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In other media….

Unfortunately, some links in earlier History Company posts no longer work because other sites have scrapped their archive pages. The Scottish Review is one of them – so here’s my SR pieces on the Press and Journal/Titanic and Sir John Crofton.

Press and Journal

It’s the most persistent myth in British newspapers and has stuck like a limpet to the Press and Journal  for a century:  “North-east man lost at sea. 1500 perish in Titanic disaster”

Stand by for a lot more coverage of the centenary of the sinking in April – the P and J has already carried a piece on it for its recent relaunch and I’ve looked at the wider issues here. But neither tells the full story….

It was April 16 before the UK morning papers really had the chance to cover the disaster in detail. The Aberdeen Journal (it only became the Press and Journal  in 1922 incorporating the Aberdeen Free Press) , carried a sober and informative account , leading with “Mid- Atlantic Disaster – Titanic sunk by Iceberg – 1683 Lives Lost, 675 Saved –Increasing Race to Rescue.”

Not a hint of “North-east man” then. Nor might it have been expected from its editor William (later Sir William) Maxwell.

He had been recruited in 1910 from London and his goal was to make the Journal pre-eminent as the national Scottish newspaper, ahead of the Scotsman and Glasgow Herald.

Maxwell greatly increased coverage of national stories, rescuing it from being the “mere local newspaper” it was before his arrival.

He may well have drawn this vision from one of the Titanic victims, WT Stead, the great pioneer of UK campaigning journalism, who had led a similar transformation at the Northern Echo in Darlington.  Maxwell would certainly have known of Stead – they had both worked on the Pall Mall Gazette and the London Evening Standard albeit in different eras.

So could the headline have been on a bill or hoarding?  I doubt it –“North Country” was the preferred term at that time and was used in coverage of the torpedoing of the Lusitania three years later.

“North-east” man is a relative newcomer – although his ubiquity is the reason the myth sticks. Every day he’s killed in an accident, survives several more, appears in court, or is involved in a stushie somewhere else.  Some guy!

Other myths continue to be challenged by media. First Officer William Murdoch’s character assassination in the 1996 film triggered a campaign by Dorothy Grace Elder and the Galloway News which resulted in a donation from 20th Century Fox for an annual prize in Murdoch’s honour at Dalbeattie High School.

And Maxwell’s vision for the Journal has also been realised 100 years later – as all circulations have sunk, it now comfortably outsells its morning rivals in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The growth of digital history means you can now look at original sources online. The British Library is digitising millions of newspaper pages with a technical partner, brightsolid, a Dundee-based company owned by DC Thomson, publishers of the P and J.

They’ve only got as far as 1900 for the Aberdeen Journal, but you can get an earlier sinking feeling by looking at the Courier’s coverage of the Tay Bridge Disaster.


Sir John Crofton

It’s what every aspiring doctor dreams of – find a 100% cure for the world’s most dreaded disease and then get on with more important things in life.

This was what the Edinburgh tuberculosis group led by John Crofton achieved almost 60 years ago. His memoirs, newly-published by his daughter Alison and son in law Dave shed new light on how they did it.

I first met Crofton at a conference in Aberdeen on Scotland’s alcohol problems.  He came up and cheerfully supplied me with a ready splash for the first edition which ran throughout the day.

Later, with a reporter’s cynical eye for a future obituary, I interviewed him in Edinburgh on his tuberculosis work.   He lived for another twenty years during which we got to know each other well.

He was a wonderful man, who inspired prominent clinicians including Tom Frieden, current director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many journalists. We affectionately dubbed him “Crofters.”

Winding back to 1952 when he took up the chair of tuberculosis at Edinburgh University, Scotland was in the middle of a rising and fearsome epidemic of TB.   This disease has been with mankind for millennia, capable of gnawing away at the spine, bones and other organs or, more commonly, the lungs. It was a death sentence for half of those diagnosed.

The NHS service in Edinburgh was a shambles. Crofton changed all that, bringing in his own team of consultants, including Jimmy Williamson who had previously treated George Orwell.   Their approach was revolutionary using all three available drugs from the outset rather than consecutively.

Rising TB notifications in Edinburgh were halved between 1954 and 1957, a feat not achieved anywhere before or since. Waiting lists disappeared and the epidemic was halted in its tracks.  Newspaper editors and broadcasters gave active support to a mass x-ray campaign in 1958 which rooted out residual TB in the city.

Many did not believe their results.  When Williamson presented a paper at a conference in Istanbul, all the American delegates walked out.  An international trial was arranged, which used the Edinburgh model as a protocol. It became the international gold standard for TB treatment.

By then, the Edinburgh group had effectively done themselves out of a job and they moved into other areas of medicine. Williamson became one of the leaders in the new speciality of geriatrics.

Sir John’s memoirs chronicle his later career, including his own two-year battle with clinical depression. They also hark back to his early years in Dublin where n he played with WB Yeats’s children and the Easter Rising when his nursery was peppered with bullets.

He continued tirelessly campaigning on TB, alcohol and tobacco, co-founding Scottish ASH with his wife Eileen.

They were delighted when Scotland introduced the smoking ban in 2006. I was later told that Crofters called me his “spy” in the Government which I took as a compliment.

Crofton died in 2009.  Williamson, another wonderful man and great raconteur, was the last survivor of the Edinburgh group. He died in June this year.  Novelist and geriatrician Colin Currie wrote a fitting obituary in the Scotsman.

As Tom Frieden has pointed out; the Edinburgh group’s combination chemotherapy for TB later became a cornerstone for cancer and HIV treatments. Their legacy lives on.

Saving Lives and Preventing Misery, by Sir John Crofton, Fast Print Publishing, £18.