James Robert Wallace (?-1903)

My last blog post looked at the Indian Medical Record, a journal aimed at independent practitioners in British India. It was founded and edited by James Robert Wallace, a Calcutta-based doctor who campaigned vigorously for medical and social reform.

IMR cover

The IMR‘s cover proudly proclaims Wallace’s editorship.

Little is known of Wallace’s early life and training, though his post-nominal letters reveal that he gained an MD from Brussels and that he was a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and the Society of Apothecaries in London.

It was not until the 1890s – when he launched the Record – that his name began to feature regularly in the medical press. He became known not only for his editorship of the journal but for his involvement in a series of energetic and high-profile campaigns.

Wallace lobbied for a system of medical registration to be introduced in India. In the absence of an official register (as in Britain), he produced The Medical Register and Directory of the Indian Empire from 1892. This ambitious compendium aimed to ‘clear the way for systematic regulation of medical practice in India’. By providing a list of regular or orthodox practitioners, it hoped to afford ‘the scattered members of the profession […] definite knowledge of one another’s existence’.[1] Reviewing the work, the BMJ wrote that it was ‘on the whole very creditable to [the author’s] enterprise and industry’.[2] Wallace brought his proposal for a system of registration to the attention of professional networks in England, including the General Medical Council and the Royal College of Physicians.[3] Though his efforts were usually well-received, medical registration was not introduced into India until 1912, almost a decade after his death.[4]

Wallace also agitated for an Indian Medical Association (IMA), which was established in 1895 along similar lines to the British Medical Association. At its first Annual General Meeting, the IMA stated that it was intended for ‘every section of our profession recognised as “qualified”’,[5] a term designed to compensate for the lack of an official Medical Register. Wallace later became the IMA’s Secretary and the Record became the Association’s mouthpiece.

In both medical and social affairs, Wallace campaigned for the rights of Anglo-Indians. This term typically referred to those of British descent born and raised or long-domiciled in India, and sometimes to those of mixed racial heritage. In 1897, Wallace visited England to agitate for greater rights for this community on behalf of the Anglo-Indian Associations. He spoke to MPs and members of Government at the India Office and War Office. In particular, he highlighted the way in which Anglo-Indians were excluded from imperial appointments and called for them to be treated as British. (Issues that were also covered in the Record.) After a six-month campaigning stint, Wallace’s return was celebrated with a gathering of the local European and Anglo-Indian community at the Bombay Town Hall.[6] The BMJ commended Wallace’s ‘laudable ambition’ and ‘attitude of energy and self-help’.[7] As explored in my previous post, however, while Wallace called for greater recognition for Anglo-Indians and Eurasians, his attitude towards ‘natives’ was vexed and deeply problematic.

Alongside his campaigns, Wallace also pursued his medical practice and recorded his clinical observations. These were often printed in the Record and also circulated via British medical journals.[8]

News of Wallace’s difficult personal life also appeared in the medical press. In 1893, the BMJ reported that his wife had given birth to a son,[9] while in 1896 and 1899, the Lancet noted the births of his daughters.[10] However, less than two months after this second announcement, tragedy had struck. The BMJ reported that Wallace’s ‘much-loved daughters’ – Ruth Elizabeth (aged 9) and Phoebe (aged 3) – had been killed by a landslip during ‘the disastrous cyclone and floods’ in Darjeeling, Bengal.[11] In all these instances, the news was reported in the journals’ ‘Births, Marriages, and Deaths’ columns, which charged a fee for inserting items. One wonders whether it was Wallace himself who sought to share both his personal joys and sorrows with his professional peers in Britain.

Births, Marriages and Deaths

The Lancet reports the deaths of Wallace’s daughters.

It is possible to reconstruct aspects of Wallace’s professional and personal life through a patchwork of sources across the medical press. He seems to have been a tireless and zealous campaigner, much like Thomas Wakeley, editor of the Lancet. Similarly, Wallace’s passionate and sometimes vituperative tone attracted criticism. In 1891, the Lancet printed a letter from Wallace on debates about how best to monitor a patient’s progress under anaesthesia (Wallace favoured checking respiration over the pulse). An editorial note inserted afterwards suggested that a certain portion of Wallace’s letter had been ‘omitted’ since it was ‘couched in language more vigorous than polite’.[12]

Wallace’s close involvement in medical journalism and professional societies, and his active campaigns for medical and social reform show his interest in building networks and promoting opportunities for his fellow Anglo-Indians. When Wallace died in 1903, a large group gathered under the auspices of the Imperial Anglo-Indian Association to celebrate his humble beginnings, his ‘untiring zeal and energy’, and his ‘constant and abiding interest in the welfare of the domiciled Anglo-Indian community’.[13]

[1] ‘Reviews and Notices of Books: Our Library Table’, Lancet, 19 March 1892, p. 64.

[2] ‘Reviews: The Medical Register and Directory of the Indian Empire’, BMJ, 18 February 1899, p. 415.

[3] ‘Royal College of Physicians of London’, Lancet, 6 November 1897, pp. 1212-13 (p. 1212).

[4] It was instituted first in Bengal before being extended to other Presidencies in 1914.

[5] ‘The First Annual General Meeting of the Indian Medical Association’, IMR, 16 January 1895, pp. 52-4 (p. 52).

[6] ‘Medical News: The Anglo-Indian Associations’, Lancet, 6 November 1897, p. 1226.

[7] ‘The Anglo-Indian’, BMJ, 5 March 1898, p. 645.

[8] See, for example, ‘Retention of an Almost Full-Term Placenta for Two Months’, Lancet, 4 July 1891, p. 30.

[9] ‘Births, Marriages, and Deaths’, BMJ, 28 October 1893, p. 978.

[10] ‘Births, Marriages, and Deaths’, Lancet, 1 August 1896, p. 357 and 23 September 1899, p. 868.

[11] ‘Births, Marriages, and Deaths’, Lancet, 21 October 1899, p. 1140.

[12] James R. Wallace, ‘Correspondence: The Use of Chloroform’, Lancet, 13 June 1891, p. 1139.

[13] ‘The Late Dr. James Robert Wallace, M.D., F.R.C.S.’, IMR, 4 November 1903, pp. 1144-6.

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