A. J. Cronin, physician and novelist, was born on the 19th of July, 1896.
Archibald Joseph Cronin – better known simply as A. J. Cronin – was one of the most commercially successful Scottish writers of the 20th Century. An accomplished storyteller, his novels often combined a powerful portrayal of working-class life with social commentary and criticism. His humanism and social realism also made him popular in the Soviet Union and many of his books were adapted for films or television programs. He is fondly remembered as the creator of the hugely popular character, Dr. Finlay, serialised on television in the 1960s. He also achieved acclaim as the author of the novels, ‘Hatter’s Castle’, ‘The Keys to the Kingdom’, ‘The Stars Look Down’, ‘A Pocketful of Rye’ and ‘The Citadel’.
Archibald Joseph Cronin was born on the 19th of July, 1896, at Cardross, in Dunbartonshire. He was an only child and, despite family poverty and his father’s early death, Cronin received an education at Dunbarton Academy, where he excelled in writing English prose. Notwithstanding his ability in the arts, in 1914, he won a scholarship to study medicine at Glasgow University. His studies were interrupted by the First World War and so he enlisted in the Royal Navy. He served as a surgeon’s assistant with the rank of Sub-Lieutenant and afterwards, in 1919, returned to Glasgow University. He graduated MB, ChB, in 1919, and MD, in 1925, gaining a diploma in Public Health in London along the way. At one time, he worked as a ship's surgeon on a liner bound for India and then served in various hospitals.
He moved to Wales, in 1921, and set up in practice in South Wales. Later, in 1924, he was appointed Medical Inspector of Mines for Great Britain. He was distressed by the damaging effects of the mines, not just on the workers' health, but also on the living conditions in the Welsh valleys and became ever more exasperated at the neglect of the employers and the incompetence of the medical staff. His protests eventually cost him his job and he left to set up a practice in London’s Harley Street.
The year of 1926 was a significant one for Cronin, when he suffered from lung disease, probably contracted in the mining valleys, and spent three months recuperating in the invigorating air of the Highlands. It was during that time that he wrote his first novel, ‘Hatter's Castle’, which became an immediate success when it was published the following year. That story of a family brought to ruin by the bigotry of hat-maker James Brodie, who was fixated on the pretentious delusion that he was of noble birth, was the catalyst for Cronin turning to full time writing. He never returned to medicine.
Perhaps his most influential book was ‘The Citadel’, which was published in 1937. In that book, he drew on his medical background and experiences in South Wales and Harley Street to highlight the huge inequalities that existed in health provision in Britain at the time. The story chronicled the ruination of a Welsh mining community by a combination of greed and incompetence, and the heroic struggle of a young Scottish doctor to alleviate suffering. It wasn’t autobiographical, but it certainly drew on his personal experiences.
‘The Citadel’ is often credited as the inspiration for the National Health Service, which was introduced in the years following the Second World War. His influence didn’t stop there as many believe his novels were an important factor in bringing about the landslide victory of the Labour Party in the General Election of 1945. Obviously, he had caught the mood of the people with his realistic stories of working-class life. Cronin’s popularity stemmed from his ability to construct detailed, realistic drama out of mundane events, based on keen observation and experience. Perhaps this quote sums up his qualities of observation, “Nothing is more limiting than a closed circle of acquaintanceship where every avenue of conversation has been explored and social exchanges are fixed in a known routine”. An excruciatingly familiar experience for many.
In the 1939, Cronin moved to Connecticut in the USA with his wife and three sons and it was there he wrote ‘The Keys of the Kingdom’, which was published in 1942. Some of his works had religious themes in addition to the familiar struggle against adversity, also drawing on his own experiences, That book was the story of a Roman Catholic missionary in China, Father Francis Chisholm, who advocated ecumenical cooperation between all Christians. It was filmed by 20th Century-Fox, starring Gregory Peck and with a screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Peck was nominated for an ‘Oscar’ for his performance. Nearly half of Cronin’s thirty or so novels were adapted into films. ‘The Citadel’, which made Cronin famous in the United States, starred Robert Donat.
In his autobiographical book ‘Adventures In Two Worlds’, Cronin further examined his religious beliefs. After his Catholic father died, his Protestant mother brought him up as a Catholic and at Dunbarton Academy, Cronin had been subjected to anti-Catholic prejudice. The theme of ecumenical cooperation in ‘The Keys of the Kingdom’ stemmed from his disgust for bigotry and that spirit of conciliation marked all of his books dealing with questions of faith. On that subject, he once spoke of "A feeling of social inferiority... a sort of spiritual wound deriving from my religion”.
For me, A. J. Cronin will always be remembered because of his novella ‘Country Doctor’, which spawned the character of Dr. Finlay and inspired the 1960s BBC TV series, ‘Doctor Finlay’s Casebook’, which was broadcast from 1962 to 1971. Dr Finlay also featured in a BBC Radio series that ran throughout the 1970s. The television series was recreated by Scottish Television and PBS, in 1993, but this wasn’t a patch on the original, which remains a classic. Dr. Finlay practised in the fictional town of ‘Tannochbrae’.
In 1946, for health reasons, Cronin made his home in Switzerland, where he carried on writing until he died of acute bronchitis, on the 6th of January, 1981. He was buried in La Tour-de-Peilz, Montreux, Vaud, Switzerland.