 1857, which he describes as “on a Grand Scale – detached & close to the sea […] fitted with all the modern appliances & instruments”. Further, there are letters from William and Helen Scot relating to his time with the 48th Regiment, in Corfu, just prior to serving with them during the Crimean War.
Personally, my favourite finds in the collection have been the brief but evocative commentaries regarding a variety of contemporary political situations, expressed in casual correspondence between parents and son; for example, references to the resignation of Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, and the impact of the Corn Laws on trade and morale in Scotland. These are a brilliant reminder that family letters can serve as excellent source material for on-the-ground perspectives of contemporary events, and should not be dismissed as miscellany or ephemera. The collection also contains letters between Thomas Goldie Scot’s 18th century ancestors; particular highlights include the letters between John Goldie, Robert Wardlaw and John Waugh, regarding intelligence relating to the Jacobite Rebellion and the Carlisle Occupation of 1745-6.
The collection will soon be fully catalogued and available through the RCSEd online catalogue, as well as being accessible on the Archives Hub. Look out for announcements soon regarding the completion of the Goldie Scot catalogue.
Hannah Henthorn, RCSEd