The story of Doc Polson
Located in Grand Cayman’s West bay, the wreck of the Doc Polson is a perfect fit for the man who lends his name to it. Small, yet interesting and colorful. I’ve dived it countless times, and always enjoy it, especially when I have a camera. But who is Doc Polson? Why does he have a shipwreck named after him? What is his story?
When a dive boat ties up to the wreck of the Doc Polson, the boat crew will give some sort of briefing about the dive site, and the dive you are about to conduct. Sometimes they also tell you about the history of the ship, and why it was named Doc Polson. The story will vary to some degree, depending on who tells it but usually it’s something like this:
“Doc Polson was the physician who first brought hyperbaric medicine to the Cayman Islands. Doc Polson was a very unique character, and as a man of science he took great pleasure in making a nuisance of himself on Sunday mornings, where he would disrupt church service, by riding a loud unmuffled motorcycle around the island.”
Some deckhands will also add in, for humor I suppose, that these Sunday jaunts on his motorbike were often performed scantily clad, or even in the nude. It was this detail that had me questioning the credibility of the myth. I often found myself wondering. Was this story true? To my surprise, when I tried to find out the answers, it only led to more questions. There was shockingly little information written on the man. Even though in 2015, Doc Polson was posthumously honored by the Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, his introduction video had just scant information about him. How is it someone can get a shipwreck named after them and not have their story told? I set off to find out.
Over drinks with my colleagues, I mentioned what I was up to, and several of us began looking into his history. The path in researching the life of Doctor Jim Polson was not an easy one. Potential leads quickly turned to dead ends. I would ask around, looking for people that knew and worked with him. I'd find someone to speak with, only to find out they didn't know him well, or weren't willing to speak with me.
I kept chipping away when time allowed, and wrote detailed notes. The more I learned of the man, the more intrigued I became. His life was humorous and interesting. Eventually I was able to make contact with his son, who was an invaluable source of not only information, but also leads of who else to talk to.
Spoiler alert - over the year of research I did, I learned conclusively the motorcycle story wasn't true. What I also learned was a very interesting and compelling story about a family doctor who was revered in the community by everyone who knew him. As soon as I asked anyone about him, those who knew him lit up with positive recognition. No one had a bad word to say about the man. However in each and every interview with all of the people we spoke with, there was one universal agreement: Jim Polson was a character.
The story of Doctor James St. Clair Polson begins in Glasgow Scotland on August 28, 1915, when William and Euphemia Polson welcomed their 1st child into the world. Jim, as he is known to his friends and even his own son, was the first of his family to attend college, obtaining a medical degree from The University of Glasgow School of Medicine, Dentistry and Nursing. Upon graduation in 1938 he joined the ranks of the Royal Air Force as a Flying Officer for the Medical Branch. No one remembers for sure, but it was thought Jim joined the military as it appealed to his patriotism. Jim was said to have walked away from Scotland during his time with the RAF, seldom returning and often getting transferred from station to station every few years, in what is a life common to military personnel. It was when stationed at the London School of Aviation in the 1940’s, he received his training in aviation medicine - something that would later prove quite useful for the Cayman Islands.
During his time with the RAF, Jim served in World War II, in Italy, Africa, and what was then Yugoslavia where he was supporting the partisans against the Nazis.
Like any true Scotsman, he enjoyed his whiskey, and his reputation for his odd humor was prevalent. A photo supplied by his son Mike, shows Jim and his wife Pip attending a fancy dress party aboard the Queen Elizabeth. The thickly mustachioed doctor is shown smiling, in black tie with a ceramic chamber pot in his hand. The caption reads: “Jim playing the fool with a potty on his head.” In attendance at the gala, there was one other person at the party doing exactly the same thing and, ironically, he turned out to be another RAF officer.
The 1941 book “Fighter Pilot” by RAF Commander Paul Richey DFC, is a personal record of the campaign in France during World War II. The book was written from the author's own journals, and in its pages, Richey recounts a story involving Jim Polson:
“After dinner I got blind drunk with Polson and fell asleep while the Group Captain was talking to me. But he was a damn’ good chap and I don’t think he minded. After a few more drinks Doc Polson carried me off to bed.”
