010: Dr James Samuel Risien Russell (1863-1939)

Risien Russell, 1906
Dr Risien Russell

The  “dark skin”  and “mixed racial stock” of Demerara (now: Guyana) born James Risien Russell did not prevent his professional successes in Britain, where he was a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps 1908-1918, professor at University College Hospital from the 1890s, serving on the management board of the Hospital for Nervous Diseases until 1928, and author of well-regarded articles in the medical press. His high-society private patients included explorer Sir Henry Stanley and best-selling novelist Mrs Humphry Ward.

His sugar planter father William Russell sent him and brother William (born 1867) to the Academy, Dollar, Scotland in 1880. He studied at Edinburgh University 1882-1886, adding a gold medal-wining M.D. (1893) to his M.B., C.M. (1886), qualifying M.R.C.P. (1891) then becoming a Fellow (1897). Awarded a B.M.A. scholarship (1895) he studied in Berlin and Paris. His first hospital appointment was in Nottingham, then he worked at the Brompton tuberculosis hospital and St Thomas’ (London). He was a staff member of University College Hospital, then a professor from the 1890s when he was “the best known of the younger neurologists”. Eight research articles by 1893 had doubled by 1908; he also contributed to reference works, notably on nervous disorders in Allbutt & Rolleston’s System of Medicine.

Skilled at the diagnosis and management of diseases of the nervous system, his private practice was at 44 Wimpole Street from the 1900s. Married to Ada Gwenllian Michell in Kenwyn, Cornwall in July 1892 (her father was a JP in Truro, her eldest brother studied at Cambridge, then Barts, became an FRCS (Eng) and MD [1899] and died of wounds received in France in July 1916; she had at least 4 sisters and the report of the wedding also names two Michell males as the British consuls in St Petersburg and Christiania [Oslo], perhaps her uncles), their daughter Marjory Gwenllian Russell was born in London 28 October 1893. In 1915 he was divorced by Ada, and in 1924 he married widow Ada Hartley who, with her son Anthony, survived him. Marjory died aged 104, having been an entertainer touring the world. When her parents had a house in Pirbright she had played with Denzil, the son of Henry Stanley.

He opened the neurological section of the B.M.A.’s July 1910 conference, speaking on epileptics. He was often a witness in legal cases involving lunacy, notably Harnett v. Bond (1924-5), and chaired the National Society for Lunacy Law Reform in the 1920s. Macdonald Critchley had been his house physician from 1923, and recalled his “dark skin” and thought “he was one of the most important and colourful figures within the medical profession of Great Britain” (The Ventricle of Memory, New York, 1990).

Dinner parties with a small string orchestra, a Constable painting on the wall, and a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce car, Risien Russell was a solid and respectable professional in London for four decades. A 1960 study of the National Hospital where he also taught described him as “of mixed racial stock” with a private practice comprising, unusually, of “a large proportion of chronic psychotics and psycho-neurotics” (Queen Square and the National Hospital 1860-1960, pages 100-101). Queen Square includes a portrait photograph (also published in his obituary, The Lancet, 1 April 1939, page 790) and a group photograph of 20+ men taken in 1906 (above).

His brother William died “somewhat suddenly” in London in mid-December 1915. Enter “find a grave” into your search engine and then when requested #71099799 you will see the Highgate cemetery memorial stone, with Dr J S R Russell’s name on the reverse and William’s on the side. He was a lawyer (a K.C.) of the South African bar and had been based in Bulawayo (Rhodesia/Zimbabwe). See The Times death announcements 11 December 1915, page 1. The memorial names just the two brothers and despite being on a substantial plot, no other burials took place. The eldest of the brothers ran the Guiana enterprises and Gordon was a civil engineer.

Kathleen Chater’s Untold Histories: Black people in England and Wales during the period of the British slave trade, c. 1660-1807 (Manchester UP, 2009) says “they were not enslaved, stigmatised outsiders but woven into English society”. Like Guyana-born, Oxford-educated lawyer Edward Nelson who was elected a councillor in Hale, Cheshire from 1913 until his death in 1939, Dr Risien Russell was not a stigmatised outsider. Chater questioned conventional assumptions: in the light of Risien Russell so should those seeking to understand the black strand in British society from the time of Victoria to the post-war migrations from the West Indies.

Russell is detailed in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography September 2010; it already contains entries on Nelson, and doctors Harold Moody, John Alcindor, and James Jackson Brown. Brown’s son Leslie, born London 1909, told me about Risien Russell.

Investigations at Queen Square have since been initiated and can be seen on:


In 2020 English Heritage agreed to place a blue wall plaque on the Wimpole Street building. It was unveiled in June 2021:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.