Physician to the King

This week’s blog focuses on the papers of the famous surgeon Sir James Rögnvald Learmonth (1895 – 1967) which are currently being catalogued by archive assistant Stephen.

Learmonth was born in Kirkcudbright and graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1921. In 1924 he was awarded a Rockefeller medical scholarship and spent a year at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Learmonth was later invited to go back to the Mayo clinic as a permanent member of the clinical staff from 1928 – 1932. Returning to Scotland in 1932, he was appointed as regius professor of surgery at the University of Aberdeen - the professorship selected by the King. In 1939, he was appointed professor of surgery at the University of Edinburgh and in 1946, regius professor of clinical surgery. This meant that he could be called upon to treat the King, particularly when he visited Scotland. Therefore, from 1932 Learmonth started keeping newscuttings of George V and later George VI (there is no mention of Edward VIII), charting some of their health problems. In 1949 Learmonth conducted a lumber symphathectomy on George VI to improve blood supply to the monarch’s foot. For this, Learmonth was made Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO) and the collection includes copies of letters written by George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth, thanking him for his help.
Learmonth, centre, at Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland, April 1955
After George VI died in 1952, Learmonth continued to be available for service to Elizabeth II and was appointed an extra surgeon to the Queen in Scotland from 1960. One of the cuttings books contains an invite to the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Phillip Mountbatten in 1947, now Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip. Other cuttings and photographs present include Learmonth’s visits to Norway and France for medical conferences, and obituaries relating to colleagues.
Royal wedding order of service, 1947
In his later years, Learmonth was greatly respected by the medical community and some of the papers include details of visits to New Zealand and Canada in 1954 to inspect medical facilities. The April 1967 edition of Mayo Alumnus, included in this collection, contains a series of correspondences between Learmonth and the editor where he offers to write an article on his scientific philosophy though he thinks it ‘would be a trifle old-fashioned’ since he has been retired for ten years. The editor assures him that what he says will be read with interest and Learmonth’s article follows in that edition. Learmonth was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away on 27 September 1967, but his legacy remains in his papers (Acc 06/15) and case notes held at LHSA.