Approaching his death in 1782, the “Father of Military Medicine” Sir John Pringle deposited his papers in the library of the Royal College of Physicians, taking legal measures to prevent their contents being published. After two centuries and multiple attempts, these restrictions finally been set aside, providing the basis for Morrice McCrae’s biography of the medical pioneer, Saving the Army: The Life of Sir John Pringle.
Operating in a discipline still guided by classical principles of “humours” and ”bleeding” little-changed during the preceding two millennia, Pringle earned his reputation by revolutionising a British Army that regarded the ravages of infectious disease as an inescapable consequence of war. Holding a degree of Doctor of Physic from the University of Leiden and working as Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, Pringle’s early achievements, nonetheless, pale in comparison to those as a physician. Appointed Physician General during the War of the Austrian Succession, his encouragement of improvements to sanitation and discipline in military hospitals drew acclaim from across Europe, while his early involvement in establishing neutral sanctuaries helped to lay the conceptual foundations for the modern Red Cross. Working at the forefront of contemporary medical discourses and saving innumerable lives in the process, contemporaries adorned him with a string of titles, culminating in his appointment as personal physician to George III and a baronetcy. The dearth of previous writing on Pringle is all the more surprising given his numerous publications and a spell as President of the Royal Society in London. It is from his later investigations, translating the success in military to civilian medicine that McCrae’s biography draws most insightfully. A former physician himself, he acts as a clarifying lens, skilfully rendering unfamiliar contemporary notions of illness and care into something readily comprehensible.
The adept explication of such complexities cannot mask McCrae’s greatest oversight, however: Sir John Pringle himself. When, after forty-six pages, the pioneer’s achievements are briefly summarised, the most surprising unremarked fact is his age, Pringle’s first thirty-four years also having barely received mention. Medical innovations of prior millennia and somewhat broad, reductionist forays into Scottish social history dominate the narrative. Even after beginning to figure more regularly, Pringle the man remains an abstract figure, utterly colourless and devoid of any sense of agency. Part of the reason for this can be attributed to the book’s chronology or rather lack of it. Periods of two-hundred years pass in a handful of words, while Pringle’s individual achievements are repeated whenever the narrative’s chronology allows. The dry, prosaic prose is occasionally interspersed with moments of sentimentality; for example, Pringle’s pioneering exploits are attributed to using his “full share of the family’s strengths” to contend with “strange new ways of living”. Evidently intended to add a certain gravitas, such instances merely emphasise how little McCrae has to say about Pringle himself. Only in the concluding chapters, where Pringle’s medical annotations are quoted more liberally, does a cohesive narrative or an impression of the physician begin to emerge.
Few historians might be able to relate the intricacies of eighteenth-century military medicine with McCrae’s authority but this compensates little for the weakness of Saving the Army as a biography of Pringle. It can only be hoped that this is not the final word on Sir John Pringle.