Dr. John MacDonald

The Lancet
Printed in the edition of 7th February 1880 pp 229-230

Obituary of Dr. John MacDonald M.D. of Buenos Ayres

To the list of those of our profession who died at the close of 1879 must be added the name of John MacDonald, M.D. son of Alex MacDonald esq. of Lynedale, Isle of Skye; and some mention should be made of the passing away of a valuable life, and one simply sacrificed to a sense of duty. Educated at Glasgow and Paris, and having taken his degree of M.D. at the former University in 1862, Dr. MacDonald studied at most of the principal hospitals in Austria and Prussia. It is, however, of his work in Buenos Ayres that we desire to lay some notice before our readers. He arrived there about 14 years ago.

Finding that no doctor could practise within the precincts of the town without a Spanish diploma, and not knowing the Spanish language, he, to acquire it, joined the Argentine Army for a year as surgeon, which was then, together with the allied Brazilians, fighting against the Paraguayans, commanded by the notorious Lopez. While thus engaged, he was so successful in surgical operations as to be specially noticed by the authorities, by whom he was placed at the head of the hospital and ambulance corps of one of the divisions, and raised to the rank of surgeon-major.

Returning to Buenos Ayres at the end of a year, he took his diploma, intending to remain there; but a special request from the commander in chief that he would not discontinue his services, accompanied by the expression of a high opinion of their value, appeared to him an appeal to his sense of honour. He remained, therefore, with the army to the close of the war, through continual privation and exposure, and experiencing many narrow escapes; suffering at one time from a severe attack of malarious fever, after having remained for three weeks in a swamp, and not taking off his boots once in that time.

In the year 1871 the memorable epidemic of yellow fever broke out at Buenos Ayres. Three medical men only remained one only, Dr. MacDonald, remained till all was over in a plague-stricken city of some 150,000 inhabitants. Of his devotion to his work, some estimate may be formed from the fact that during this fearful epidemic he once attended as many as 90 cases in a single day. Medicine he supplied largely at his own expense; and in many instances death itself did not terminate his services, for he even advanced money to defray funeral expenses, too often never repaid. The fever lasted some months, during which time Dr. MacDonald was himself twice struck down by it. For his services he received almost nothing, abundantly as they had been acknowleged and extolled both by the Government and by the native and English press.

The medal which the Government offered, he declined, more suo. It was not in his nature to value such things, even if they could have borne adequate witness, which, of course, they could not, to services of the highest possible order, and to the sacrifice of health gone for ever.

He remained at Buenos Ayres for a few years longer in varying conditions of health. It was hoped that a good constitution and a singularly "plucky" temperament might in time do much to overcome the effects of past severe suffering. But it was not to be so, and when recovery was no longer to be hoped for it was determined in the autumn that Dr. MacDonald should leave for England, in fulfilment of the only remaining hope, that of dying at home. He landed in October, exceedingly ill, and Sir. W. Jenner diagnosed chronic hepatic inflammation, the result of malarial poison. With great difficulty reaching the Isle of Skye, he died on December 7th 1879, surrounded by nearly all his nearest relatives.

Those who from his early years knew him intimately, whether related to him or not, cannot trust themselves to speak of his nobility of character, his unbounded generosity, his perfect sense of honour. They would rather point to the facts of his life and death. And when one thinks of that work calmly carried on in the pestilential streets, that heavy burden borne without help, of skill, sympathy, money, and as the event proved, life itself placed, and knowingly placed, at the disposal of those whom he attended, his figure seems to stand out not unlike that of the hero of the ancient battlefield, and certainly not less glorious.

"... non arma manu, non fraena remisit;
Qualis erat, dextros defert in Tartara currus."


In her book published in 1881, ten years after the outbreak, Marion Mulhall gave a vivid description of life in Buenos Aires at the time.


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