In 1950 Jim was posted to Randolph Field Air Station in San Antonio Texas, in an exchange program with the School of Aviation Medicine for the newly created United States Air Force. It was here where he would make friends and key contacts in the medical world that turned out to be very useful to him decades later.
Jim served in the RAF until the mid to late 1960’s. Mike Polson writes about his father’s unceremonial retirement from military service:
“He was in the RAF until the late 60`s - 1966 or 67 I think it was. I was living in London at the time as a law student, and he was in Singapore. I was supposed to have a holiday there but, one day he and my mother just turned up at my apartment and he said that he had retired from the RAF and asked if he could stay with me until he moved on. Total surprise, and my holiday dreams were shattered. He stayed in London for a few months while he sought a job abroad.”
Jim Polson didn’t care for the UK, and the nomad in him made him look outward for his next chapter in life. He found it as a staff doctor at a local hospital in the Bahamian island of Long Island, where he signed a 3-year contract. Despite the turquoise water and sugar-white beaches, Jim Polson did not find paradise in the Bahamas. His assigned government housing - part of his contract, was located on a section of the island aptly called Deadman’s Cay. Upon his arrival to work, he learned that his predecessor had committed suicide. Political turmoil at the time had caused the Bahamian government to sanction Long Island, and things like the postal service and delivery of medical supplies among other things, were badly disrupted.
Approaching the end of his contract in the Bahamas, Jim learned of a job opening at the Government Hospital on Grand Cayman. Jim Polson knew that Caymanians had a reputation of being good merchant seamen. Aside from that, he knew nothing of the island. Jim and his wife packed their bags, and headed for Georgetown.
Grand Cayman of the late 1960’s was so vastly different from what it is today. With around 8,000 residents, it was a sleepy little tropical island. Aside from a few British and Canadian banks, it had no financial sector at the time, and didn’t even have paved roads. Only a few small hotels existed, catering to just a handful of eclectic tourists who stayed for months at a time. If you owned a car it was mostly rotted away, and everyone could identify everyone else by the patterns of rust in the body. Food was all imported frozen or in cans, mostly from Jamaica. Lettuce, which arrived on the slow boat from Tampa, would be half rotten on its arrival in the unrefrigerated cargo ship. Locals knew to peel out the rotten layers, discard the core, and keep the few middle leafs. Not many years earlier, locals had paid for professional services using fruit as currency.
In these days, the vast majority of Caymanian men worked on merchant ships for much of the year. Home for perhaps a few months at most, their annual wages would be spent on the construction of their home - something that usually took about 5 years to complete. No one had mortgages, and everyone knew everyone. When hardship or disaster struck, the entire community felt it was their duty to chip in and assist anyone else in need. It was the first era of Caymankind.
In these years, Cayman was seen as an outpost for those who did not grow up on the island. As part of the British Colony, it was not a desirable place for most expats. Bankers and other professionals who had a difficult time in London with career advancement would often take a position at a Cayman bank or law firm as a stepping stone. Living in Cayman then was seen as a hardship - something you put up with for your two-year tour, so you could return home to a promotion. As such it attracted oddballs and outcasts. Native Camanians at first did not care for their original idiosyncratic British guests.
This is the setting upon which Jim Polson first arrived on tiny propellor-driven aircraft in the late 1960’s. Despite being eccentric and from Scotland, the locals loved Jim Polson. And he loved them back. When after 28 months, his contract ended with the Georgetown hospital, Jim was faced with a choice about his future. To leave the Cayman Islands he had come to love wasn’t in the cards. His choice rather, was to see if he could make it on his own in private practice.
Today, the motive to start one’s own medical practice for most doctors seems to be largely financially based. In the early 1970’s, money never entered Jim Polson’s mind. At the time, Jim was one just a few doctors on the island. His thought process was that if he started his own clinic, that would free up his position at the hospital, allowing them to hire another, increasing the total number of physicians on the island.
