Biography of Captain James Rognvald Learmonth
Born of an Orcadian father and with Viking blood in his veins, James Rognvald Learmonth had a name that seemed to invite the distinction he would bring to it. His father, William, was the headmaster of Girthon School in Gatehouse of Fleet, Kirkudbrightshire, where he and his wife Katherine had made their home and brought their two sons into the world. James, the eldest, was born on 23rd March 1895. Clever and industrious, he went to school first at Girthon and later at Kilmarnock Academy. James began his studies for a medical degree at the University of Glasgow in the autumn of 1913 and he was one of many whose scholarly lives were put on hold while they went off to fight a war. At the end of his first year he was commissioned in the King’s Own Borderers and served with them in France.
A number of things were already evident. He was clearly a quite outstanding student. His first year ended with distinctions in all parts of his first Professional Exam and he took the class medal in Zoology, the ‘Joseph Black’ medal in Chemistry, the medal in Medical Physics, first place in Practical Anatomy and the Arnott Prize for General Physics. There were many who might have argued that he would have been more valuable as a trained doctor than as an infantryman in the trenches. He went willingly to the Front, and once there, put his mind to making improvements. He devised an anemometer to measure wind force and acquainted himself with the technologies of gas warfare to the point of being able to become an instructor to the troops at home. He finished the war as Captain Learmonth. His fine mind was not for closeting in the ivory tower.
James returned to his studies after the war and took them up again in the same style. It would be tedious to list all his prizes, save to note that they included the medals in Physiology, Midwifery and Clinical Surgery, along with a clutch of First Places and certificates. On 18th July 1921, he graduated MB ChB with Honours, and was awarded the Brunton Medal. His classmates chose as his quotation in the Final Year Dinner book, ‘A progeny of learning’. And so he was.
After graduation he did his house-officer jobs at Glasgow’s Western Infirmary and shortly after that was offered a Rockefeller Scholarship at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. There he was able to develop his interests in neurosurgical and neurophysiological research as well as meet and marry Charlotte Newell of Vermont (in 1925). Indeed he returned to the Mayo after a period in Glasgow and joined its staff from 1928-1932. In 1927 he had graduated for a second time from Glasgow, this time with a CM, a Masters in Surgery, awarded with high commendation for his thesis ‘On Leptomeningiomas (Endotheliomas) of the Spinal Chord.’
James Learmonth returned to Scotland in 1932 to take up the Regius Chair in Surgery at Aberdeen. Just as the Second World War began, he moved to Edinburgh University, to hold the Chair of Systematic Surgery, to which he added the Regius Chair of Clinical Surgery in 1946, a position from which he retired in 1956. In addition to being an excellent administrator and teacher, he pioneered many of the techniques that have led to his being recognised as the first surgeon to devote himself to peripheral nerve surgery.
His research was world class, and recognised as such by the world in the many honours heaped upon him. He graduated again from Glasgow, with an Honorary LLD in 1949, one of several such accolades from Universities that included Paris and Strasbourg. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1944, and a Lister medallist in 1951. The State also honoured him with a
Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1945 and a knighthood, Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO), in 1949, conferred upon him in the bedroom of King George VI, after he had operated upon him.
Retiring at sixty-one in 1956, he lived with his family near Biggar and in addition to gardening and music, took on the role of an assessor to the University Court. He died of lung cancer on 27th September, 1967. Friends and colleagues remembered him as a colossus, even among a generation which wasn’t short of such a breed. Emeritus Professor W J B Riddell, whose own biography is included on this Roll of Honour remembered his huge integrity and outstanding qualities in a tribute to his friend and mentor in the Glasgow University Gazette.
A younger colleague who also went on to leave his mark on Glasgow medicine, Professor Abe Goldberg, remembered him with more than a touch of awe as a ‘surgical Churchillian figure, speaking in language that Churchill would have approved.’ His loyalty and encouragement of others, and his character were as much revered as his intellect.
University of Glasgow Registry, Faculty and General Council Records
Glasgow University Gazette No 55, December, 1967
James Kyle, ‘Learmonth, Sir James Rognvald (1895-1967)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004, online)