It used to be said that Orkney’s two main exports were eggs and professors. Our annual egg production peaked in 1957 at 78 million; our per capita production of professors is almost as noteworthy. Scientists almost to a man, they were usually fortunate enough to have had a gifted teacher such as Magnus Spence or John McEwen but there is one who appears to have succeeded almost entirely by his own astonishing effort.
Sutherland Simpson was born at Saraquoy in Flotta in 1863, and would have attended the school run by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge.
The Society ran schools all over Scotland, a fair number of them in Orkney. In fact the third school they established was at Madras in Harray, which opened in March 1712. The Society continued to run the Flotta School even after the 1872 Education Act until the teacher left in May 1876 and the Walls and Flotta School Board turned it into the parochial school. It took the Board seven months to find a teacher: John Mackay only took up the post in December. Simpson left school in the following year, when he was fourteen, so it seems unlikely that his formal education had covered much more than the basics.
Simpson spent a few years working on the family farm and his father’s herring boat but then decided he wanted to go to sea, with the aim of becoming master of a sailing ship. Realising that he needed to learn navigation, he took advantage of evening classes being offered by the new teacher in Flotta, John Brown Gorrie.
According to the school log book, these began in November 1880 and lessons were given to eleven young men in Arithmetic, Writing to Dictation, History (Scotch & English), Geography, French, Grammar and Analysis. The teacher wasn’t very good and most of his pupils dropped out but three carried on through two winters, going on to Algebra and Geometry and reading Voltaire’s Charles XII in French. In the 1880 Inspector’s Report which was mostly very negative, the three unnamed young men were described as making a creditable appearance.
Having learned all he could on Flotta, Simpson went to Edinburgh to look for a ship but, depending on what account you read, either an injury to his hand or a letter from his mother decided him against a maritime career. His landlady suggested he should instead apply for the job of laboratory boy in the Physiology Department of the University. Those evening classes on Flotta proved their worth as Simpson beat over eighty applicants to the position. According to his friend John Tait, who became Professor of Physiology at McGill University, Simpson got the place because of the breadth of knowledge he displayed, especially the essays of the historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay.
Although there is no mention in accounts of his earlier life of even a passing acquaintance with science lessons, Simpson was soon head technician, working from eight in the morning to past seven in the evening, designing and drawing charts, preparing for laboratory classes and assisting with demonstrations. He seems to have realised quite soon that he had by sheer chance found himself in the place he belonged and that the next step was to get a science degree.
According to John Tait, the professor for whom Simpson worked was a hard taskmaster, who didn’t approve of the ambitions of his assistant. Professor William Rutherford was reaching the end of a successful career. He had been a professor at the Royal Institution and was a member of the Royal Society but that isn’t what earned him his footnote in history. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had been so struck by Professor Rutherford’s lectures and physical presence when he studied medicine at Edinburgh that he modelled Professor Challenger of The Lost World on him.
Seemingly undeterred by the lack of encouragement and how little free time he had, Simpson began by going to evening classes and then attended night school at Heriot-Watt College. After seven years he had his BSc, but that was just the start. A medical degree came next but that needed full-time study. Using all his savings and working in the summer on his father’s fishing boat, he became a full-time student and graduated MB ChB in 1899, aged 36.
That year Professor Rutherford died, and his replacement changed Sutherland Simpson’s life. Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer is regarded as the father of endocrinology: he discovered adrenaline and coined the word insulin. Sir Edward inherited two assistants at Edinburgh from his predecessor but wanted a third. As he later wrote,
Not knowing anyone I consulted Dr Milroy as to whom I should select. He frankly told me that there was a man who had just graduated who was very well fitted for the post, but he was afraid I might not think him a suitable person to be appointed, since he had formerly been an attendant in the Department. I very naturally thought that anyone who could have so successfully surmounted the obstacles to advancement which were inseparable from such work as he had been engaged in was capable of anything, and was only too glad to engage him as one of my Assistants. I was very fortunate to have been able to get a man so well fitted to occupy the post, and Simpson rejoiced in the opportunity afforded him of prosecuting research in Physiology, for which he was peculiarly well qualified.”
