Dr. George Graham-Cumming

I’ve been a fan of the Olympics since watching the Rome Games – the first ‘T.V. Olympics’ – as a boy of 10. Not surprising then that I love the film Chariots of Fire, a celebration of two British winners in the 1924 Olympics, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams. And that, plus my interest in civilian internment, made it inevitable that, during our time in China, I’d take the opportunity of visiting Weifang, the location of the Weihsien Camp where Liddell was interned during the war, dying in February 1945 of a brain tumour which many of his fellow internees felt was brought on in part at least by his selfless devotion to the welfare of others.

Eric Liddell Memorial, Weifang

So I was delighted to discover that there was one person in that small and increasingly beleaguered group of Britishers in the French Hospital[1] who was connected with Liddell:

I started my medical studies in the summer term of 1924 intending to become a medical missionary like my boyhood hero David Livingston and was admitted to 56 George Square, then a hostel for medical students intending to be medical missionaries…. One of the other residents was a broad-shouldered, rather stocky, not too tall individual with rather a large head and face. This was Eric Liddell who played Wing Three Quarter for Scotland in the Rugby International contests.[2]

The writer was George Graham-Cumming, one of the doctors who stayed out of Stanley to help Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke with his medical welfare work. Ironically, given the interesting life and distinguished career I’m about to outline, he seems best known on the internet for his playful ‘races’ with the future Olympic champion!

 Eric Liddell’s House in Tianjin

It seems that his connection with Liddell nearly ended in disaster:

One day…I got into a friendly tussle with Eric, put a judo leg-hold on his right knee and strained his right thigh. I won that fight but lost all respect and learned what it is to be thoroughly unpopular. Eric was training hard for the Olympic Games to be held in Paris in a few weeks! Fortunately he recovered quickly and showed no reduction in speed to my immense relief.[3]

Medical student high jinks almost deprived Liddell of the Olympic gold, Scotland of a national hero, and the present writer of one of his favourite films.

It’s obvious that from his youth Graham-Cumming had a passion for both Christianity and medicine, and he was preaching while still a student

We all took turns at open air preaching every weekend at the corner of the Cowgate outside that Dispensary.[4]

His admiration for David Livingstone suggests a desire for far away places as well, so he became a medical missionary in China, ending up as a doctor with the Overseas Medical Service in Hong Kong.[5]

He began his medical studies in 1924. After his training he applied to join the Church of England Presbyterian Foreign Missions.[6] In 1936 he wrote a letter to the BMJ describing an injury he’d inflicted on the neonate while carrying out a delivery during his midwifery training in Edinburgh during 1927-28. The letter is written from the English Presbyterian Mission in Shoka, Formosa (now Taiwan) and it refers to his six years practice in China, so he presumably went out in 1930 or thereabouts. [7] Formosa was part of the Japanese Empire at the time so the experience may have come in useful in Hong Kong. I’ve found documents in Chinese that have a short section about him and the years 1934-1937 by his name.[8] His name is linked with that of Dr. James Laidlaw Maxwell, Jr., a pioneering missionary to China and Formosa, and my guess is that 1934-1937 were his years of service in the latter, but it would obviously be wrong to draw any firm conclusions before translation.

Dr. Graham-Cumming was married with two daughters (one born in 1931 and the other in 1933). It seems that at the end of the December 1941 hostilities he and his family were among those who stayed in houses on the Peak and didn’t have to enter the sordid waterfront hotels where most ‘Europeans’ were kept before being sent to Stanley ( http://www.hongkongwardiary.com/searchgarrison/nonuniformedcivilians.html). His family are not on the British Army Aid Group list of those living at the French Hospital in December 1942,[9] but they are on the Stanley Camp Roll that was probably drawn up around May 1942, so it seems that they were in Stanley from the start, something he might well have been grateful for as things in town got more dangerous from February 1943 onwards. It’s not clear if Dr Graham-Cumming was initially sent there with them and later taken out of camp to help with the public health work or if he was ‘out; from the start.

He was not one of those arrested on May 2, 1943[10] and was presumably sent to Stanley Camp on May 7 along with 17 others.[11] While in Camp, he no doubt assisted the other doctors in providing a medical service that’s been universally admired for its amazing achievements in the most difficult possible circumstances – a slowly starving, and malnourished population living in cramped and not very hygienic conditions treated with a small and diminishing supply of drugs, yet the death rate, according to internee leader Franklin Gimson was if anything lower than would have been expected in peace time Hong Kong.[12] One of the main ways in which the doctors achieved these results was through the practice of ‘nutritional medicine’ and the one specific activity of Dr. Graham-Cumming’s that I’ve been able to document so far is his role as medical overseer of the programme to grind peanuts into peanut butter. A camp notice of October 12, 1943 announces the inauguration of a grinding programme to replace the then exhausted supply of rice polishings: as Thomas explained in his 1946 article for The British Baker, rice polishing were used by the Camp bakers whenever they could get their hands on them[13] (they’re a good source of B Vitamins) and the peanut butter that replaced it was to be baked into biscuits given to labourers and those suffering from deficiency related eye problems.[14]

