RUSSELL, JS Risien (1863–1939)
Plaque erected in 2021 by English Heritage at 44 Wimpole Street, Marylebone, London, W1G 8SA, City of Westminster
Dr J.S. Risien Russell 1863-1939 Neurologist lived and worked here from 1902
JS Risien Russell was a pioneering figure in the emerging discipline of neurology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is commemorated at 44 Wimpole Street, where he lived and conducted his private practice from 1902 until his death in 1939.
EARLY LIFE AND CAREER
James Samuel Risien Russell was born in Demerara, British Guiana (now Guyana). His father, the Hon William Russell, was a wealthy sugar plantation owner and mechanical engineer born in Scotland. Very little is known about his mother, the Hon Mrs Russell, except that she was of African descent.
Russell was educated in 1880–82 at the Dollar Institution in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, before going on to study at the University of Edinburgh. In 1886–7 he undertook postgraduate work at a series of hospitals in England and also spent some time studying in Germany and Paris. With the support of his mentor, Sir Victor Horsley, founder of British neurosurgery, Russell was appointed senior house physician at the National Hospital in 1888. The National Hospital had opened in 1860 as the first specialist neurological hospital and was a place of pilgrimage for neurologists from many countries. Russell rose steadily through the ranks there, being appointed to the hospital’s management board in 1903.
Russell played an important role in the development of the discipline of neurology at the turn of the century. His legacy had been largely forgotten until recently, when research undertaken for the Windrush Foundation and by medical historians started to recover both his biographical history and pioneering work within the medical profession.
From the 1890s, Russell undertook a brilliant course of experimental work and by 1908 he had published more than 15 research articles. One landmark paper – on subacute combined degeneration of the spinal cord – is now understood to have advanced the knowledge of neuroanatomy and cerebellar physiology.
Around 1900 he was appointed professor at University College, London, and, after 1907, he served as president of the neurology section of the Royal Society of Medicine. According to one obituarist, his skills as a teacher and clinician and his ‘kindness and consideration for his juniors were a happy recollection and an inspiration to all who saw them in action’.
Russell was, however, unafraid of controversy. He became unpopular with psychiatrists for expressing his belief that patients suffering from psychosis were too often committed to asylums when they could be better cared for within their families, assisted by general practitioners. Less sympathetically, he also voiced views on the dangers of intermarriage between ‘neurotics’ and, in 1926, offered a damning indictment of the so-called ‘modern girl’. With no chaperone or restrictions on her freedom, he said, such women required alcohol and drugs to keep them going and became susceptible to neurosis, making them ‘unfit for motherhood and the duties and responsibilities of married life’.
Number 44 Wimpole Street was Russell’s family home and place of work from 1902 until his death in March 1939. With four storeys, twenty rooms and two entrances, the house was impressive even by the standards of Wimpole Street. In the family’s absence during the 1911 census it was run by a staff of six servants and a secretary.
The house was at the heart of London’s medical district, home to leading physicians and institutions, and Russell was ferried between appointments in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce or Bentley. Nearby was the Institute of Hygiene at 33–34 Devonshire Street, where Russell was a regular speaker from 1903, and the Royal Society of Medicine, of which he was vice-president and president of the neurology department.
According to the neurologist Macdonald Critchley, Russell’s consulting rooms were arranged so that he could see two patients at the same time and four patients per hour. Critchley remembered that before Russell remarried in 1924, he had entertained ‘generously en garçon’ and about twice a year held dinner parties for his fellow neurologists, in which 10 or 12 guests sat around a huge circular table in the dining room. Russell was, according to Critchley, a man of excellent taste, with elegant furniture and a painting by John Constable in the corner of a reception room.
During his time here, Russell was plunged into a personal scandal when it was reported in The Times that he had spent the night with an unidentified woman at the Great Northern Hotel, King’s Cross, in December 1913. He and his first wife, Ada (née Michell), divorced and he had to resign from University College Hospital and his clubs, as the affair ‘shook the whole of Harley Street’. The public furore apparently reduced the number of Russell’s patients – particularly his female patients – in the 1920s. He was remarried in Marylebone in 1924, to another Ada – Ada Clement (née Hartley) – the 42-year-old daughter of a Lancashire JP.
Russell died very suddenly, aged 75, on 20 March 1939, in his consulting rooms between patients. He was buried in Highgate Cemetery, and was survived by his wife, her son Anthony from her first marriage, and his daughter Marjory from his first marriage.