Dr. George Graham-Cumming

A fellow student recounts his memories of Eric Liddell at Edinburgh University

I started my medical studies in the summer term of 1924 intending to become a medical missionary like my boyhood hero David Livingston and was admitted to 56 George Square, then a hostel for medical students intending to be medical missionaries. It was operated by Dr and Mrs Lechmere Taylor for the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society, which granted us scholarships. One of the other residents was a broad-shouldered, rather stocky, not too tall individual with rather a large head and face. This was Eric Liddell who played Wing Three Quarter for Scotland in the Rugby International contests. He was not studying Medicine but Science and would normally not have been accepted as a resident save that he did intend to be a missionary as his parents had been, and his elder brother, Robert, was then the resident doctor at the Cowgate Dispensary run by EMMS at that time. We all took turns at open air preaching every weekend at the corner of the Cowgate outside that Dispensary.

The Lechmere Taylors treated us as “family”. Each presided over a large table round which we sat for our meals and conducted family worship which we were all required to attend daily. One day while gathering for this event I got into a friendly tussle with Eric, put a judo leg-hold on his right knee and strained his right thigh. I won that fight but lost all respect and learned what it is to be thoroughly unpopular. Eric was training hard for the Olympic Games to be held in Paris in a few weeks! Fortunately, he recovered quickly and showed no reduction in speed to my immense relief.

We students made much use of the gardens in the centre of George Square, all having access to admission keys. Amongst other activities we would organise friendly races with Eric, largely for the honour of being able to claim having run against him. I had played rugby and done a bit of sprinting at school but made no particular mark as an athlete. In a hundred yards’ dash Eric would give me a good five paces handicap grace, then standing behind us, would count ‘one, two, three, go!’ watch us all start, then run after us. Catching up with me about half way, he’d run alongside urging me to “run, man run” then, about fifteen strides from the finish line, would suddenly dash ahead and win before I could take another five strides. There was strictly no competition but I proudly claim to have raced with Eric Liddell.

The story of the Olympic race is quite faithfully reproduced in the film “Chariots of Fire”. I have seen the documentary film of the actual race many times.

In those days we made our own radio receivers with a crystal and twisted wire “whisker” and earphones. I was listening to the broadcast on mine. Eric had drawn the worst starting position in any race, away out on the rim of the curve, the last spot to hear the starter’s gun and with no visible competitor. Eric led from the start. The announcer began to get excited. “They’ve cleared the last curve. Liddell is still leading! He’s increasing his lead! Increasing and increasing! Oh, what a race!” He choked with excitement. I was yelling!

Eric graduated shortly after. The McEwan Hall was packed to the rafters. As Eric stepped up pandemonium broke out! When the uproar subsided the Rector was heard to say, “Well, Mr Liddell, you have shown no man can pass you except the examiner -” Pandemonium! I’m sure most people have seen the pictures of Eric being carried shoulder high thereafter.

Eric did go to China as a missionary and was duly captured and held in a Japanese internment camp, where he died. I have been contacted by a man who was interned with him. It seems he eventually modified his views in the interests of the youth for whom he organised sporting events on those very days.