Sara Stevenson, Deodar Cedar, on the Millbank site, September 2018
Deodar growing on the Millbank site, likely to have been planted by the Symes, S Stevenson, August 2018.

James and Jemima Syme

The notable surgeon, Professor James Syme (1799-1870), and his second wife, Jemima Burn (died 1869), bought the house of Millbank in 1842 from the widowed Mrs Neilson or her heirs.

Syme’s biographer, Dr Robert Paterson, wrote:

It is impossible to dissociate Mr Syme and Millbank; they are connected by so many ties, social and otherwise… This house, so mixed up with all the reminiscences of him and his hospitality, was really a delightful spot. Although only half an hour’s walk from Princes Street, it is as much in the country as if it were twenty miles out of town. It faces the beautiful and verdant hills of Braid and Blackford, with the eastern part of the Pentlands in the distance. On entering its precincts, Edinburgh is immediately left behind, with its bustle, noise, and smoke, and nothing is visible from its windows, but the gently sloping hills, the well-ordered terraces, the walls covered everywhere with ivy, and trees judiciously introduced, to add to the beauty of the retreat. Much of this beauty was of his own making; and here he set himself to do everything that gardening could effect to make this “land of Canaan” at once useful and ornamental. In addition to the conservatories and vineries which existed when he bought it, he erected an additional green-house and heath-house, a larger pit for pine apples, a fig-house, a banana-house, two large orchid-houses, as well as a long range of glass-covered walls for wall-fruit, and fruiting plants in pots for the table. His delight at the success of his fig and banana culture, when introduced after dinner, will be bright in the recollection of those who used to meet at his hospitable board.i

Some six years after they bought the house, Syme took on an authoritative post in London. At his leaving party in Edinburgh, Syme’s oldest friend, Professor Robert Christison, said that Syme ‘had carried his love for [horticulture] to such a length that he had rendered his garden and conservatories conspicuous in this land of gardeners…’ii

In the event, Syme found that he did not enjoy London, and he retreated back to Edinburgh after only a few months, drawn back partly by the attractions of Millbank. He said: ‘the great metropolis offers a dreary field for exertion, admitting few gleams of domestic or social enjoyment, and hardly yielding any fruit but money, which, when thus gathered as the sole object of ambition, is too apt to harden the heart and chill the affections.’iii He told a friend: ‘ he feared for his children’s sake, the want in London of the free air and exercise they always enjoyed at Charlotte Square and his suburban villa of Millbank’.iv

Jemima Syme, who ‘to an exceedingly kind and amiable disposition, added great clearness and decision of mind… was also devoted to similar pursuits; fond of flowers… and she entered into all his tastes as if they had been her own.’v She clearly took a vigorous role in the garden. The Symes also employed a knowledgeable gardener, John Reid, and he proved very successful in winning medals for his plants in the Caledonian Horticultural Society’s exhibitions – in competition with the big and wealthy estate owners. The garden and its hothouses produced beautiful flowering and fruiting plants from all over the world. Moreover, Syme was a botanist with a positive interest in the many medical plants, which were being investigated at the time. He was given seeds and cuttings to rear for experiment, and Millbank acted as a physic garden – growing such plants as the Trinidadian Quassia Amara, Cucumis colocynthis – the bitter apple or vine of Sodom, from the Holy Land, and Physostigma venenosum – the ‘Ordeal Bean of Old Calabar’.vi

The Symes used the house and garden for entertainment, and were generous in sharing their pleasure. Dr Joseph Bell (who we know nowadays as the prototype for Sherlock Holmes – an unemotional and rational man), spoke movingly about Syme, and added: ‘

…any notice of his life would seem to his old friends and pupils as very incomplete, which did not allude to his kind, cordial hospitality. Few houses were pleasanter than Millbank. He was naturally averse to crowds… but the smallness of his parties was more than made up by their frequency and thorough pleasantness… Mr Syme asked no one to his house for mere conventional necessity, was not much trammeled by policy or fashion, but invited those whom he liked, because he enjoyed their company… House-surgeons and dressers were ever welcome: and the stroll in the garden and the walk to the Infirmary after the quiet Saturday dinner, will be long remembered by many old house-surgeons, as among the most pleasant relaxations from their trying work.

