Wednesday, 29 March 2023

Dr James Wallace of Greenock

Dr James Wallace, Medical Officer of Health for Greenock and Justice of the Peace in the town died suddenly and unexpectedly of heart failure in October 1904 aged 79 years.  He was born in Edinburgh in 1826 and studied medicine at Glasgow University, qualifying in 1850.  He worked for a short while at Glasgow Royal Infirmary and then became house surgeon at Greenock Infirmary.  In 1852 he began his own successful practice in Greenock.  He married Mary Cecilia Williamson in 1857.  Mary was the daughter of Greenock lawyer George Williamson and his wife Jean McLean.  Her brother was Greenock historian, George Williamson.

Dr Wallace held many important offices in the town, becoming a member of the Parochial Board dealing with the “outdoor poor”.  In 1857 he was appointed in charge of the poorhouse which was then located in Captain Street.  When Smithston was built he was elected chief medical officer.  He was a tireless worker.  In 1873 he was appointed Burgh Medical Officer of Health “… a position which he filled with single ability and advantage to the town.  He never spared himself in promoting the public health of Greenock”. (Greenock Telegraph).  When legislation came into force which gave power to Local Authorities to insist upon householders reporting to the sanitary office all the cases of infectious disease in families, Dr Wallace was to the forefront in promoting this despite strong opposition. 

R M Smith in the “History of Greenock" states that “To him more than to any other single man were due the great strides in the application of medical and sanitary sciences and the immunity from epidemics that marked the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  He was involved with Craigieknowes Hospital (smallpox) for infectious diseases and the Sanitary Office in the town.

Source - Greenock Burns Club

In 1875  Artisans' and Labourers' Dwellings Improvement Act was brought into force and once again Dr Wallace was very active in this regard, giving evidence before Parliamentary Commissioners dealing with the matter.  He was greatly committed to improving conditions in the town.  Dr Wallace suggested “the widening of East Quay lane on the east, Low Vennel on the west, the whole line of Shaw and Dalrymple Streets lying between these two lines, and sweeping away many dens and rookeries which have been too long a reproach and standing danger to the community”.  This work was undertaken and led to the formation of Wallace Square now known as Wallace Place in Greenock taking over from the overcrowded and insanitary habitations.  R M Smith wrote -  Wallace Square is a testimony to the real desire of former civic authorities to leave the lower part of the town sweeter and better than they found it.

In 1902 on the occasion of his jubilee as the Parochial Board and Parish Council medical officer he was presented with his portrait in oils.  He worked tirelessly to help the people of Greenock, seeing them through epidemics of cholera, smallpox and typhus.  He also held the position of Admiralty Surgeon for Greenock.

However he also had many interests outwith the medical field.  He was a member of Sir Michael Street UF Church.  In politics he was a strong Liberal supporter  and President of the Liberal Association.  He “… was one of those men who would allow no official connection to stand between him and an honest manly expression of his opinion.   In 1872 he became a member of the first Greenock Burgh School Board .  He was one of the founders of the Greenock Choral Society and a member of the Philosophical Society as well as President of the Greenock Library in Union Street.

Source - Watt Institution

Central Library, Wallace Place, Greenock

Dr Wallace and his wife had two daughters – Ann Jane Wallace (1858-1913) and Mary Cecilia (1864-1939).  They also had two sons who were, in many ways, a tribute to their parents.  William Wallace (1860-1940), doctor and talented musician who married in 1905 Ottillie Helen McLaren, sculptor (daughter of Lord John McLaren).  The second son was George Williamson Wallace (1862-1952), barrister and Charity Commissioner.

The naming of Wallace Square, or Wallace Place as it is known today, is a tribute to a man who throughout his 50 years of service to the people of Greenock worked tirelessly to improve the sanitary conditions of the town.

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