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date: 27 February 2024

Cantlie, Sir Jamesfree


Cantlie, Sir Jamesfree

  • Mark Harrison

Cantlie, Sir James (1851–1926), physician and medical administrator, was born on 17 January 1851 at Keithmore Farm, Dufftown, Banffshire, the eldest son of William and Janet Cantlie. Growing up on his father's farm, he absorbed a strong sense of duty and obligation, and the ethics of the Scottish clan remained with him throughout his life. Often in the course of his long medical career he would offer his services free of charge, and he took a great interest in the welfare of those less fortunate than himself. The forthright manner in which he was later to express many of his views on social issues can also be attributed to the formative influences of his childhood, especially that of his father, who was known as the 'biggest Tory in Banffshire', on account of his massive size and independent, though conservative, views. Cantlie resembled his father in both these respects, and his broad shoulders, strong arms, and deep chest made him a powerful boxer and batsman. His pride in his Scottish ancestry also showed itself in his enduring interest in the music, poetry, and language of his homeland.

The young James Cantlie received his education first at Botriphnie's School in the nearby village of Drummuir and then, from the age of thirteen, at Milne's Institution at Fochabers, Speyside. Two years later Cantlie passed the bursary examination for the University of Aberdeen, where he matriculated in 1866. At Aberdeen Cantlie studied both sciences and arts; he graduated in 1871 MA in natural science. By this time he had taken the decision to enter the medical profession and to this end he began training at Aberdeen. After one year he left to join his friend J. Mitchell Bruce at the Charing Cross Hospital, London, for the summer session; he returned to Aberdeen to graduate MB CM in 1873 with honourable distinction.

Cantlie next returned to London to take up a post as instructor in anatomy at the Charing Cross Hospital, where he later became demonstrator in anatomy, house physician, house surgeon, and surgical registrar successively. During his time there he developed an interest in first aid, as the hospital received many accident victims. This led him to join the newly formed St John Ambulance Association, in which he became an instructor. His interest in first aid also extended to the battlefield, and in 1882 he joined the London Scottish Volunteers as a surgeon; this service convinced Cantlie that medical aid for non-regular forces was too inflexible, owing to the strong attachments that developed between medical officers and their regiments. A more flexible system was needed, whereby a pool of medical labour would be available for work wherever it was most needed. This was the inspiration behind the Volunteer Medical Staff Corps (established in 1883), which was the brainchild of Cantlie and the army medical reformer George Evatt.

Later in 1883 Cantlie, together with eleven other civilian doctors and six army regulars, volunteered for service in Egypt, where their knowledge of first aid was needed in the treatment of victims of a cholera epidemic. This marked the beginning of Cantlie's lifelong interest in tropical diseases and whetted his appetite for medical work overseas. Before leaving for Egypt, Cantlie became engaged to Mabel Barclay Brown (d. 1921), whose father was also a volunteer with the London Scottish. The couple were married in 1884 and had four sons, one of whom—Neil—went on to become director-general of the Army Medical Service.

While in London, Cantlie also developed an interest in the physical condition of the urban poor. He was appalled by the sanitary conditions in the area around Charing Cross and became convinced, too, that lack of fresh air and exercise was leaving an indelible mark on the population—a taint transmitted from one generation to the next. These views were expressed in a controversial paper read at the Parkes Museum in 1885, entitled 'Degeneracy among Londoners', which argued that the poor health and physique of many Londoners was in large part attributable to the absence of ozone from the air they breathed, since overcrowding and industrial pollution had diminished the gas in cities. Cantlie's opinions were widely discussed in the press, in which he was portrayed as a somewhat eccentric and ridiculous figure.

It may have been the unfavourable response to his paper that led Cantlie to accept an invitation from Dr Patrick Manson to replace him at his practice in Hong Kong, though by this time Cantlie's interest in medicine in tropical regions was already firmly established. After arriving in Hong Kong with his wife early in 1887 he threw himself into his work with characteristic vigour. He was actively involved in all aspects of medical work in the colony, including public health, and established the Vaccine Institute, which afterwards provided Hong Kong with a regular supply of high-quality vaccine against smallpox. Cantlie was also involved in fighting an epidemic of bubonic plague in 1895, which experience later led to his appointment as an adviser to the India Office after bubonic plague arrived in Bombay in 1896. However, Cantlie's most lasting achievement in Hong Kong was the establishment of a medical college for Chinese students, located at the Alice Memorial Hospital. One of the first to graduate from the college, which opened in October 1887, was Sun Yatsen, who in 1911 became the first president of the Chinese republic.

