Dr Harry R. Lillie

Written by on September 13, 2016

We recently received an unusual donation, and one that holds an incredible story. A medical bag belonging to Dr Harry R. Lillie was generously given to the College, along with a copy of his book The Path through Penguin City (1955). In this blog post our Digitisation Project Intern Kirsty Earley explains its significance.


Dr Lillie’s medical bag


Dr Harry Russell Lillie was a surgeon and medical officer aboard British whaling ships in the Antarctic during the 1940s. Originally from Dundee, Lillie received his MB ChB from the University of St Andrews in 1939, previously graduating with a BSc Engineering in 1926.


Dr Lillie’s Baumanometer

He began his career at sea during the whaling season of 1946-1947. Serving up to 600 sailors at a time, Lillie was putting his surgical skills to good use at sea [1]. Life at sea was always busy, and certainly not a 9-5 job. Surgeons and medical officers had to be ready to deal not only with common illnesses contracted at sea, but also severe injuries of the whaling profession. It wasn’t unheard of for sailors to find themselves inside the mouth of the whale they were trying to hunt:

“Trapped with only his boots sticking out as the jaws came together, he got off with a moderately crushed chest and emphysema from the neck to the waist, but was back on his job in six weeks.” [1]


Dr Lillie’s surgical kit

As well as exercising his medical skills, Lillie was able to observe the conditions and methods of whaling in the Antarctic. The hunting of whales has been performed since prehistoric times, however the reasons for hunting whales has changed over time. Whales have been targeted as a food source for some communities, as well as being killed for oil and blubber.

The tools used to kill whales have evolved over the years. Lillie describes in detail the specific methods sailors used to take down their prey, and, as the true scientist he was, didn’t leave out any details. “Explosive Harpoons” were used to take down the whale instead of standard iron harpoons used previously. These harpoons had a delayed mechanism, where the spear would pierce the whale’s tissue, and then explode via implanted grenades after a few seconds. As would be expected with such a large mammal, death wasn’t immediate; often it required several hours for the whale to die after more than one harpoon fired.

Such scenes were the cause of Lillie’s campaigning for new whaling laws. He reported the horrific methods used to kill whales to make a clear point- things had to change. And things did change. His book The Path through Penguin City was published in 1955 and remains to be one of the most influential books in whaling conservation. Here he uses helpful imagery to explain the how horrible whaling was:

“If we can imagine a horse having two or three explosive spears stuck in its stomach and being made to pull a butcher’s truck through the streets of London while it pours blood into the gutter, we shall have an idea of the method of killing. The gunners themselves admit that if whales could scream the industry would stop, for nobody would be able to stand it.” [2]

It was this work that led to the formation of several conservation groups, including the International Whaling Commission, [3]. In fact, Sir David Attenborough has quoted Lillie’s work when discussing the still present inhumane methods of whaling [4].

With such an interesting background, it is safe to say that there is still much to discover about H.R.Lillie, his workings as a surgeon and as a conservationist.


  1. Lillie, H.R., 1949. With whales and seals. The British Medical Journal, 2(4642), p.1467-1468.
  2. Lillie, H.R., 1955. The Path through Penguin City. Benn Publishers.
  3. Society for the Advancement of Animal Wellbeing. Whaling. Available at: http://www.saawinternational.org/whaling.htm.
  4. Kirby, A., 2004. Whaling too cruel to continue. BBC News. [online] Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3542987.stm.

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  1. Peter Marsden says:

    My grandfather, Robert Marsden, was part of the whaling expedition that Harry writes about in The Path through Penguin City; there is even passing references and a photograph of my grandfather in the book. As an electrical engineer, my grandfather was commissioned by Sir Vyvyan Board (head of United Whaling) to develop an electric harpoon to “humanely” kill whales; Harry’s book talks of the considerable lessening of pain and distress that this innovation would bring. Although, today the consensus is very much that the killing of whales per se is abhorrent, in the early 1950s, when whaling was at its height, a means by which the horror could be lessened was seen as a good thing… My grandfather died in 1969 when I was still very young and so I never had the opportunity to discuss his Antarctic travels with him, but I have inherited various photos and personal items relating to this voyage…

  2. David Whiting says:

    Harry was an old friend of the family and in the late 1960s lived on the top floor of my parents home at 1 Calverley Park, Tunbridge Wells, his old Land Rover with a makeshift bunk bed parked in the driveway. He spent most days in his room writing a book and seemed to have little time for much else.

    My mother, Lady Muriel Dowding, had founded her Beauty without Cruelty charity to expose the cruelty caused by the fur trade, and later the abuse of animals for cosmetics, so Harry’s firsthand contribution on animal welfare topics was of great value.

    Harry was a kind, thrifty, energetic man with simple needs. From time to time he would be away for a while and we would learn that he had travelled across several countries to attend some international conference, usually to do with whales.

    He was a great, yet humble and sincere Scott – we miss him.

    • Clare Harrison says:

      Thanks for getting in touch with such a lovely story about Dr Lillie. It’s great to hear a firsthand account of his life and character.

  3. Cecilie Brown says:

    Harry Lillie was a magical figure in my childhood. We lived in Japan at the time, and he would appear without warning, stay for some days, maybe some weeks, and then disappear. Never any warning, but each time it happened was joyous. He’d soak his (only) suit (tweed) in the bath, re-stock on food and move on again, to pursue his campaigns: Whaling in Japan and the use of diet to cure cancer). I’ve never met anyone before or since like him. His boundless energy, his kindness, his eccentricity. The whole family adored him. I imagine his bag also came to stay with him. God Bless. He is truly an Unsung Hero.

  4. Neil Turner says:

    What else was in the bag? Interesting to see how things change http://historyofnephrology.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/the-doctors-bag-circa-1910.html (bit.ly/2cWSIgt)

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The College’s heritage collections – including thousands of medical and surgical instruments, rare books, archives, and pictures – span over 6 centuries and are an excellent resource for exploring the history of medicine and the history of the city of Glasgow. Many items from the collections have been digitised and are available to view here. Our digitisation work is ongoing, and we add new items to the site regularly, so keep checking back to discover more.

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