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James Grainger (c. 1721–1766) was a Scottish doctor, poet and translator. He settled on St. Kitts from 1759 until his death of a fever on 16 December 1766. As a writer, he is best known for his poem The Sugar Cane, which is now valued as an important historical document.[1]


James Grainger was born about 1721 in Duns, Berwickshire, the son of a tax collector of Cumbrian origin. After studying medicine at Edinburgh University, he served as a military surgeon with Pulteney's regiment of foot during the 1745 Rebellion and then in Holland until the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748. He later returned to Edinburgh, graduating as Doctor of Medicine in 1753, and then set up practice in London. Entering literary circles, he befriended Samuel Johnson, William Shenstone, Thomas Percy and other authors. Grainger's first English poem, "Solitude: an ode", appeared in 1755. In May, 1756, he commenced writing in the Monthly Review, contributing articles chiefly on poetry and drama until 1758. He also published a medical work in Latin drawing on his army experience, namely an account of fevers encountered during his military service and on venereal diseases (Historia Febris Intermittentis Anomalæ Batavæ Annorum 1746, 1747, 1748: Accedunt Monita Syphilitica, Edinburgh 1757), as well as some other essays.

In 1758 his Poetical Translation of the Elegies of Tibullus and of the Poems of Sulpicia appeared in two volumes[2] and was to be republished several times over the next century. Begun while he was still with the army, the work was prefaced with a brief life of the Latin poet and was dedicated to John Bourryau, with whom Grainger was soon to travel to the West Indies. The accompanying voluminous notes that crowd out the text were dismissed in a review by Tobias Smollet as "a huge farrago of learned lumber, jumbled together to very little purpose, seemingly calculated to display the translator’s reading",[3] and launched an acrimonious war of words between the former friends.

In 1759 Grainger settled on the West Indian island of St. Kitts, where he married an heiress whom he had met on the voyage out. Not having the funds to set up as a planter himself, he was made manager of the family’s estates and also continued his medical practice. His georgic poem The Sugar Cane was completed by 1762 and represents all he had learned on that subject, and about his new home in general. As with his translation of Tibullus, at least half of the text was made up of explanatory footnotes.[4] The poem did not appear until 1764, during which he had paid a brief return visit to London. That year also, Grainger published anonymously his pioneering Essay on the more common West-India Diseases and the remedies which that country itself produces, to which are added some hints on the management of negroes.[5] The only other poem surviving from this period was the ballad of "Bryan and Pereene", based on a local anecdote, which was published in Percy’s Reliques.[6] He died of a fever on 16 December 1766.[7]


  1. ^ John Gilmore, The Poetics of Empire: A Study of James Grainger's The Sugar Cane, The Athlone Press 2000, p.1
  2. ^ A later one volume edition
  3. ^ Sebastian Domsch, The Emergence of Literary Criticism in 18th-Century Britain, De Gruyter 2014, p.353
  4. ^ London 1764
  5. ^ Second edition 1802
  6. ^ John Gilmore, The Poetics of Empire: A Study of James Grainger's The Sugar Cane, p.202
  7. ^ Most biographical details are given in the Royal College of Physicians’ Lives of the Fellows

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