Dr. Graham-Cumming survived internment and after the war he seems to have stayed in Hong Kong for a number of years and to have resumed and succeeded in his medical career: on August 14, 1957[15] and November 20, 1957 he attended a meeting of the Legislative Council in the capacity of Acting Director of Medical Services.  This means that he reached the top position in the Hong Kong medical hierarchy, albeit on a temporary basis. It had been  Selwyn-Clarke’s post before the Japanese attack.

According to a report in the Winnipeg Free Press (May 14, 1969, page 24), in 1962 he migrated to Canada: at least he did if he’s the ‘Canadian husband’ of Lois Graham-Cumming (see below). The online ‘traces’ I’ve found fit this idea well, as between 1963 and 1965 he was continuing his religious activities as a lecturer for the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality.[16] He’s also documented as lecturing with the Ottawa Lay School of Theology during the same years.[17]

In his new country he worked for the Medical Services, National Health and Welfare Department, as Medical Liaison Officer, based in Ottawa.[18] He obviously specialised in the health of ‘original Canadians’: in the 1960s he published a number of articles on this topic, and in 1967 he wrote a study surveying the situation over the previous 100 years. A contemporary writer has criticised this article for maintaining that the indigenous population, medically weakened by isolation, now paradoxically posed a health threat to the later arrivals; the writer acknowledges that this was the generally agreed idea of the time,[19] and, although the critical analysis is undoubtedly accurate, it seems to me that Graham-Cumming’s involvement with the health of ‘original Canadians’ stems from the same humanitarian impulses that took him to China to care for people who would otherwise have had little access to modern medical treatment.

Also in 1967 he published a report on the health of ‘original Canadian’ babies. This links interestingly with his work in Stanley, as he argued that the fact that such babies had a mortality rate three times that of ‘whites’ was due to the ‘nutrition ignorance’ of their parents. (Winnipeg Free Press, Mach 30, 1967, page 17). 

He was also co-author an article on rodent control in the port of Montreal,[20] and it’s just possible that this gives a hint of the public health speciality that led to his being kept out of Stanley to work in Hong Kong.

I can find nothing online relating to his professional activities after the late 1960s, and it’s possible he retired about this time. But the chances of the internet have preserved a couple of things relating to his final years. In 1996 he was interviewed by Charles Roland for his study of health issues relating to Canadian POWs in Hong Kong and Japan,[21] and in 1997 he and Anne E.[22] Graham-Cumming are listed as donors to the United Nations Association in Canada.[23] He died in 1998.[24] His wife, Lois, a medical statistician[25] who became the part-time Executive Director of the Canadian Nurses Foundation,[26] died in 2003.[27] The obituary gives her date of birth as 1914, while the Stanley Camp Roll lists Mrs. Graham-Cumming as having been born in 1902, so this may indicate a second marriage.

So far I’ve only been able to get a few glimpses of what seems like  a fascinating man. I hope that future research will yield more.


[11] http://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/dr-phillip-court/

[12] F. C. Gimson, hand-written introduction to typescript Internment in Hong-Kong March 1942 to August 1945, page 13. Rhodes House, Oxford, Ms.Ind. Ocn. S222.

[14] Notices reproduced in Jim Shepherd, Silks, Satins, Gold Braid And Monkey Jackets, 1996, 66-69.

4 Comments

Filed under Hong Kong WW11

4 responses to “Dr. George Graham-Cumming

  1. Pingback: Early Days in the French Hospital: The Evidence of Staff-Sergeant Patrick Sheridan | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  2. Pingback: Conditions at the French Hospital: More Evidence From The Ride Papers | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  3. Paulette M. Urian

    I believe I was a friend of Lois Graham-Cumming who died in 2003 at Rose View Nursing Center in Williamsport, PA. I was looking up her name on-line today to see if there was anything about her Haiku poetry that she wrote until the time of her death. One poem was “The Shattered I of We” which she wrote after her husband’s death. My father Paul Urian was at the home also and his sister Edna Hesen. I believe Lois was born in 1914. She had a great collection of Chinese art and furniture in her apartment but gave away everything she owned to her nephew and divested herself of virtually even the smallest of items,as she knew she would die soon.She became a good friend of my Aunt Edna. I believe she had been a nurse and perhaps a second wife. I greatly admired her and when I cam across your website I thought I should tell you what I know.Plankenhorn Stationary in Williamsport, was selling little booklets of her poems. I may contact them soon to see if they still have any of them.

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