John Black Cowan – Surgeon and university professor

John Black Cowan was an eminent surgeon and a professor of medicine at Glasgow University with a family interest in public health.

In 1870 he was on the first Committee of Management of the Arlington Swimming Club.

Robert Cowan – public health specialist

His father – Robert Cowan – was also a doctor, a graduate of Glasgow University and the first Regius Professor of Medical Jurisprudence and Forensic Medicine, from 1839 until his death in 1841.

The University of Glasgow Archives Services explain that Robert Cowan had a particular interest in disease and public health in the city

“…as a physician devoted himself to the statistical investigation of fever and smallpox, and to improving sanitary conditions. His research convinced him that poor sanitation was one of the most significant factors in the spread of infection. He was prominent in the Glasgow Public Health movement and helped to found the Glasgow Statistical Society in 1835, specifically to investigate the relationship between living standards and the incidence of disease in the West of Scotland.”

University of Glasgow Archives Services, Papers of Robert Cowan, 1796-1841, and John Black Cowan, 1829-1896, physicians and surgeons

Two of his most important publications were Vital Statistics of Glasgow (1837) and Vital Statistics of Glasgow – Illustrating the Sanitary Condition of the Population (1840).

He and other campaigners were successful in persuading city authorities of he need for public action to address health issues in the city, incluing creating the clean water supply that could supply a swimming pool.

“By the 1840s… campaigners were persuading the corporation that some human intervention was necessary to tackle the worse conditions. The town council took the lead in trying to remove the middens and dung heaps which were seen as a source of infection. The new civic spirit was most clearly symbolised by the opening of the new municipal water scheme from Loch Katrine in 1859.”

The Glasgow Story: Second City of The Empire: 1830s to 1914

John Black Cowan – professor of medicine

John Black Cowan was born in 1829 in Glasgow.

He graduated with a medical degree from the University Glasgow in 1851.

In the 1851 census he is listed as one of the doctors at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Intriguingly, one of the other doctors on the list is Robert Perry, who, 20 years later, was also a member of the Arlington Baths.

According to the Glasgow University Story, in 1855 he served as a Civil Surgeon in the Crimean War. This war was fought between Russia and an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia from 1853 to 1856, and was the conflict in which Florence Nightingale, the pioneer of modern nursing, came to prominence.

After the war he returned to his medical career in Glasgow and on 29 July 1857 he was married in St Peter’s Church, Dublin. His wife was Mary Anne Stokes, the second daughter of William Stokes, MD, of Merrion Square, Dublin. William Stokes was an Irish physician, who was Regius Professor of Physic at the University of Dublin. Her mother, Mary Black, was originally from Glasgow.

The Belfast Newsletter, 5 August 1857

By 1861, living at 216 West George Street, the couple had three children, Mary (2), Margaret (1) and a son, aged six months, whose name is not recorded.

The Glasgow University Archives record that from 1856 John Black Cowan was a lecturer in medicine at Anderson’s University.

He also wrote about medical matters. Several of his works are available on the Internet Archive, provided by the Glasgow University Library:

It’s not clear, but presumably at some point in this period his wife Mary Anne died – for on 1 June 1864 John Black Cowan married Annie Bolling Buchanan Alston. She was born in 1827/28 in Glasgow. Her father was James William Alston, and her mother’s name is given in different records as Marion Cross (pre-marriage?) and Margaret Alston. James W Alston is described in the 1861 census as a landed proprietor and merchant. In the 1851 census he is also described as Justice of the Peace and involved with with Turkey Red dye works. One of the other Baths founders – Donald Matheson – had a business named Matheson and Alston, so perhaps there was a connection between the two families.

In 1865 John Black Cowan was appointed Regius Professor of Materia Medica (medicine) at the University of Glasgow.

In this post, he gave the Introductory address at the public opening of the Medical Session 1869-70, in the University of Glasgow. In this speech he refers to the University moving to its new Gilmorehill site in the West End of the city and mentions some of the local amenities such as the Botanic Gardens.

This was just one year before the Arlington Baths were founded, also in the expanding West End. At this time,  1870, he had an address at 159 Bath Street.

John Black Cowan held the Professorship at the University until 1880 when he resigned because of ill-health

The 1881 census records John and Annie, plus three daughters – Mary (22),  Margret (21) and Anne (16) in a house called Woodend in Helensburgh; perhaps they had moved there for his retirement, or perhaps they were just spending time there for his health.

Certainly by the time of the 1891 census, when he is aged 61, he is living at 9 Woodside Terrace wife with his wife Annie B B Cowan (63) with four children, including the daughters from his first marriage:

  • Mary Cowan, 32
  • Margaret Cowan, 31
  • Anne Marion Cross Cowan, 26 (born 1865)
  • James W A Cowan, 22 (born 1868)

They also had at least two other sons:

  • Alexander Cowan, born 6 April 1866
  • John Marshall Cowan, born 22 May 1870

In the 1895 Medical Directory he is listed as retired, and now living at 9 Woodside Terrace.

He died in 1896, leaving an estate of more than £70,000.

The Cowan children – a soldier and a doctor

We’re not sure what happened to all of his children, but among his executors were three sons.

Robert William Cowan apparently became a rancher in Alberta, Canada.

James William Alston Cowan joined the Highland Light Infantry in 1892. He died on 11 December 1899 at the Battle of Magersfontein in the Boer War in South Africa. This was a defeat for the British forces in which the Highland Light Infantry suffered heavy losses.

John Marshall Cowan followed his father and grandfather into medicine, and studied at Glasgow University. and also at Cambridge. He is also listed on pg 55 of Alumni Cantabrigienses: A Biographical List of All Known Students, Graduates, and holders of Office at the University of Cambridge Office from the earliest tamest 1900, Volume 2, part 2 with a long list of eminent positions and honours.


He was also in the South African (Boer) War, but as a doctor rather than a soldier. He served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps in the First World War, when he would have been in his mid-forties, and was Mentioned in Dispatches. He worked in hospitals in Glasgow and held posts at Anderson College and Glasgow University. He is chiefly remembered for his work on cardiology. There’s a full description of his life and career in this obituary from the Glasgow Medical Journal in 1947.

Researcher: Lucy Janes

One thought on “John Black Cowan – Surgeon and university professor

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s