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Life Jottings of an Old Edinburgh Citizen
Chapter Eighteen

"Learning by study must be won."
- Gay.

AFTER completing six years at the Academy, I attended the University for mathematics, chemistry, and natural philosophy, and learned much that has been useful to me in later life, although I must confess I did not go deep into mathematics. In chemistry I was much interested. Professor Gregory, son of the great Dr. Gregory, of nauseous mixture memory, was in the Chemistry chair. The only incidents worth recording were those of the laughing-gas day, the occasion which combined amusement with instruction more than any other. It always took place on a Saturday, and drew a very crowded house, great numbers of students attending to enjoy the scene, who were not in the class of the year, The fun was much enhanced by the fact that the Professor was a man with little or no sense of humour. While we were all enjoying the wild cantrips of those who had taken the gas, he prelected on the different cases as mere scientific illustrations, 'he first student who drew the gas in from the inflated bladder was in a moment on the top of the five-feet desk of the front students" seat, and flying along the desks behind, whacking w < th the bladder at everyone near. Absolutely unconscious, he nevertheless, though running at speed up the sloping desks, never massed his footing, while he banged his fellow-students, arid at last he woke up with his feet straddled across two desks, and threw the bladder from him. We roared with laughter, but not a smile passed over the professorial countenance. When quiet was restored, he solemnly informed us that as the first experiment had resulted in a display of violence, it would probably be found that the subsequent cases would show a general tendency in the same direct on. And so it was, much to the satisfaction of the row-loving student. No. 2 was a powerful-looking advanced student. He applied his violence to the desk n front of the Professor, driving his fists into the hard wood until his knuckles streamed with blood, the Professor looking on him calmly from the safe distance and the height of the broad demonstrating table, and evidently well satisfied with the fulfilment of his prediction. lie experiments brought out a remarkable instance of unconscious memory, a young lad under the influence of the gas shewing a retention in the brain of what he could not have reproduced by conscious effort. Professor Pillans, who taught the Humanity class, was fond of introducing little speeches on the :important topics of the day, regardless of their having any relation to his subject. On the death of the Duke of Wellington, he delivered an oration upon the deceased hero, and his words had impressed themselves on the lad When he had taken his bladder-full of gas he turned round, and walking backwards and forwards as Professor Pillans had done, he with good elocution and appropriate action repeated verbatim many sentences of the oration, he students of the Humanity class recognised at once what was happening, and shouts of laughter went up from the benches, but were staled by the other students who wished to hear.

The young reciter went on without hesitation or break while the gas influence lasted, and I remember that it was just as he uttered in loud tones 'before the walls of Scringapatam that he woke up, amid roars of laughter. Here was another case, similar to the drowning memory, in which an exciting cause drew from the brain-shelves what the owner of the brain could not have brought up by conscious intention. It was plain that what I had heard was an exact reproduction from the Professor s speech.

The only other incident of gas-day was one peculiar to the Professor himself. He was a strong believer in mesmerism, and one student, after inhaling, planted his elbows on the demonstrating table 1n front of the Professor, and looking him straight in the face said, "Do you mean to say that you consider mesmerism to be a branch of science? This raised such a shout from the irreverent students that the Professor's reply was lost, and the interrogator suddenly awaking—as the reporters say—"the incident closed."

The Natural Philosophy chair was at that time held by Professor Forbes, a refined gentleman of the old school, from whom the attentivee student could learn much, and who was universally respected. If a student went to him personally to inquire on a particular matter, he was most kindly received, and what he heard was always clear and interesting. The Professor was a great contrast to his equally kind, and perhaps even more instructive but externally more rugged successor, my old school-fellow, Peter Guthrie Tart, of whom I have spoken already in connection with the Edinburgh Academy.

It was while attending these classes that I began to be a nuisance to my family. I have never been  able to content myself with learning about practical things by listening to lectures, or reading text-books. I must dabble. And I did dabble, and filled my room with apparatus and chemicals. I made stinks inexpressible in my efforts at "practical chemistry, and succeeded once in making an unconscious invention of an explosive, which blew the neck off a bottle and sent everybody in the house coughing as in the last stage of consumption. My pocket-money went for Woulff's bottles and retorts, and supplies of acid to burn my clothes, and ammonia to cure the burns. I look back upon that time with very great pleasure. Perhaps what I learned was desultory and unsystematic, but I have often found the benefit of it since in professional life. It is well for a lawyer to have a good smattering of many practical subjects. He has often to master what ib intricate in natural science

Edinburgh from the mound, looking east,

on short notice, and it is no small aid to him to beg, This study of the particular case with a general though not exact and complete information. A want of knowledge of practical things led to a colleague—a very learned lawyer—turning to me and saying: "Macdonald, what on earth is a cam?' the debate up to that point having turned a good deal on cam action in a machine. He was absolutely in the dark as to what it was all about, and so put his plaintive word of appeal for light to me. A. little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but only if it engenders conceit. It may be, and often is, of great value to the man who knows its limitations.

