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Biographical entry Pitcairn, Sir James (1776 - 1859)

Knight Bachelor, 1837; Member of the Corporation of Surgeons, June 7th, 1798; FRCS Dec 11th, 1843, one of the original 300 Fellows; MD King’s College, Aberdeen.

18 July 1776
12 January 1859
General surgeon


Born on July 18th, 1776, the eldest son of the Rev Robert Pitcairn, of Brasenose College, Oxford, Vicar of English Combe, Somerset, and Incumbent of Spring Chapel, London. The family originated in Pitcairn, Fifeshire, and to it belonged the two well-known physicians – William Pitcairn, MD (1711-1791), Physician and Treasurer to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and President of the College of Physicians; and his nephew, David Pitcairn, MD (1749-1800), his successor as Physician to St Bartholomew’s.

James Pitcairn went to school in London, and then was a pupil of Sir Everard Home at St George’s Hospital at the same time as Benjamin Brodie. Having graduated MD at Edinburgh, he returned to become house surgeon at St George’s Hospital. He was thereupon selected by Sir Everard Home for special service at the request of the Commander-in-Chief, was gazetted at once a Staff Surgeon on Aug 30th, 1799, and was sent in 1814 to Holland, where he served to the end of the campaign, and then with the Russian Contingent at Guernsey. In 1800 he went to Ireland to the charge of the 56th Regiment, which was soon dispatched to the Mediterranean under Sir Charles Stewart, and joined the Army under Sir Ralph Abercrombie on the expedition to Egypt where he served to the close of the campaign. He returned to Dublin in 1802 in charge of the Recruiting Staff, and organized arrangements in view of the threatened invasion of England by Napoleon.

From 1804-1815 he supervised the encampments formed at the Curragh and in the Connaught District of Ireland. In 1816 his services were transferred to Munster, and at Cork during thirty-one years he personally superintended the arrangements for foreign service and the embarkation. The position was full of difficulties and obstacles which his good sense and affable nature tended to lessen and remove. He was knighted by Lord Normandy in 1837 for professional services. In 1847 he succeeded Dr George Renny as Director-General of the Medical Department for Ireland until 1852, when he retired with the rank of Inspector of Hospitals. The Medical Officers of the Army presented him with a service of plate and an address.

It was said of him that he discouraged criticism of the absent with such interruptions as: “Never let your mouth be opened unless for good; if you cannot speak to the credit of a man, keep it shut. This has been my rule through life and I have never had cause to regret it.” He died at 3 Haddington Road, Dublin, on Jan 12th, 1859.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Lancet, 1859, i, 100, including Sir James Pitcairn’s reply to the Complimentary Address. Johnston’s RAMC Roll, No.1891. Surgeon General A Gore’s Story of our Services under the Crown, 139].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England