Simpson spent nine happy and productive years at Edinburgh. His thesis for his MD was awarded the Gold Medal in 1901 and he gained his DSc in 1903. Then in 1908 Sir Edward was lecturing in Baltimore and received an invitation from the President of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York to lecture there. When he arrived he discovered there had been an ulterior motive: President Schurmann wanted him to recommend someone for the Chair of Physiology and Biochemistry. Sir Edward had no hesitation in naming Simpson although he said it was a wrench to part with him. John Tait wrote:
He had now attained the command for which he had schooled himself. He was at last in charge of his ship; and under his skilful navigation and constructional superintendence she became the tight and handy vessel that for eighteen years was to outclass many of her heavier rivals. Simpson dearly loved a race, and whether he was in an actual sailing craft (any one who ever witnessed his control over a sailboat conceived a new respect for him) or whether he was running his laboratory, he spread every stitch of canvas and utilized every inch-ounce of available motive power.”
Sutherland Simpson died far too soon, aged just 63, in 1926. The obituaries in Orkney and Ithaca were heartfelt in their admiration for his achievements and even more for the man himself. A whole issue of the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Physiology in 1927 was dedicated to him. Pupils and colleagues contributed fifteen scientific articles, Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer wrote an obituary and so did Abram T Kerr of Cornell’s Department of Anatomy. He headed his contribution ‘Sutherland Simpson of Cornell’ and wrote,
He entered at once upon his duties with the energy and enthusiasm which was always so characteristic of him… Dr Simpson at once applied himself to the task of furnishing and equipping new laboratories for Physiology; of providing additional equipment for the advanced laboratories; and of directing the preparation of the beautiful charts and diagrams which have been such an asset to the department ever since.
“Courses in human and comparative physiology have been given at Cornell from its very beginning. It was natural, therefore, when Dr Simpson assumed charge of the Department of Physiology in the Medical College that he, too, should desire to continue and to develop these courses in human physiology for students in the College of Arts and Sciences, in the College of Agriculture, and in other colleges. How thoroughly he adapted his course to the needs of the students and of the University is attested by the fact that during the last year that he gave the lectures over seven hundred students voluntarily elected to take the course in Elementary Physiology.
“Exacting as were the duties of teaching and adjustment in these early years, he entered at once and vigorously upon a programme of research which was steadfastly adhered to until the end. His energy and enthusiasm were contagious. Generous of time and effort, critical though kindly, fertile in suggestion, it was a stimulus and a joy for students to work with or near him. To such a man, with such a broad, open-minded outlook, it was inevitable that graduate students should come. From 1909 to 1925 over one hundred and fifty papers have been published from his laboratories and under his directing guidance. Of fifty-eight of these he was the author or the joint author. [Subjects included] bile-secretion, animal heat and body temperature, the central nervous system, milk secretion, egg production, hibernation, and the endocrine organs. Upon this last field of work his own personal energies were finally almost entirely concentrated.”
Although his obituaries list a dozen scientific associations he belonged to, including the British and American Associations for the Advancement of Science, the turn of mind that secured him his first job at Edinburgh University with his knowledge of the works of Macaulay never left him. According to John Tait,
His range included the classics of antiquity, early Icelandic literature, Russian, French and German literature, to which must be added a wholly unusual acquaintance with the greatest writers in our own language. He had, what we scientific people so frequently miss, a historically cultivated mind; and his interest in all these things was to an uncommon degree of that unselfish kind which made him long to share his literary experiences with others. Every one who knew him will remember the eager, almost solicitous, enthusiasm with which he proclaimed his discovery of a new book revealing some striking conception or original outlook. His extensive acquaintance with literature gave him balance and markedly enhanced his other characteristic, which was his humanity.”