As regards my natural philosophy tendencies, they went mainly in one direction—to electricity and magnetism. My first introduction to electricity practically—putting aside the impudent farce of Short's Observatory—was when my father, hearing that his brother, the Adjutant-General, had died, spent 6d. in telegraphing, and received a letter through the penny post before any answer arrived by telegraph, after many hours of waiting, the telegraph was a little- believed in wonder. History tells us that on the Electric Telegraph Company's office being opened with a flourish on a certain morning, the large staff kicked its heels the whole day, there being only two messages handed in up to two o'clock. So disgusted and alarmed were the Directors, that sone of them went round to the scientific instrument-maker, who had supplied two weighing machines to weigh the hundreds of sovereigns which were expected, and begged that one pair of scales be taken back at a discount. But the capture of the Quaker murderer Tawell in a Great Western train at Slough, in consequence of a message sent by railway telegraph from Paddington, stimulated my youthful curiosity about electricity, and set me working with magnet to needles, and coils of wire and batteries, at which I was expected not to waste my time, and ;n reference to which I was rebuked for going to the famiould ever come when the honour would be conferred upon me—unsolicited and unexpected—of being elected a member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, a position which I prize more than many other good things which have come my way. This subject interested me deeply, and I lectured on it as a young man to a great many audiences in town and country. At that time there was displayed the too common tendency of the distinguished men of science to express themselves unfavourably to the hopes of the keen explorers of the field, and to declare with emphasis that what the inventive mind was pushing after could not be accomplished. It may interest the reader to know that at the time of my student Here I read a declaration by Bunsen—one of the greatest scientists of that day—that to suppose that motive power on a large scale could ever be provided electrically was a Utopian dream. I knew that at the very time he thus wrote eager minds were working at the problem; and I remember a fellow-student telling me that an engineer of his acquaintance had assured him that h s experiments made him confident of success. It is probable that friends took a pleasure in thrusting Bunsen's dictum before him, with that air of "kindness-to-the-poor-young-enthusiast," which too often covers a desire for indulgence of self-importance, and the hope of being able to say later, "I told you so." Bunsen was wrong. The reason he gave for his opinion was unsound. Being the inventor of a most excellent electric battery, he assumed as a fact that development of electrical energy was only to be got from galvanic batteries, and as consumption of zinc was necessary to the operation of the battery, and zinc cost a certain sum per pound, he declared it to be impossible to obtain energy for mechanical work on a large scale, except at a price too great for economical use. His first premiss was wrong, as the event has proved, and there are hundreds of thousands of practical refutations of his utterance to-day.

Another curious instance of want of foresight which I came upon in my study of the literature of electricity was in a scientific work published in 1848, in which the author described how duplex telegraphy could be effected—both two messages in opposite directions, and two messages in the same direction over one w*re. An asterisk at the passage indicated a note, and the note at the bottom of the page said: "But these, of course, are mere electrical toys, which can never be of any practical use."III This reads strangely, knowing as we do that not only duplex, but quadruplex telegraphy has been in practical use for many years.

It was the same in the case of the telephone at a later date. One of the highest officials in the Government telegraph service declared before a Parliamentary Committee that he did not think the telephone would ever be much used n this country—that in the United States they had a scarcity of message boys, but we had "plenty of message-boys and things of that sort" (sic), and therefore the telephone would not come to any great extent into use.!!!

I learned from all this that sometimes the most injurious person to the interests of scientific progress was the scientific man himself. Many other cases could be quoted, but they would take up space, and the above are sufficient foi illustration.

