Roll of Honour

Captain (Temporary Commission)

John Glaister


From 1899 to 1962, the Regius Chair of Forensic Medicine at the University of Glasgow was the domain of a father and son who became household names. John Glaister Senior (1856-1932) was a brilliant young doctor whose experiences as a Police Surgeon in Glasgow was a prelude to a celebrated career in Forensic Medicine and Public Law. His textbooks on Jurisprudence, Toxicology and Public Health secured his academic reputation, while his dazzling career as a medical detective, appearing as an expert witness in the High Court in dozens of high profile murder cases brought him fame at home and abroad.

Memorial chapel at the University of Glasgow
The Memorial Chapel at the University of Glasgow

His application of science to material evidence, and his pithy style in court combined to make him a larger than life character to the general public as well as to fellow professionals. For John Glaister Junior, born in Glasgow on 31st May 1893, the second son of John Senior and Mary Scott Clarke it could have been an impossible act to follow, but he brought further distinction to the family name.

�Young John�, as he was known, was brought up in Glasgow at the family home at 3 Newton Place. Summers were spent in Drumfriesshire at their Thornhill residence. He was educated at the High School of Glasgow before going on to study Medicine at the University of Glasgow. Although he did not carry off the armloads of prizes that his father had, he did well.

Perhaps fortunately, his best performance was in the class his father taught. In 1913 he took tenth place and a 2nd Class Certificate in Medical Jurisprudence and Public Health. He graduated MB ChB in March 1916. A cadet in the Officers Training Corps, he was commissioned to the RAMC as a temporary 2nd Lieutenant in May 1916 and went off to war.

Even before graduation he was attached to the First Line Military Hospital in Springburn, where, under Professor Kennedy, he had administrative and medical charge of seventy beds. In the army he qualified as an instructor in anti-gas training, teaching and administering on courses at Ripon and Aldershot, where several thousand men underwent training. Glaister Junior saw active service in field hospitals and clearing stations in France and Palestine, and was in charge of the Medical Division, comprising about six hundred beds at the Egyptian Stationary Hospital, Ludd, Palestine.

Returning to England, he became Officer-in-Charge of the Out-Patient Department of York Garrison Hospital before working as Officer-in-Charge of demobilisation of the RAMC units for the Northern command. In August 1919, he was demobilised. He finished the war as a Captain.

In 1918 John had married Isobel Rachael, daughter of the late Sir John Lindsay, Town Clerk of Glasgow and after the war he returned to his native city to pick up the threads of his career. In the next few years, while working as an Assistant, later a full Lecturer in Forensic Medicine, he equipped himself with some impressive qualifications in Medicine, Science and Law, the scaffolding of success in his father�s business. He graduated MD with Honours in April 1926, with a thesis on The Results of Experimental Work Upon the Serological or Precipitin Test for the Detection of Blood and took a DSc in October 1927 for his work A study of hairs and wool belonging to the mammalian group of animals, including a special study of human hair.

The younger Glaister was working on areas of science that were already paying dividends in court. In April 1926 he was also called to the Bar of the Inner Temple, Inns of Court, London. His future was planned meticulously. In addition to his work at University, he was a Justice of the Peace, lectured to the Glasgow Police Force, acted as Medico-Legal examiner to the Corporation of Glasgow, and continued to apply himself to a large volume of laboratory examinations in criminal cases. Like his father before him, he was now making frequent appearances as an expert witness in court. In 1927, aged 35, he applied for the Regius Chair of Forensic Medicine in the University of Edinburgh, but the time was not right and it went to the more experienced Sydney Smith, then Professor of Forensic Medicine at Cairo. That left a vacancy in Egypt that young John now stepped into.

As Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Egypt at Cairo from 1928-1932 he gained a great deal of experience of criminal work and the performance of autopsies, as well as more rarefied examinations of tissues from mummies. In 1931 he returned to Glasgow to succeed his father as Regius Professor, an event that attracted considerable press interest. John Glaister Senior had little time to enjoy his own retirement and his son�s success. He and his wife died on 18th December 1932, within four hours of each other, in an influenza epidemic that swept Glasgow.

John Glaister Junior held the chair until his retirement in 1962. He edited and improved new editions of his father�s widely used Textbook of Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology, published numerous academic papers and continued the family business of solving crime by the application of the most up to date scientific methods to the evidence. He was a very accomplished and articulate expert witness. His most famous trial was the notorious Ruxton case where his skills, and those of a highly capable scientific team, showcased how far forensic science had developed as it unravelled the evidentiary complexities in a case in which a doctor had murdered his wife and nanny. It was a technical masterpiece, recorded by Glaister in a subsequent academic book, though it was newspaper reports and huge public interest in the case that made him famous.

Glaister did not shrink from publicity and had a taste for telling the stories of cases in which both he and his father had been involved. He wrote for the popular press, published his autobiography, attempted a novel, and worked closely with the scriptwriters who made a television series about his father in the 1960s, entitled The Expert and starring Marius Goring. It was difficult to be the son of a famous father but he rose to the challenge and brought forensic science to forensic medicine. He died on 3rd October 1971, aged 79. He was survived by his widow, Isobel and two daughters.

Comments and Citations

University of Glasgow Registry, Faculty and General Council Records

Anne Crowther and Brenda White, On Soul and Conscience the Medical Expert and Crime (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1988)

Papers of John Glaister Jun