Biography of Surgeon (Prob) Archibald Joseph Cronin
Archibald Joseph Cronin, best known as the creator of Dr Finlay’s Casebook, was a Glasgow medical student and a Sub–Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the Great War. He was born on 19th July 1896 at Cardross, Dunbartonshire. When he was seven years old his father, Patrick, a commercial traveller, died.
His mother, Jessie Montgomerie, moved back to her parents’ home and worked first as a travelling saleswoman and then as a health inspector to support her son. Young Cronin attended Dumbarton Academy before going on to the University of Glasgow to study medicine. At the time he matriculated, in October 1914, just months after the war had begun, he was 18 and living at his family home at 29 Esmond Street, Yorkhill. It would not be long before he felt torn between his studies and war service.
He was a very good student and his name appeared frequently on the prize–list as the recipient of merit certificates. Thus he accumulated merits in Zoology and Physiology in his first two years, and after an absence during the session 1916–1917 for naval service, he returned to the prize–list, with a commendation in Clinical Surgery, and second–class certificates in Systematic Surgery, Materia Medica, the Practice of Medicine, Midwifery and Psychological Medicine.
When he graduated on 6th October 1919, it was with a Commendation, among the top two or three in his year. In addition he had managed to fit in a period of service as a probationary surgeon in the Naval Reserve. His account of his life in Adventures in Two Worlds is semi-fictional, and allowances may be made for this when he describes his ‘weary and dangerous years’ on the destroyer Melampus:
"darting across, a solitary decoy, to Terscelling, Zeebrugge and Jutland, through uncharted minefields and submarine-infested shallows, half–frozen by ice-spray, sleeping in sea boots and a life–saving jacket, riven by sea-sickness and the firm belief that any moment we might find ourselves blown to smithereens."
His misery could not have been too prolonged, however, and did not seriously impede his studies, as he graduated five years after beginning his medical course in 1914. After the war he worked as a ship’s surgeon, and took various hospital jobs until taking up his first practice in a mining town in Wales, an experience which, together with his own childhood in the west of Scotland, furnished him with the gritty social realism from which he drew in his fiction.
He married Agnes Mary Gibson, also a doctor, whom he met when they were both students at Glasgow. He worked with a passion and commitment that were much in evidence in his semi–autobiographical work, The Citadel (1937). In 1924 he was appointed as medical inspector of mines for Great Britain, his work there leading to two reports on dust inhalation and first aid in mines.
On top of the very heavy demands on him that such a practice made, he continued with his academic work, obtaining a Diploma in Public Health (London) in 1923, and Membership of the Royal College of Physicians in 1924. The following year he graduated again from the University of Glasgow. On 3rd July 1925 he was awarded an MD for his dissertation, entitled "The History of Aneurysm. Being a Contribution to the Study of the Origins, Growth and Progress of Ideas in Medicine".
Evidently his examiners were bemused by his erudition, some of it not well referenced. At a meeting of the Medical Faculty on 12th May 1925 it was resolved to write to Cronin, asking him ‘to what extent the writings were consulted by himself in their original form and in what libraries’. His answers satisfied them completely and he was awarded the degree with ‘High Commendation’, the highest grade possible.
Between 1926 and 1930 he practised in London, but his medical career was about to end. He suffered poor health and went off to the West Highlands to convalesce and do some writing. The result was Hatter’s Castle, published in 1931, a portrait of a megalomaniac Dundee hatmaker that reflected the grim realism injected into Scottish Literature by George Douglas Brown in The House With the Green Shutters. It launched Cronin on a new and highly lucrative career as a novelist.
Literary critics have rather dismissed him as a ‘middle brow’ writer of page-turners, lacking in depth. The reading public loved his books. Though his plots were often melodramatic, they were great stories, well told. Hollywood’s film industry was quick to spot their potential to hold cinema audiences enthralled. The Stars Looked Down, The Citadel, The Spanish Gardener, and The Keys of the Kingdom were some of the ‘films of the books’ that attracted talented directors and actors, including Robert Donat and Gregory Peck. Mass audiences followed the television series of Dr. Finlay’s Casebook, with its couthy portrayal of medical practice in Tannochbrae.
Cronin left Britain in 1939 and made his life in the United States, where he continued to flourish as a writer. American sales of his books topped seven million copies in 1958. Many of his characters struggled with the demands of religion and conscience in their lives, perhaps reflecting Cronin’s own background. His mother and father came from different religious traditions and Cronin’s Catholic faith had to run the gamut of life in a non–denominational school in the west of Scotland. The lesson he took away from it and into his fiction was the need for tolerance and common ground among people of all faiths.
Archibald Joseph Cronin, Glasgow doctor and best–selling novelist, enjoyed a long life and died of bronchitis in Glion, Switzerland, on 6th January 1981. By that time his books were perceived as old–fashioned. For most of his writing life, however, he had quite uniquely touched the hearts of a huge reading public, nostalgic perhaps for a sense of community and goodness in the face of war and rapid social change.