Lives of the fellows

George Seaton (Sir) Buchanan

b.19 February 1869 d.11 October 1936
CB(1918) BSc Lond(1888) MB BS Lond(1891) MD Lond(1892) MD(State Med) Lond(1893) MRCP(1921) FRCP(1926)

George Seaton Buchanan was the elder son of Sir George Buchanan, M.D., F.R.C.P., F.R.S., by his second wife, Alice Mary Asmar, daughter of E. C. Seaton, M.D., F.R.C.P. He was born in London in 1869. His sister, Miss Florence Buchanan, was a collaborator in physiological research with Sir John Burdon Sanderson at Oxford. His father was medical officer of the Local Government Board, so the son may be said to have been cradled in public health, and knew Simon and other pioneers in English state medicine. He was educated at University College School, University College and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.

After qualifying Buchanan held appointments, successively, as resident medical officer at the Royal Chest Hospital and assistant medical officer of the Metropolitan Asylums Board’s smallpox hospital ships. In 1895 he was appointed a medical inspector of the Local Govermnent Board at an exceptionally early age. Here he soon made his mark in public health. Epidemics due to contaminated food were then causing grave concern. In 1900 such an epidemic in Lancashire and the north of England due to the presence of arsenic in beer was investigated by Buchanan.

Subsequently a Royal Commission under Lord Kelvin was set up of which Buchanan was secretary. As a result of the Royal Commission’s report the Local Government Board created the office of chief inspector of foods to which Buchanan was appointed. He held this post up to 1911, when he became chief assistant medical officer to the Board under Sir Arthur Newsholme. In 1914 he was appointed as official delegate for Great Britain on the Permanent Committee of the Office International d’Hygiene Publique in Paris.

When chief inspector of foods, Buchanan organised a system of inspecting foods with the co-operation of the port sanitary authorities; he helped to negotiate far-reaching international agreements, such as the Brussels Convention out of which later emerged the International Sanitary Convention of 1926 for preventing the spread of smallpox, typhus, cholera, plague and yellow fever; he was a member of the Royal Commission on Whisky and other Potable Spirits; and all his reports to the Local Government Board were informative, clear and accurate like his minutes. At that time Buchanan seemed destined to succeed in due course to the post of medical officer of the Board.

But the lights were going out in Europe. When in August 1914 the First World War broke out, Buchanan was attached to the Army Sanitary Committee with the honorary rank of lieutenant-colonel, and for the next four years was a member of the Medical Advisory Committee to the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (1915-16) and the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force (1916-17). For his strenuous war services he received the C.B. (military) in 1918. When the war ceased, his services on the Army Sanitary Commission and the Inter-Allied Sanitary Commission were retained.

On the formation of the Ministry of Health in 1919, which replaced the Local Government Board as the central health authority,Buchanan was appointed a senior medical officer of the Ministry in charge of the branch dealing with general health and epidemiology. But his outstanding work in this latter part of his career was done in the field of international public health.

This was the main interest to which he devoted the rest of his life. He was a foundation member of the International Health Organisation of the League of Nations and became vice-president and later president of the Office International d’Hygiene Publique. In 1919 he was a member of the Poland Typhus Commission instituted by the League of Red Cross Societies. When reporting on this work to President Paderewski, to his surprise he was bidden to kneel while the statesman and world-famous pianist placed the Order of the White Eagle round his neck. He was also president of the League of Nations Cancer Commission and a member of the commission for the re-organisation of public health services in Greece.

He was chiefly instrumental in setting the Health Organisation of the League on a firm basis; and, with striking administrative skill, he co-ordinated and supplemented his work at Geneva and Paris not only with the work of his branch at the Ministry of Health, but with all the branches of the health department. This served as a model for the health ministries of other nations. Thus through his experienced diplomacy he succeeded in bringing administrative health authorities in different countries into close relationship, especially with the view to rapid interchange of information, all important, for example, in checking the spread of epidemics.

In his Milroy lectures on ‘International co-operation in public health’ to the College in 1934, he described this work in which he had played so great a part, and left no doubt as to the value of the League’s work for international public health. He enjoyed universal popularity with his own countrymen and with his foreign colleagues.

For his distinguished services Buchanan was knighted in 1922. He was president of the section of epidemiology of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1918 and 1919. In 1934 he was awarded the Jenner medal of the Society, and in the same year received the Mary Kingsley medal from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. In 1931, at the annual meeting of the British Medical Association, held at Eastbourne, he was president of the public health section.

He had a long association with the Society of Apothecaries of London. He served as Junior and Senior Warden, and on his retirement from the Ministry in 1934, was elected Master of the Society. Unfortunately his health failed, and after a long illness he died on 11th October 1936.

Buchanan married in 1896 Rhoda Agnes, fifth daughter of Thomas Atkinson, of Plumgarths, Westmoreland. They had a son and a daughter. To the great grief of his parents, the son, who was an officer in the Army, was killed, accidentally, by a big gun explosion while on service. The daughter, Mary Grizel, married Mr Hubert Hartley, the son of Sir Percival Horton-Smith Hartley, C.V.O., M.D., F.R.C.P. Lady Buchanan died in 1959, aged ninety-one.

Except for the Milroy lectures and a few published addresses, Buchanan’s writings are to be sought for the most part in official files, reports and blue-books. As his life-work shows, he will be long remembered as one who in difficult and arduous times contributed much to public health in this country, to international health, and to the welfare of mankind. He was tall, blue-eyed, had a fair moustache, and a charm and kindness of heart that endeared him to those who had the good fortune to be associated with him. His gifts and experience were always at the disposal of the most junior medical officer who joined the service, and he lightened the task of instructing the neophyte by some humorous touch of tongue or pen.

Richard R Trail

[Brit.med.J., 1936, 2, 788-9 (p); Lancet, 1936, 2, 947-9 (p); Nature (Lond), 1936, 138, 832; Times, 12 Oct. 1936; D.N.B., 1931-40, 114-15.]

(Volume V, page 58)

<< Back to List