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Dr Rankin from Scots Magazine 1986

Dec 1986 Scots Magazine
"A doctor of distinction" by M.K. Gray
Reproduced by Kind Permission


DANIEL REID RANKIN was born in Carluke in April 1805. He lived there almost all his life practising medicine and probably appeared to the world in general as nothing more than a simple country doctor. However, there was much more than that to the man. When he died on 4th March 1882, the townsfolk erected a tombstone over his grave inscribed: Surgeon, Geologist, Archaeologist And Historian of the Parish, A man greatly beloved.

What, then, is the story behind this unusual country doctor who rarely left his home town and yet achieved worldwide fame in academic circles? Dr Rankin's family were ordinary, working class folk — his father James was a shoemaker in Carluke and his mother Isabella was the daughter of a local farmer - but the origins of the Rankins in Carluke were distinctly romantic ones. When Rob Roy was travelling through Lanarkshire, one of his men fell ill and had to be left behind at a farm in Carluke.
That man — Daniel Reid Rankin's ancestor — eventually recovered, fell in love with the girl who had nursed him. married her, and settled down in the district, If Dr Rankin's origins were colourful, life for the young Daniel in the early part of last century was anything but.

Times were hard, he had many brothers and sisters, and his father James was a strict disciplinarian, demanding implicit obedience and deeply religious behaviour from his children. Whether it was because of this strict  upbringing or simply that young Daniel was a free spirit, is not known, but the boy was his father's despair. His mother recalled later that when Daniel was a small child, his father had asked him if he loved God. "No!" Daniel replied stoutly. "Why not?" James Rankin asked while the family gazed in horror, waiting for Mr Rankin's anger to break. "Because he kills folk," Daniel replied solemnly. Not a sound could be heard, but the ticking of the clock. Then, without a word, James Rankin left the cottage and went into the garden to consider the answer carefully. Mrs Rankin never knew what conclusion her husband came to over their son's words, for the subject was never referred to again. Daniel's early unorthodoxy never wavered, but despite this, Mrs Rankin used to avow in later life that though Daniel was the least conventionally religious of her children, he was still the best. Along with his brothers and sisters, Daniel attended the parish school at Carluke where James Kay Esq. was the schoolmaster.

Kay was extremely clever, but not a good teacher, finding it difficult to convey his abundant knowledge. The children lived in fear and dread of their dominie's violent and hasty temper, and privately nicknamed him "The Scourge". Daniel, however, was a highly-gifted child and appeared to be favoured by Mr Kay who would regularly send him for his weekly supply of sugarally. Unfortunately, such favouritism was a mixed blessing, and young Daniel returned home on many occasions sporting a bloody nose and a defiant air after having silenced his classmates' accusations of "teacher's pet"!

Money was in short supply in the household and once his schooldays were over, Daniel was apprenticed as a writer to the firm of solicitors, Vary and Hewitt of Lanark. It was not the career he would have chosen for himself, and yet if he had been questioned about his ambitions at that time, it is likely that Daniel would have confessed that he did not know what he hoped to do with his life. He wanted work which he would find mentally stimulating, work that would bring money into the family, and for the moment that was all. In time, he became a member of the Faculty of Writers which not only gave him an increase in salary, but also widened his prospects considerably.

Mr Vary seemed to have taken a liking to the quiet, conscientious youth, and when he opened an office in Glasgow he took Daniel with him. Keen that the young man should do as well as he could, Vary urged Daniel to attend classes in Scots Law at Glasgow University. Little did the kindly Mr Vary realise that as a result of his actions, he would very soon lose his promising protege. Daniel duly attended the classes in 1823 and 1824, but though he found them interesting, he found the conversation of the medical students he met in the cloisters even more so. He began to borrow some of their books, and to slip into some of the medical lectures,

At last he had stumbled on the career he had been looking for. He applied to the university authorities to be allowed to change his classes from Law to Medicine, and to his delight was given consent. Mr Vary was understandably dismayed at losing his young friend, but admired the determination Daniel showed for his new career. Late in 1824, Daniel gave up his post in Vary's office and began to study medicine, financing himself from his meagre savings. Often he was disheartened at the enormity of the task he had set himself, even
more often he was hungry and cold, but never once did he consider giving up. He had found his true vocation and he intended to succeed. In 1828 he was admitted as a member of the Glasgow Medical Society and worked for a time as assistant to Dr Robert Hunter, forging a friendship that was to last all of their lives. In 1829
he obtained his degree and, to his mother's great pride, was also awarded a gold medal by Glasgow University as one of their most promising students. Surprisingly, he never collected the medal.