Jim first broke ground on his Cayman Clinic on Crew Road in 1972 where it remains in operation to this day. All those that were in attendance for the opening ceremony agreed that by today’s standards it was primitive. But then for the Cayman Islands, it was state of the art. It had multiple rooms, top of the line equipment, and waiting room! On the coffee table, were magazines for patients to read while they waited - something never heard of before. The quirky Jim Polson had a subscription to Playboy magazine at the time, and much to the shock of his conservative client base, he thought nothing of including these risque periodicals. To this day, no one is quite sure if this was done as a deliberate joke, or without a thought in the matter.
Everyone describes Jim Polson as a caring man, albeit one who was hard to understand. His thick Scottish accent coupled with the fact that he was soft-spoken and often mumbled made it difficult to know what he was saying. He was known to partake in an adult beverage, from those who were his final patients of the day - his 4:30 appointments would often end with a consultation in his tiny office accompanied by a few drinks from a bottle of Johnnie Walker. Jim’s friend Steve Hawley details:
“Despite our age difference, Jim took a liking to me, and I always found myself getting the last appointment of the day when I needed a checkup. At the end, he’d always pull out the bottle, for 1 drink. I’d work away at my drink, intending to have just one. But before I could finish it, he’d somehow always manage to top up my glass just before I could empty it and I’d end up staggering out of his office hours later.
On one occasion, when he pulled out the bottle, I saw it only had a little bit left in the bottom. This was good, as I needed to get home. We had our drink, and to my dismay he managed to top up my glass again from a fresh bottle he had hidden in his drawer.”
Jim’s kindness knew no bounds. He was patient, caring, comforting, and would do anything for anyone. At 3:00 in the morning he would get a call from a worried mother on the east end of the island. “Doctor Jim, the baby is sick!” And without hesitation he would don his trousers, drive out and spend all night with the family, often coming back to work in the morning with nothing but a cup of coffee keeping him awake for his day. The mother never received a bill - the only people who did, were the ones Jim knew could afford to pay.
At the Beach Club where Jim was a regular, worried patrons would frequently ask him for medical advice or spot checkups. “Dr. Jim!” They’d say, “Can you check out my heart please?” At the pub and lacking a stethoscope, Jim Polson would put his ear to the person’s chest and make a show of listening, followed shortly with a pat on the back and a clean bill of health - usually delivered in an incoherent mumble with a smile. It’s unlikely Jim could actually deduce any valid medical information from this technique, but it made everyone happy, and that’s what he loved the most.
In 1969, Gerry Wilcox founded the Cayman Islands Diving Club, as Branch 360 of the British Sub-Aqua Club. Soon after, he made it his mission to get a recompression chamber on-island, which is astounding when you consider the club had just 20 members at the time. Wilcox felt a chamber was an essential part of diver safety for the ‘hundreds of divers’ who would come to visit the Cayman Islands in the coming years. (In 2019, Grand Cayman would serve hundreds of divers before 10:00 AM.)
In the subsequent years numerous fundraising efforts had raised not even half of the $8,000 CI needed to buy the chamber; $57,900 in 2020 dollars. Their big break came when the diving club was commissioned by Cayman Islands Development Finance Corporation to complete a detailed underwater survey of the Georgetown Harbor for the sum of $3,000. The CIDFC wanted a feasibility study so they could investigate the possibility of improving the Georgetown harbor for larger ships, allowing for larger projects in the Cayman Islands. Over 100 dives and 400 man-hours later, the 24-member team completed the survey, bringing Cayman’s first hyperbaric chamber closer to reality.
As the club scraped and clawed their way to the fundraising goal, they looked for any ways to save money. Help came from all directions. In Florida, Perry Submarine Builders where the chamber was purchased, discounted the price $1,000 for selecting a refurbished model. Wilcox’s dive shop donated the air compressor to run it. A local company - Desnoes and Geddes donated air storage cylinders, and the chamber was shipped to the island at no cost by The Windward Shipping Company. The Cayman Islands Government agreed to waive the customs duty on the chamber’s importation, and in December 1972 it arrived on the island. Now they just needed a place to put it.
