The Village Doctor

Diana O’Niell

Apart from the minister and the schoolmaster, the most important person in Dalserf when Andrew Shaw lived there was the village doctor, John Rae Rogerson. Born 18 ­October 1859 in Lochrutton, near Dumfries, Kirdcudbright, he must have possessed a keen mind and an innate drive to succeed. Both qualities came into play in preparing for his medical career. In l887, he earned (with ‘lst Class Honours’) the triple diploma at the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons of Edinburgh and the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. He was also a Licentiate of Midwifery, which would serve him well in his future rural practice in Dalserf. In l890, Dr. Rogerson became a Diplomate in Public Health and a Fellow of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, with ‘high commendation’. This was no ordinary village doctor.

Nor did Dr Rogerson have an ordinary village wedding when, in 1894, he married Isabella Jones Wallace at the Windsor Hotel in Glasgow. One of his friends wrote a poem on that occasion describing the doctor as ‘a man whose heart is kind and loyal, and good, and true’. After the wedding, the couple moved into a ten-room house called Whinknowe, near the colliery settlement of Ashgillhead, in Dalserf Parish. The map on page 214 shows the house close by Manse Brae, where Andrew Shaw’s family lived, and not far from Dalserf village and the church. Only a few miles away from Whinknowe lay Larkhall, where Dr Rogerson treated ­patients in his consulting rooms at Charing Cross. He also met patients at a pub in Shawsburn called the Rat Pit, despite his wife’s objections.

The Rogersons had two daughters. The eldest, Lily, was born at Whinknowe in 1897. Sometime after the 1901 Census, the family moved up the road to a two-storey house on Smiddy Brae called Dumcrieff, shown in the picture postcard, stamped 1905, on the opposite page. The doctor stands next to his bicycle and Lily sits in a chair outside the entry gate. The second daughter, Honoria Isobel Margaret, was born at Dumcrieff in 1907.

Margaret married Grant Joaquin Mitchell, but Lily died before having the chance to marry. Janet Murray, an elderly villager, remembered the story like this: Lily had served as an ambulance driver in the First World War. When she returned to Dalserf, her parents gave her a new bicycle. One day, while riding in Manse Brae, she was accidentally thrown from the bicycle, fracturing her thigh bone and her upper-arm bone. Blood poisoning (septicaemia) developed, and she ultimately died in Glasgow, in 1920, at the age of twenty-three. Her parents blamed themselves for giving Lily the bicycle, and they often commiserated with Mrs Murray’s mother, whose own daughter Agnes had died in childbirth.

Despite this seemingly unbearable family tragedy, Dr Rogerson went on to spend his life ­taking care of others in Dalserf Parish. Mrs Murray recalled that he was a tall bearded gentleman, strong and well-built, with blue eyes and, in later years, grey hair that diminished with time. The Hamilton Advertiser described him as ‘a well-known athlete [who] took part in local sports, and did much to foster a love for all outdoor pastimes and exercise’. Indeed, the beloved doctor was ‘interested in everything that concerned the welfare of the parish’, concluded the Advertiser. The villagers of Dalserf depended on their neighbour at Dumcrieff who, according to Mrs Murray, rode his bicycle to patients’ houses all over the parish. Originally making his rounds on horseback, he became a ‘favourite visitor’ in Dalserf, Ashgill, Netherburn, and Rosebank.

The peripatetic doctor also travelled around Dalserf Parish performing his duties as a certified factory surgeon. Hired by factory inspectors, Dr Rogerson examined ‘children and young persons’ to make certain that ‘disease or bodily infirmity’ did not prevent their doing the work required in factories and workshops. When industrial accidents happened, his duty was to ­‘proceed thither with the least possible delay’, treat the injuries, make a full investigation, and send the report to the inspector. He was also in charge when cases of lead, phosphorus, and ­‘arsenical’ poisoning—or, heaven forbid, anthrax—occurred in a factory.

The Lanarkshire mines, where the men in Andrew Shaw’s family worked, needed the doctor’s services in a more urgent and dramatic way. As surgeon for Longlee and other collieries, Dr Rogerson rushed to the miners’ homes after they had been brought back from the pits with legs broken by falling coal or by unsafe equipment. Deaths at the nearby collieries required his official examination and subsequent documentation. One account in the Lanarkshire, in December 1896, described a tragic incident at No. 1 Pit at Cornsilloch Colliery:

Ninnes [a miner], who worked at the Splint coal seam, had been preparing a shot, while another man working near him had one ready at the same time. After setting fire to the shots, both retired some distance away. One was heard to go off, and Ninnes, concluding that it was his own, went to see how successful it had been. The explosion, however, had been in the other man’s, and Ninnes’ own going off while he was going into the place, he got the full force of the shot about the head and chest. He was found lying half buried among the coal brought down. . . . Dr Rogerson, who examined the body afterwards . . . was of the opinion that death must have been instantaneous.

