One of Britain’s first black British consultants, the pioneering neurologist James Samuel Risien Russell has been commemorated with an English Heritage London blue plaque.
Dr Risien Russell, a Guyanese-British physician, neurologist, professor of medicine, and professor of medical jurisprudence, played a critical role in establishing the British school of neurology in the 1890s and was revered in his day.
A brilliant researcher, with a flair for scientific experimentation, Risien Russell advanced the knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and nervous system, and his track record as a teacher, researcher and physician is remarkable by any standards, but all the more so considering the racial prejudice of the era.
Born in British Guiana in 1863 to engineer and sugar magnate the Hon. William Russell and his wife, who was of African descent, and of whom little is known, Risien Russell graduated from the University of Edinburgh as a Doctor of Medicine in 1883. He was appointed senior house physician at the National Hospital, Queen Square, London, the world’s first specialist neurological hospital, in 1888 and rose to the hospital’s management board in 1903. He also became professor of medical jurisprudence and subsequently professor of medicine at University College London, serving as president of the neurology section of the Royal Society of Medicine after 1907.
Russell had strong and far-sighted opinions on the desirability of treating many people suffering from mental illnesses outside of institutions and confinement, and chaired the National Society for Lunacy Law Reform in the 1920s. Unafraid of controversy, in 1924 he pronounced that no-one was ‘absolutely sane’.
From 1908 to 1918, Russell also served as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps and developed a special interest in shell shock.
He died ‘very suddenly’, aged 75, on 20 March 1939 in his consulting rooms, between appointments.
The plaque has been placed on the house Wimpole Street which served as J. S. Risien Russell’s home and private practice from 1902 until his death in 1939.