New book chronicles extraordinary life

On October 23, 1821, starving in the wind-blasted barrens of north-west Canada, John Richardson made the most momentous and controversial decision of his life.

The Dumfriesshire doctor, renowned for his care of those under him, felt he had no option. The man who had taken the Hippocratic oath to preserve life, and who held deep religious convictions, took out his pistol and, in cold blood executed his Iroquois guide.

The extreme circumstances that led the 34-year0old Dumfries-born and Edinburgh-trained naval surgeon to take this life and death decision are explored in a new biography “John Richardson – Naturalist of the North” by James McCarthy.

Richardson had been chosen to join the early expeditions led by Sir John Franklin to discover the North-West Passage, a route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Years later, he campaigned to lead a search to discover the fate of Franklin, who had been lost in a later expedition.

Yet history has largely overlooked this remarkable man despite being a naturalist who was regularly consulted by Charles Darwin because of his expertise in natural history and whose ground-breaking ideas in the treatment of the “insane” led to the more compassionate treatment of people too often treated as criminals. The ideas he developed as physician to the fleet were incorporated into the regime of the Royal Hospital in Dumfries, helping to bring about its renown as a pre-eminent centre for mental health treatment.

“John Richardson – Naturalist of the North”, by James McCarthy, is published by GC Books of Wigtown and is available price £4.99 plus p&p.

James McCarthy, who retired as deputy director (Scotland) from the Nature Conservancy Council in 1991, has since published a number of books on natural heritage and Scottish explorers.