In 1896, after nine exhausting years in Hong Kong, Cantlie returned to London to take the chair of applied anatomy at the Charing Cross Hospital. Soon afterwards he was informed that Sun Yatsen had been kidnapped and imprisoned at the Chinese legation in London and that he was to be sent to China to face trial (and almost certain execution) for sedition. Cantlie immediately organized a watch on the legation, which ultimately involved the Metropolitan Police. At the same time, news of the kidnap reached the press, which mounted a successful campaign for the release of Sun Yatsen. Sun remained a friend of the Cantlies until his death in 1925.

By virtue of his experiences in Hong Kong, Cantlie had gained a reputation as an expert in tropical diseases and he began to build up a successful private practice in this field. He was famed particularly for his treatment of tropical liver abscess, on which he wrote many articles. His interest in tropical medicine also led to his decision to found, with Dr William Simpson (a former health officer in Calcutta), a new journal devoted to the subject: the Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, which was first published in August 1898. Cantlie remained an editor of the journal for twenty-three years. He also assisted Patrick Manson in his efforts to establish a school of tropical medicine in London. These efforts were successful and Cantlie became the first surgeon and lecturer in tropical surgery at the London School of Tropical Medicine, which opened in 1899.

Cantlie's return to London also reawakened his interest in the physical condition of the British people, and his reflections on this subject were published in 1906 under the title Physical Efficiency. In many respects the book was typical of the alarmist writings on physical deterioration which abounded in the period after the South African War, but some of the opinions expressed in it were rather idiosyncratic, even by the standards of the time. Among other things Cantlie believed that all prospective wives should be required to pass an examination in cookery before they could obtain a marriage licence.

Cantlie's other great, enduring commitment was to first aid and organizations for emergency medical aid. He continued his association with St John's and the volunteers, and he acted as an adviser to the War Office on the establishment of the medical section of the Territorial Force (later the Territorial Army), formed in 1907. During the First World War he and his wife also became commandants in the British Red Cross Society, which was charged with co-ordinating voluntary medical aid. As well as their duties with the Red Cross, the Cantlies found time to found a College of Ambulance (which continued in existence until 1923) and a humanitarian corps to aid those in distress because of disease or poverty. For these services Cantlie was made a knight of the British empire in 1918 and, in the following year, his wife was appointed OBE for her wartime work with Voluntary Aid Detachments under the Red Cross. In 1919 Cantlie also received an honorary LLD degree from the University of Aberdeen.

These honours marked the peak of Cantlie's career, after which his life was blighted by sadness and physical decline. Cantlie never fully recovered from his exertions during the war and from the death of his beloved wife on 21 December 1921. In 1925 he retired to live near his sister in Scotland and the following January he experienced a severe haemorrhage, which led to his being admitted to a nursing home in Aberdeen. After moving to a succession of nursing institutions, Cantlie died at Dorset Square, London, on 28 May 1926. He was buried at Cottered cemetery, Buntingford, Hertfordshire. His lifelong friend, Dr J. Mitchell Bruce, remembered Cantlie as 'essentially an inventor … a pioneer in things great and small' (BMJ, 5 June 1926, 972), and this is probably the best description of his long and varied career.


  • N. Cantlie and G. Searer, Sir James Cantlie: a romance in medicine (1939)
  • J. C. Stewart, The quality of mercy: the lives of Sir James Cantlie (1983)
  • BMJ (5 June 1926), 971–2
  • The Lancet (5 June 1926), 1121–2
  • J. R. Harris, ‘Sir James Cantlie (1851–1926)’, Journal of Tropical Medicine, 76 (1973), 185–6


  • Wellcome L., diaries, case books, and lectures
  • Wellcome L., papers relating to Sir James Cantlie and Lady Mabel Cantlie


  • H. H. Salomon, oils (after photograph), Wellcome L.
  • F. C. Stoate, photograph, Wellcome L.
  • photograph, repro. in Cantlie and Searer, Sir James Cantlie
  • photograph, repro. in Stewart, The quality of mercy

Wealth at Death

£721 6s. 6d.: administration with will, 23 Nov 1926, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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