Jemima Syme died early in 1869, ‘a source of bitter and enduring grief’ to her husband, who suffered a stroke a few months later.vii When James Syme himself died in 1870, the funeral procession made its way from Millbank to St John’s Church in Lothian Road where he was buried. The hearse was drawn by four black horses and preceded by four mutes. Despite the fact that the funeral was strictly private, there were more than fifty carriages bringing his mourning friends, the shops were closed along the route as a sign of respect, and the spectators thickly lined the roads. His medical students and the public crowded round the church and an impressive list of his fellow doctors and patients attended the service.viii

Agnes (Syme), Lady Lister

James Syme’s daughter by his first wife, Anne Willis, was Agnes Syme (1834-1893). She was evidently well-educated, and probably gained painful experience of nursing within her own family. Her mother died in 1841, after bearing ten children, seven of whom died young. In 1856, Agnes married the young surgeon, Joseph Lister (1827-1912), in the drawing room at Millbank. Lister had been particularly encouraged in his career by James Syme, and maintained a great admiration for him. It might be thought that Lister, in marrying the boss’s daughter had an eye to his professional future, but he wrote lyrically of her as his ‘precious Agnes’, and said ‘There is in her countenance an ever varying expression that artlessly displays a peculiarly guileless, honest, unaffected and modest spirit’, and he added that she had no lack of sound and independent intelligence’ with ‘a very warm heart’.ix Through her marriage, Agnes Lister became a leading figure in the improvement in medical knowledge in her time. After her death, it was said of her that she was ‘one, who throughout her life, awarded [Lister] unwearied help in the pursuit of his investigations and experiments. Indeed, of them it might be truly said they “walked this world yoked in all exercise of noble ends.”’x Having worked with James Syme and having both respected and loved him, Lister would often be found at Millbank with his wife’s family.

Joseph Lister

Lister is famous as the man who promoted antiseptic conditions in surgery. It is especially poignant that Dr T. Ratcliffe Barnett, writing on the Chapel of St Roque and the medical associations of the Astley Ainslie site in September 1939 a few days after the declaration of the second world war, wrote: ‘it is not the least of the tributes paid to Lord Lister, that by his discovery of the antiseptic method of surgery, he is said to have saved more lives than all the wars of the nineteenth century had cut off.’

Barnett was looking into a bleak future, but he concluded:

This corner must always be of interest to every physician and surgeon who is a loyal member of the Edinburgh School of Medicine for it enshrines the memory of two of the greatest of Edinburgh surgeons. Until quite recently the old mansionhouse of Millbank stood in its original condition within the spacious grounds to the east of Canaan Lane – that sylvan roadway known for its umbrageous beauty. In this house for 36 years lived James Syme, the Professor of Surgery in Edinburgh, who has been called the Napoleon of Surgery. Syme rejoiced in its beautiful flowers and grapes, but especially the matchless orchids which he grew there. And now it is one of the most appropriate memorials that not only Millbank, but a great deal of the surrounding ground, has provided an ideal site for the Astley-Ainslie Institution and Convalescent Home, which is so closely connected to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. So from the sad and far-off days of St Roque the plague healer, to the better days of Syme and Lister, this little corner of suburban Edinburgh has been a shrine of the healing art.xi

i Robert Paterson, Memorials of the life of James Syme, Professor of Clinical Surgery in the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, 1874,  p 293-4.

ii Paterson, op. cit., p. 83.

iii Ibid.

iv Paterson, op. cit., p. 95.

v Paterson, op. cit., p. 292.

vi For a fuller account, see S Stevenson, ‘James Syme – humanity and the garden’, The Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, 2018 [forthcoming].

vii Paterson, op. cit. p. 292.

viii Scotsman, 1 July 1870.

ix From correspondence in the Wellcome Library, quoted in Lindsey Fitzharris, The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine, Penguin books, 2017.

x Mrs W. Y. Sellar, ‘Some Recollections’, Cornhill Magazine, new series, vol 29, 1910, p. 763.

xi Dr T. Ratcliffe Barnett ‘The Chapel of St Roque, A Shrine of the Healing Art’, Scotsman, 9 September 1939