David Douglas Cunningham

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David Douglas Cunningham.jpg
Carte de visite of David Douglas Cunningham FRS, photo by Maull & Fox

David Douglas Cunningham FRS (29 September 1843 – 31 December 1914) was a Scottish doctor and researcher who worked extensively in India in various aspects of public health and medicine. His studied the spread of bacteria and the spores of fungi through the air and also made studies on cholera.[1][2]

He was born in 1843, in Prestonpans, the third son of the Rev. William Bruce Cunningham (1806–78) and Cecilia Margaret Douglas (1813–98), daughter of David Douglas, Lord Reston (1769–1819), the heir of Adam Smith. He attended the Queen Street Institution in Edinburgh, and graduated with Honours in Medicine from Edinburgh University in 1867.[1]

He entered the Indian Medical Service in 1868, and was selected to conduct a special enquiry into cholera by the Secretaries of State for India and for War. He studied for a time in Munich, and arrived in Calcutta in January 1869. From 1874 he was appointed as a special assistant to the sanitary commissioner of India.[3] In June 1879 he was appointed Professor of Physiology in the Medical College, Calcutta, where he was much engaged in the investigation of cholera. There were multiple competing theories on the nature of diseases in general and cholera in particular. There was a "miasma" theory that certain locations had bad air that led to disease and there was a "contagion" theory that particles of causal agents entered the body to cause disease and could be carried by a person. In addition there were questions on whether the two theories may both hold and that cholera was caused by a fungus-like organism that produced spores that would be distributed in the air. Cunningham examined many of these theories in India.[1] He was appointed Surgeon Major of the Bengal Medical Service by 1888 and Honorary Surgeon to the Viceroy of India. He was selected as the Naturalist for the Tibet Mission of 1886[3] and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on June 6th, 1889.[4] In June 1893 he was made a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire.

Cunningham made pioneering studies in aerobiology. He made use of the aeroconiscope, a device with a vane that pointed a sampling cone towards the wind with a sticky slide placed behind a funnel. The sticky slide would then be examined for aerially dispersed biota. His studies on the microbes, spores and pollen in the air of Calcutta were published in 1873.[1][5] Cunningham's other major and official work was in studying the nature of spread of cholera. Their official work however did not progress and the project was terminated and in 1879, Cunningham took up an academic position as Professor of Physiology at the Calcutta Medical College. He was also able to pursue his interests in botany being temporarily appointed in 1880 as a superintendent of the Calcutta Royal Botanic Garden.[2] In 1883, Robert Koch visited India as part of a German cholera research committee and was able to isolate the comma bacteria Vibrio cholera from the autopsy of a cholera victim. This led to the British government being forced to investigate the matter. A committee made up of two leading pathologists, Heneage Gibbes and Emanuel Klein, was set up and they visited Calcutta in November 1884. Cunningham worked with Klein, helping obtain samples from the same water storage which Koch had declared as being the source of the contagion affecting victims. Klein was able to examine and confirm that the bacteria in the water were similar to those in the bacteria in the stools of cholera victims but he was not sure about whether it caused cholera. The results of Koch however were enough for European governments to declare a quarantine on ship-borne visitors from India. The ensuing debate on the financial losses that would be caused led to the British government's decision to increase spending on research facilities and in December 1884, the Sanitary Commissioner was granted 15,000 rupees to set up a laboratory with Cunningham being made the director.[2]

He retired due to ill-health in 1898. He was appointed Honorary Physician to George V.

He was unmarried, and died on 31 December 1914 at his home in Torre Mount, Torquay.



  1. ^ a b c d Chanda, Sunirmal ; Eric Caulton (Dec 1999). "David Douglas Cunningham (1843–1914): a biographical profile". Aerobiologia (Springer) 15 (4): 255–258. doi:10.1023/A:1007698905558. 
  2. ^ a b c Isaacs, J.D. (1998). "D D Cunningham and the Aetiology of Cholera in British India, 1869-1897". Medical History 42 (3): 279–305. doi:10.1017/s0025727300063997. PMC 1044036. PMID 9796575. 
  3. ^ a b Secretary of State for India in Council (1905). The India List and India Office List for 1905. London: Harrison and Sons. p. 474. 
  4. ^ Anonymous (1890). Fellows of the Society. December 1, 1890. Royal Society. p. 10. 
  5. ^ Banik, Swapna & Chanda, Sunirmal (1992). "Airborne pollen survey of Central Calcutta, India, in relation to allergy". Grana 31: 72–75. doi:10.1080/00173139209427829. 
  6. ^ "Author Query for 'D.D.Cunn.'". International Plant Names Index.