James Learmonth

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Sir James Rögnvald Learmonth KCVO CBE FRSE FRCSE (1895 – 1967)[1] was a Scottish surgeon who made pioneering advances in nerve surgery.[2]

Early years[edit]

James Rögnvald Learmonth was born on 23 March 1895 in Gatehouse of Fleet, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland.[3] He first studied at Girthon School where his father, William Learmonth, was headmaster, later moving to Kilmarnock Academy.[4][5] From there, he went to the University of Glasgow to study medicine, starting in the autumn of 1913.[2] He completed his first year, but further study was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I.[2] He served in France on the Western Front as a commissioned officer with the King's Own Scottish Borderers.[3] By the end of the war, he had attained the rank of Captain.[2]

Medical career[edit]

After the war, Learmonth returned to the University of Glasgow and added to the honours he had received in his first year, graduating in 1921.[2] He was considered the "outstanding medical student of his year",[5] being awarded the university's Brunton Medal.[2] He then continued his medical training at Glasgow's Western Infirmary during 1921 and 1922.[5] This was followed by a period of research that led to a Rockefeller Scholarship at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, USA, for the year 1924–5.[5]

Following his research work in the USA, he returned to Scotland and resumed his work at the Western Infirmary in Glasgow.[5] He also continued to study and in 1927 he obtained his Masters in Surgery (Ch.M.) and in 1928 he become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.[1] His research work led to him being invited back to the Mayo Clinic for a second time, and he worked there for the next four years.[5]

In 1932, Learmonth chose to give up his practice in the USA and returned to Scotland to take up the position of Regius Professor of Surgery at the University of Aberdeen, a position he would hold for the next six years until 1938.[5] He then held professorships in surgery at the University of Edinburgh from 1939 until his retirement in 1956.[1] The first was the Chair of Surgery (1939), which he then held jointly with the Regius Chair of Clinical Surgery (1946).[1] One of his students at Edinburgh during this period was Sheila Sherlock, who became a pioneering hepatologist.[6]

In 1949, Learmonth performed a lumbar sympathectomy on King George VI to treat the king's vascular disease (thromboangiitis obliterans).[1][7] For this service, Learmonth was made a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO), being "knighted in the king's bedroom".[5] He was also appointed as a surgeon to the King in Scotland, and following his death as a surgeon to the new Queen in Scotland from 1952 to 1960.[3]

Awards and honours[edit]

Learmonth's awards and honours include being appointed Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1944),[2] Commander of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (1945),[3] honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (1949),[1] and chevalier of the Légion d'honneur (1951).[1] He was also awarded the 1951 Lister Medal for his contributions to surgical science.[8] The corresponding Lister Oration, given at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, was delivered on 4 April 1952, and was titled 'After Fifty-Six Years'.[9]

Learmonth was also recognised with honorary Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) degrees from the University of Glasgow (1949),[2] the University of Strasbourg,[2] the University of Paris,[2] the University of St Andrews,[1] the University of Edinburgh,[1] the University of Oslo,[3] and the University of Sydney.[3] He was also made honorary Fellow of the American College of Surgeons (1950),[3] the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (1954),[3] and the Royal Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow (1954).[3]

Final years[edit]

Learmonth retired in 1956 at the age of 61.[5] He moved to Broughton with his wife, Charlotte Newell Bundy, whom he had met and married in 1925 during his first period working at the Mayo Clinic.[1] Charlotte was the daughter of F. G. and Nellie Bundy, of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, USA.[4] They had two children, a son and a daughter.[3] In his retirement, Learmonth worked as an assessor for the University of Glasgow.[5] Early in 1967, Learmonth, who was a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer; he died at his home in Broughton later that year on 27 September 1967.[1][5]

Obituaries were published in the Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England,[1] The British Medical Journal,[3] The Lancet,[10] and the Glasgow University Gazette.[2] One of the tributes in The British Medical Journal stated that Learmonth "ranks with William Mayo, Harvey Cushing and Geoffrey Jefferson as one of the surgical giants of our time".[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "In memoriam Sir James Learmonth, K.C.V.O., C.B.E., Hon. F.R.C.S. (1895-1967)". Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 41 (5): 438–9. 1967. PMC 2312018. PMID 4863114. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Biography of Captain James Rognvald Learmonth, The University of Glasgow Story, the University of Glasgow website, accessed 12/02/2011
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Obituary Notices". BMJ 4 (5987): 58–61. 1967. doi:10.1136/bmj.4.5570.58. PMC 1748843. PMID 20792222. 
  4. ^ a b 'LEARMONTH, Sir James (Rögnvald)', in Who Was Who, A. & C. Black, 1920–2008; online edition by Oxford University Press, December 2007, accessed 14 February 2011
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Learmonth, Sir James Rögnvald (1895–1967), James Kyle, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2010, accessed 12 Feb 2011
  6. ^ Dame Sheila Sherlock, Peter Scheuer, The Guardian, Saturday 19 January 2002
  7. ^ Chair of Surgery, Edinburgh School of Surgery, University of Edinburgh, accessed 12/02/2011
  8. ^ "Lister Medal". Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 8 (5): 353. 1951. PMC 2238588. PMID 19309908. 
  9. ^ Learmonth, J (1952). "After fifty-six years". Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 10 (5): 277–92. PMC 2377486. PMID 14934003. 
  10. ^ "James Rögnvald Learmonth". Lancet 2 (7519): 781–3. 1967. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(67)91999-X. PMID 4167268. 

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