Less dramatic, but surely at times no less tragic, was Dr Rogerson’s work in public health. The local government board appointed Dr Rogerson the parochial medical officer and public vaccinator for Dalserf. In the latter capacity, it fell to him to make certain that children received their smallpox vaccinations before the age of six months by making house calls at the parents’ request. Several days after the initial visit, the doctor would return to the child’s home expecting to find a blister at the vaccination site, indicating the success of the procedure. To qualify for the post of medical officer, Dr Rogerson had to practise both medicine and surgery; he could retain this job until he died, resigned or was proven insane. The local government board paid the doctor a regular salary, plus set fees for certain cases such as compound fractures, amputations and hernia operations. In extraordinary circumstances, such as a difficult childbirth, he could be paid more. But if the patient did not survive the operation by thirty-six hours, only half the fees were paid.

As the medical officer of Dalserf and Shawsburn, Dr Rogerson also had the duty of giving information to the board about any pauper under his care. People classified as ‘pauper lunatics’ were examined by the doctor in order to decide if they should be detained in workhouses, or if about to be sent to an asylum, whether or not they could be moved in safety. Any such person not in an asylum or licensed house was required to be visited by the doctor once a quarter.

Another of the doctor’s official duties as medical officer was to sign birth certificates, which he did for Andrew Shaw in 1892. His signature also appears on death certificates, including those of Andrew’s grandparents James (1899) and Agnes (1918), and that of the minister of Dalserf church, his good friend Dr Rorison (1907). But of course it was from birth to death that Dr Rogerson’s help really mattered to the villagers. He went to patients’ homes to deliver babies, although most babies were born with the assistance of midwives. He removed tonsils—and even pulled teeth. Villager Alex Brown remembered that, without the use of anaesthetic, the doctor would pin the struggling patient to the floor while extracting the aching tooth with pliers. He also prescribed quaint remedies, such as a daily spoonful of port wine for anaemia.

Medical care was also given by two nurses who likewise travelled by bicycle, recalled Mrs Murray. One was the general district nurse for Dalserf Parish, Nurse Perry, whose duties ­included midwifery. The other, Nurse Freebody, worked for Lord Newlands, who retained her services for the inhabitants and employees of Mauldsie Castle at Rosebank. She was, however, at liberty to help the villagers of Rosebank and Dalserf when she was needed. Dr Rogerson himself attended the first and the second Lord Newlands as their private physician.

For serious medical problems, patients could go to four general hospitals in Glasgow, where ambulances at that time were horse-drawn. In 1901, when a smallpox epidemic in Glasgow threatened the safety of patients in the city hospitals, some county hospitals were ‘set aside for smallpox alone’. One of these was located near Larkhall, southeast of Burnhead, in a copse of trees on the Monkey Road, according to Mrs Murray’s son John.

The Dalserf Fever Hospital, as it was called, can be seen on the 1898 Ordnance Survey Map as ‘Dalserf Hospital (Infectious Diseases)’. In 1901, it was dedicated solely to the treatment of smallpox for over a month. Six patients were admitted: one died and the other five were discharged, probably by Dr Rogerson, who was on the staff at the hospital. The isolation of ­infected patients in the county hospitals meant that smallpox had a ‘comparatively slight hold [on] the County of Lanark’, stated the Annual Report of Medical Officer. However, although only six cases of smallpox were reported in Dalserf Parish (pop. 4,088) in 1901, there were over a hundred cases of scarlet fever and enteric (typhoid) fever that year. Those diseases, along with measles, caused some schools to be closed for as long as six weeks.

In addition to fever hospitals, another example of specialisation was the tuberculosis hospital, reported John Murray. At a time when antibiotics were not available, these hospitals provided patients with the healthy diet and fresh air thought to encourage recovery. But for their day-to-day medical care, the villagers in Dalserf relied on local midwives, on Nurses Perry and Freebody, and on their dedicated medical practitioner, Dr John Rogerson. The good doctor was still living in Dalserf at Dumcrieff when he died on 7 December 1933 at the age of seventy-four, having taken care of the villagers—including Andrew Shaw—for the greater part of his life.

Houston, Texas

February 2006