Faces of Black Excellence

Risien Russell, pioneering neurologist in UK who propounded the theory that nobody is sane

A blue plaque was recently instituted in his honor at 44 Wimpole Street where he resided and ran his private practice as a neurologist from 1902 to when he died in March 1939. Dr. Risien Russell was one of the United Kingdom’s first Black neurologists in the early 1900s and was considered one of the pioneering figures in the medical profession.

He was born in 1863 to an Irish father and a mother of African descent, according to the University College of London. He attended the University of Edinburgh pursuing a doctor of medicine in 1883. He was appointed to manage the board of the first neurological facility in London, National Hospital, Queen Square, in 1903.

In 1907, he became a Professor of Medical Jurisprudence and later a Professor of Medicine at the University College of London, where he was appointed the president of the neurology section of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Like many people of African descent, he battled racial injustice to become one of the most prominent lecturers, researchers and physicians. He was instrumental in establishing the British School of Neurology in 1890.

He used his in-depth knowledge of medicine to deepen the understanding of the anatomy of the brain and the nervous system, and laid the blueprint for defining specific conditions such as subacute combined degeneration of the spinal cord. He also became an authority on mental health disorders while practicing at Wimpole Street, and treated famous personalities like the explorer, Sir Henry Stanley and the novelist, Humphrey Ward.

Russell served as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps between 1908 and 1918 where he developed a keen interest in shell shock. He was also known for his controversial views on mental health. He was of the view that people suffering from mental health should be treated at home instead of in health facilities. In 1924, he attracted public backlash for saying nobody was absolutely sane.

His expert views were sought in landmark and difficult cases involving psychiatric issues at the High Court at the end of his career. He died in the consulting room between appointments at the age of 75.

Blue Plaques Historian at English Heritage Dr. Rebecca Preston observed that Russell was a very talented medical practitioner who helped in understanding the nervous system and mental health issues. She indicated that it is important to recognize the contributions of a pioneer who dedicated 40 years of his life to improving the medical profession.

Consultant Neurologist and Director of the UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology Professor Michael Hanna said Russell practiced at a time when prejudices and biases against black people were rife, but, he surmounted all and excelled. He said but for the pioneering neurologist, knowledge of some medical discoveries and neurological diseases would have remained obscured in the early 1900s.

CBE, Director, Windrush Foundation, Arthur Torrington, said Russell was deserving of the English Heritage blue plaque for his outstanding works in neurological space. He was nominated by a Canadian physician, Dr. John Hnderson, who provided information on Dr. Russell’s contributions.

Stephen Nartey

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