Whether this omission was due to shyness or the Scottish tendency to be embarrassed by his own ability is not certain. Whatever the truth of the matter, the medal remained unclaimed. His studies completed, the young doctor was thrilled to be offered a promising post as assistant professor at some distance from his home in
Carluke. He accepted gladly, visions of future glory swimming before his eager eyes, but on the evening before he was due to depart he discovered his mother weeping. "What's the matter?" he asked
anxiously. "Oh, kiddie!" she sobbed, wiping away a tear, as she packed his trunk,
"it will break my heart to part with you". In an action that was to become characteristic of the man, Daniel immediately wrote and resigned from the appointment which meant so much to him and
would assuredly have led to fame and fortune.

Shortly afterwards, the town doctor departed for another post, leaving an opening in Carluke.
Dr Rankin took over the practice, apparently content to remain there for the rest of his life. The town was suffering a great decline when the tall, handsome, blonde haired, blue eyed Dr Rankin began practising in 1830. The general stagnation which had followed the Napoleonic War had hit the cottage weavers severely and the
Industrial Revolution dealt a final death blow.Many a doctor would have felt there was quite enough to do treating
the sick but Dr Rankin was not such a man.His natural compassion saw beyond the diseases of his patients,and tales of his kindness towards the poorer inhabitants of Carluke became legion. This is not to say Dr Rankin gave unreservadly of his time and resources to everyone. If he could be kind to the poor he could be equally severe and scathing towards the rich who felt their new doctor was an easy touch for free medical advice

Daniel Rankin would willingly utilise his legal studies, preparing deeds and documents completely free of charge for those who needed them. To those well able to pay for the service he would vow that he had completely forgotten his lawyer's training. In his medical duties his attitude was the same. One wealthy patient petulantly
queried her bill for £10 despite the fact that she was continually asking him to treat trivial ailments. She would pay nothing, she insisted, until she had received her detailed account of her course of treatment. The doctor smiled politely and agreed to do just that. Shortly after, the astonished lady received her detailed account and a bill for £30. She had to pay it! When the doctor heard that a widow was in dire straits because her miserly son had failed to hand over the allowance to which she was entitled, he immediately sent the man a bill for £80 which he insisted was the cost of visits he had had to make. The son paid it, grudgingly, and the doctor promptly took the money to the widow and made her a present of the entire amount.

Another lady, having heard of the beneficial effects of the doctor's pills, begged him for a box. He promised to give her one, and the next time lie was passing, handed her a pill-box. In it she found a half-sovereign. Rankin knew that she required nourishment more than medication. Conversely, when a rich lady was continually stopping him in the street to ask free medical advice, he dealt with her in his own fashion. Exasperated beyond endurance, he said, "Shut your eyes, woman. Now, open your mouth and put out your tongue!" Somewhat nonplussed she duly obeyed and then Dr Rankin slipped quietly away leaving her standing, to the unconcealed amusement of passers by. He was as extreme, too, in his attack on the dirt and squalor he found in the neighbourhood.

Whether the homes were poor or rich was immaterial, for he felt that cleanliness could be achieved at very little cost. He devised an effective, if' somewhat effective ploy. When he found filthy blankets clothes and furniture he would say nothing at the time but wait until he met the offending householder in the street. Then, with a deliberately raised voice, he would present the person with a bar of soap and a severe lecture on the the connection between dirt and disease. Needless to say, within a short time, the neatness and cleanliness of the houses were the talk of the surrounding countryside! In his work he found a satisfaction and stimulation. that he could scarcely have guessed at when he relinquished the far superior post to remain at home, but not every inhabitant of Carluke was delighted with his unorthodox ways.

It was impossible to condemn him for his acts of charity, and if his methods towards the better-off members of the community were a little severe, there was no denying that his medical treatment was excellent. What even some of the poor people could not accept, however, was his staunch refusal to go to church. Even in the early part of this century, such behaviour would have caused comment, but for a man to refuse to attend the church 

in the 1830s was a thing too incomprehensible and incredible to contemplate. Many of his patients privately called him "Hellish Dan", and it did not help that he made no secret of his impatience with the narrower forms of religion. His comments to a farmer called Sandy Paterson were the talk of the town. Every Sunday when Dr Rankin
saw Paterson going to church, he used to call, "Going for your Sunday sleep, Sandy!" Sandy would simply laugh and say, "Queer chiel, queer chiel!" but other members of' the parish were not amused.

Read more stories from the People section
James Allan 1855 (the next story in sucession)
Carluke Bowling Club
Carluke Execution by Hanging
Carluke, Ontario -Titanic victim
Dr Hunter-Selkirk
Dr Rankin Letter to Lancet 1839

Last Updated on Apr-21-2016