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Life of the Rev. Thomas Guthrie D.D.
Chapter III - Probationership, Medical Studies and Banking


Newly licensed preachers do not always find it easy to obtain a speedy and acceptable settlement. Some of the most distinguished ministers in the church have had to wait for years ere their talents were recognised by patrons and congregations, and a suitable sphere of labour and usefulness assigned them. It was so in the case of Dr Guthrie. Indeed, if the truth must be told, at this period of his career he was far from being popular as a preacher. He had not acquired the knack of making friends, either in or out of the pulpit. Some of the local critics who heard his trial discourses, gave judgment upon them in terms far from complimentary. One kind friend called him a "bulletin blockhead," and whatever the phrase might mean, neither the preacher nor his friends had any difficulty in understanding that it did not imply, on the part of the critic, an excess of admiration. From the outset of his pulpit career he gave full play to his lungs and voice, and his aim was always directed to speaking the truth without fear, favour, or affectation. His sermons were not really dull, nor could they be objected to on orthodox grounds, but still there was something about them which prevented them from catching the popular ear.

Failing to procure an immediate settlement, but having the not far distant prospect of being presented to a parish by Lord Panmure, Guthrie determined to proceed to France with the view of increasing his knowledge of medicine, in the study of which he took a deep interest. Accordingly, he spent the winter of 1826-7 in Paris attending medical classes, and getting such insight into medical matters as the hospitals of that city could so well furnish. His medical studies would seem to have been of a somewhat desultory and amateur character, and did not indicate any intention of changing his profession, but only of qualifying himself more fully for the performance of its duties. In this respect, his attention to medicine was eminently useful, and subsequently gave him great power for good when labouring among the poor in the parish of St. John's, Edinburgh.

When he went to Paris he took with him an introduction to Baron Guil. Dupuytren, then considered the first surgeon in Europe. Proving himself an apt and enthusiastic pupil, the Baron took a special interest in his studies, and treated him with much friendly familiarity. The Baron was of short stature, and his Scottish student was over six feet in height. On one occasion, when going his rounds in one of the hospitals, the Baron stopped at the couch of a patient, whose leg had been recently amputated, and turning to Guthrie, said, "Take care of your legs; there's a man who would never have had his limb amputated but for its inordinate length; it was always in his way." Both master and pupil enjoyed the joke; Guthrie, probably, all the more that he was considered a "strapping" fellow, and, despite his stature, by no means unhandsome. Several countrymen, who afterwards rose to the highest distinction in the medical profession, sat at this time, like Guthrie, at the feet of this Gamaliel in medicine; and with some of these he formed friendships that were as permanent as they were intimate and valuable.

That his medical studies should occasionally give a tinge to his word pictures was only to be expected; and one or two of the exquisite touches in the following extract are probably due to this source. Speaking of the street Arabs, he says:—"And they are clever fellows, some of these boys. They are, as we say, real clever. There are some excellent specimens among them. For example, I remember walking along the street we call Hanover Street, when an old lady was going toddling along on her old limbs, with a huge umbrella in her hand. A little urchin came up who had no cap on his head, but plenty of brains within, no shoes on his feet, but a great deal of understanding for all that. Very well, I saw him fix upon that, venerable old lady to be operated upon, and my friend beside me, Dr Loll, never, I will venture to say, performed an operation with half the dexterity with which that boy skinned that old lady. He went up and appealed to her fur charity. She gave him a, grunt. He went up again. She gave him a poke. He saw there was no chance of getting at her through her philanthropy, and he thought to get at her purse through her selfishness, so he pulled up his sleeve to his elbow—his yellow, skinny elbow—and limning up, he cried out to her, displaying the limb, and exhibiting his rags and woeful face, "Jist oot o' the Infirmary wi' the typhus fever, mam.' I never saw such an electrical effect. The old lady put her hand to the very bottom of her pocket, and taking out a shilling, thrust it into his hand and ran away."

In 1828 Dr Guthrie returned to Brechin. Not obtaining a settled charge, he entered the bank of which his father was a manager, and whilst on the Sabbath he occasionally exercised his gifts as a probationer, during the week he applied himself with great assiduity to the business of banking. In this way he acquired a knowledge of human nature and of monetary transactions, to which he owed much of that practical sagacity in the ordinary affairs of life by which he was afterwards eminently characterised. Addressing a meeting in Dundee, he alludes, in his own way, to this period of his history :—

"I do not intend to give you any learned disquisition on commerce. The truth is, that is rather out of my line, and I wont meddle with it in that way; not that I am altogether ignorant of commerce either. I don't want any of you to understand that. I was a banker for two years; and Mr David Milne, formerly of the Union Bank, said when I left that profession (for if nobody will praise me, I must praise myself), that if I preached as well as I banked, I would get on remarkably well; so you see I am not so ignorant of these things as one of my brethren with whom I was sitting one day. He took up a newspaper and began reading, when he came upon 'Sound' intelligence, which you Dundee people all know means the ships that pass through the 'Sound.' 'Why,' says he, 'what do they mean by "Sound?" 'Is it intelligence that may be relied on?'

"Neither am I so ignorant of agricultural affairs. At least I have been in the habit of testing the agricultural knowledge of my brethren in the church by asking them how many teeth a cow has in her front upper jaw; and they don't know a bit about it; they don't know that a cow has no teeth in her front upper jaw at all. Some of them guessed half-a-dozen, and some of them a whole dozen. They were all as ignorant as an old friend of mine in the city of Brechin, who wished to have a first-rate cow. He accordingly gave 12 or 15 for a handsome one, thinking that she was in the flush of her milk and the beauty of her youth. But a wag went up to him afterwards, and said to him, 'Dear me, look, Mr Smith, she hasna a tooth in her upper jaw. You have been fairly taken in. Instead of buying a young milk cow, she is a venerable grandmother!'"


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