Meeting Report: The life and times of Sir John Richardson, our Forgotten Local Hero: doctor, explorer, and naturalist

28 February 2014
Brian Morrell (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Caerlaverock)

The Life and Times of Sir John Richardson, our forgotten local hero was the topic of the talk given by Brian Morrell of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Caerlaverock, to the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society.

Spitzbergen Barnacle Geese, having come close to extinction at 300 in the 1940s and now numbering 300,000, winter at Caerlaverock. Brian has paid four visits to their summer breeding grounds, which lie farther north than Alaska and Siberia. In modern times it was possible to fly straight to his destinations. Nowadays accoutrements for such expeditions include an electric fence, tepee and portable stove, plus of course a rifle because of the threat of encounter with a polar bear. Compare that with the conditions later in the talk experienced by Sir John Richardson in the course of the three expeditions he joined in the 1800s.

John Richardson (1787–1865), the eldest of 12 children, was born at Nith Place, Dumfries, on 5th November. His father, Gabriel (1759–1820), hailed from Kirkpatrick Juxta and his mother, Anne Mundell, came from Mouswald. The family settled at No 11 Nith Place. Gabriel, a brewer, produced a fine porter. The business, now demolished, survived until 1910/11. Gabriel was Provost of Dumfries. Anne lived to the age of 80 years. The family gravestone is in St Michael's Churchyard.

John, who was taught at home, began to read at the age of four. Robert Burns, resident nearby, visited the Richardson home regularly. He loaned John a copy of Spenser's Faerie Queene. Burns' son, Robert, was a friend and contemporary at Dumfries Grammar School.

Two days short of his thirteenth birthday John became an apprentice to his uncle, a surgeon, Dr James Mundell, at his High Street practice. Attached also to Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary, John would write up the Minutes of meetings and perform junior doctor services. He qualified as a surgeon at 19 years of age.

He joined the Navy as assistant surgeon and served on six ships; he rose to full surgeon on 'The Blossom'. He returned in 1812 to complete his M.D. at Edinburgh University. He married Mary Stiven in 1818.

The British Government offered £20,000 to the man who succeeded in finding the North-West Passage. Having no previous experience, Sir John Franklin decided to lead an expedition (1819–1822), which Richardson joined as a surgeon and naturalist. Landing in Hudson's Bay, the expedition set off on foot. Having run out of food, they were reduced to scraping lichen off rocks. While crossing a river Richardson lost the feeling down one side of his body. Hood and Richardson were on their own when they met up with Michel Terohaute, who appeared to have a supply of fresh meat. The suspicion was that he had turned cannibal. Michel shot Hood and Richardson thereafter shot Michel. Having traversed some 5,500 miles, Richardson returned to Chatham for a couple of years.

The second expedition (1825–1827), with Franklin was safer. As a naturalist Richardson was in his element identifying new species of insects, birds and plants: thus, for instance, Richardson's cackling goose (a sub-species of Canada goose), Richardson's ground squirrel, skunk, owl and Franklin's Gull, etc., found their way into Fauna Boreali-Americana, published in 1828.

In 1831 his closest brother and his wife died. He met and married Franklin's niece, Mary Booth. She died in 1845. He had four sons and two daughters. His third wife was Mary Fletcher.

His name had become established in the naturalist world; and also in the medical world through his ground-breaking work, promoting hygiene and fresh air at Haslar Hospital, Portsmouth. He corresponded with Darwin, Florence Nightingale and David Livingstone.

Richardson did not join Franklin's third expedition because of the need to stay behind and care for his family. However, he set out in 1845 to find his friend, who was reported lost. He was joined by a doctor-surgeon, John Rae from Orkney. The overland treks were tough for Richardson, now in his sixties. He had a heart attack. John Rae stayed with the expedition and four years later he found the remains of Franklin's expedition. Again cannibalism was suspected. Exactly who found the North-West Passage has been the subject of controversy.

On returning home Richardson continued medical work at Haslar. He moved in retirement to Grasmere where he lived at Lancrigg, now a hotel (which Brian visited). In 1846 he was knighted by Queen Victoria; Dublin University awarded him an Hon. LL.D. Sir John Richardson died at the age of 72 and was buried in St. Oswald’s Churchyard, Grasmere.

Various Richardsons were in the audience and Mrs Balmer, in particular, had interesting information to add to an excellent talk. A biography of 1868 was written by J McIlwraith.


Sir John Richardson deserves to have more honours conferred on him by his home town. There is a plaque in Nith Place; late in the day, a street, Sir John Richardson Place, has been named on the former Cresswell Hospital site; and moves are afoot to have him listed on the plaque at Dumfries Academy commemorating famous former pupils.