Despite never having been a diver, Jim Polson’s giving nature and hypobaric medical training from the RAF made him an ideal candidate to be in charge. As coincidence would have it, Jim had just finished building his clinic and had space on his Crew road lot. The final pieces of the puzzle dropped into place when the Cayman Islands Contractors Association built the structure, and a local heavy truck owner Rupert Moxam delivered the chamber to its new home - both free of charge.
Although it had actually been in operation for much of 1973, the chamber was inaugurated by Governor Kenneth Crook in early 1974 and within a week had its first case.
The multi-person chamber was staffed by members of the BSAC club, and on call 24-hours a day. Each of the members were trained in its operation with an 8-week class by Doctor Jim Polson, who by then was serving as the club’s official Doctor. It was now that the connections Jim made during his time at Randolph Air Force base came in handy. This allowed him a direct line to a wealth of current information and treatment techniques in hyperbaric medicine from the US military medical experts who were always ready to help him with advice.
As a business, the chamber was a failure. Run by the Cayman Diving Club, they would not refuse service to any patient. The motto “Treat first then ask questions" more often than not left the club absorbing the full cost of the treatment. This was decades before diving insurance was even an idea. By 1977, the chamber had provided 22 treatments to 9 divers. It was during this time, the club set a very aggressive goal of raising $50,000. While dozens of local Cayman businesses generously contributed, the club never met their target, but they did manage to keep their prized possession in continual operation through the years.
However as a medical service to divers, the chamber was an amazing success. Many of the diver’s Doc Polson and his team would go on to treat were actually not from Cayman but from areas all around the Caribbean. Patients arrived from Nicaragua, Belize, and especially Honduras where on Swann Island, lobster divers frequently suffered decompression illness. It was the only chamber in the region for them - all flown to the Doc Polson’s clinic via low flying aircraft. David Black, a pilot and flight instructor talks about one particular flight with Doc Polson:
“Chris McLaughlin and I flew back from Swan Island at an altitude not to exceed 300 feet so as to keep the patient from decompressing any further. We would have normally been at 6000-7000 feet on that route. In fact, I remember we had to climb on the final approach to Owen Roberts Airport in order to clear the NDB antenna on Walkers Road next to Abacus House!”
This is how life went on for Jim Polson throughout the 1980’s. A circle of caring for the citizens of the Cayman Islands and diver recompression treatments, with humor, rugby, and whiskey sprinkled in the gaps. Along the way he received numerous awards and accolades from the local Cayman Government, diving groups, and even Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second. His Cayman Clinic grew slowly and steadily to the point where in the 1980's he hired another doctor to help him. During some of his down time, Jim Polson could often be found in Cayman’s South Sound, watching the local rugby matches, where he also served as the team’s unofficial doctor - on standby to patch up any casualties.
Sometime in the early 1990's, (no one I spoke to was sure of the exact year,) Jim Polson retired from practicing medicine. His second wife Pat, had passed away and Jim sadly faded into the background of obscurity, despite being so beloved by the citizens of Cayman. This was a busy time for the island - it was well on its way to becoming a financial powerhouse in the global market. New buildings, businesses and roads were springing up left and right. Hotels were abundant, and cruise ship passengers - something unheard of in 1970 - were combing the Georgetown waterfront for jewelry and souvenirs. John Grisham had written his 1991 bestseller “The Firm” whose plot centers around Grand Cayman.
This was also around the time the wreck that bears Doc Polson’s name was sunk. Of the dozens of Cayman diving legends I spoke with, no one seems to actually remember for sure. The only detail I did learn, was the wreck to bear Doc Polson's name was a former dredge that Sunset House owner and then Cayman Watersports Association President Mr. Adrian Briggs had acquired.
Jim Polson passed away on April 23, 1996 at the age of 80. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried at sea. On May 1, a dive boat on loan from Mr. Briggs set out to Hogs Sty Bay with a group of his friends and son. Jim had made his desire for a non-religious service known, but this turned out to be illegal in Cayman. Reverend Harry Bodden joined the trip, and offered some brief words and a prayer which according to Mike Polson, turned out to be “just right.”