After my year at science classes in the college, the only long break in my life in Edinburgh occurred. At that time I had chosen the Army as a profest on, and it was thought well to send me abroad to acquire the French and German languages :in preparation for the Army Entrance Examination, and from the autumn of 1853 down to the autumn of 1856 I was resident abroad, coming home for short intervals twice. My Edinburgh life was resumed on my final return. The intention of entering the Army was abandoned. The Crimean War had come to a close, and there was little prospect of any rapid rise in the profession. Had I known that the Indian Mutiny was to break out so soon, bringing the army once more into active service, I might have held on to my intention. One thing which influenced me was that I came to know that my father, who was not in strong health, wished that he might have a son at home, my only brother being already in the service. And the prospects at that time were such that my old uncle, General Alexander Macdonald—who, I may say in passing, was Ramsal's subaltern in the celebrated dash of his R.H.A. battery through the French cavalry regiment— told me that in his judgment I never did a wiser thing than in giving up the intention to enter the military profession. It would be affectation to say that I did not think I could do well in the army. Many friends have said to me since that I ought to have been in the service. My reply always has been that I am glad I was not; that I might have been a ten-year subaltern grumbling at being held in the leash of routine—the terrible routine of that time—and that as it turned out I had as much soldiering, indeed more, than if I had been a regular, and enjoyed very much more of my own way than could ever have been the case had I had to make my way slowly, and possibly be compulsorily retired while still in full vigour and fond of the work.

It was at this time that I learned to realise that my delicacy of boyhood had been but a growing weakness, although I had been told by the "kind friend' —from whom I was not saved, notwithstanding that I echoed the poet's prayer, "Save, oh save me from the candid friend"—that I had a "miserable constitution," that I would be "a martyr to dyspepsia before I was forty." &c. &c. That these prophecies, made doubtless from a sense of duty, by persons who knew, and therefore must speak, have been falsified, makes me grateful. I am somewhat in the position of Sir Henry Duncan Littlejohn, who on the occasion of his being presented with his portrait when he had passed the span allotted to man, told us of his having a consultation of two learned special its been reported on as uninsurable. I remember the quiet, humorous way in which he said: "And I had the melancholy satisfaction of belying their prophecy, as many years later I followed the remains of both these gentlemen to their final resting-place."

May I go back a little in time, and speak of another lime, that of my own father, who at forty-five years of age got his death-sentence for heart disease from the highest in the medical profession. All that could be said was that he should support himself with port wine and brandy, and that a year might see the end. I remember his calling us round his bedside, and solemnly telling us of the warring he had received. After he had done this, he added that he had heard of the great skill in disease of Mr. Gully, the hydropathy doctor of Malvern, and that as nothing could be done for him in Edinburgh, he did not see why he should not make an experiment. Accordingly he journeyed by stages, aided by sfimulant to ward off fainting. He arrived in Malvern in the afternoon, and Dr. Gully came to examine him the same evening. After a careful investigation he put away his stethoscope, saying, "Mr. Macdonald, you have no more heart disease than I have," and he proceeded to put him under drastic treatment—eight-feet cold douche bath, sweating bath with plunge into cold water, &c. a deadly treatment to any man with serious organic heart disease. The brandy and port wine were stopped from that day. The following year, 1848, my father returned home. He rode his horse, and was able to do as others— attending to his affairs, joining in any amusement suitable to his age with zest, able to play foursomes at croquet, in games that lasted for many hours, up to a good old age entertaining his friends, including Lord Robertson, whose utterance apropos of his recovery has been quoted. He lived for more than thirty years after his sentence of death, and ultimately died of pure senile decay at eighty-six, his heart doing its work vigorously, till the failure of the rest of his body made death inevitable. What he really had suffered from was an overstreched brain—he being a very hard worker indeed, and a terribly hasty feeder—leading to an exceptionally dyspepiic state, affecting the heart, but not so as to bring it into an organically diseased condition.

In my boyhood I had a very panting heart. Climbing a stair produced great breathlessness, and for a tme I had been unfit for the activities of schoolboy life. Belng abroad had done wonders for me, and I was fit for anything on my return. Since then no one has had more cause for thankfulness for sound bodily health. Thus I entered on study for my profession with no drawback of weakness, and began the most strenuous work of my life. I chose the Bar, and attended logic and law classes. I have already confessed that my inclination  is not naturally towards close and continuous application to one class of subject. But when I was faced with examinations in three languages, logic and metaphysics, and civil law, Scots law and conveyancing to follow, and all within two years, the necessity of the case was realised and study was paramount, social engagements were declined, and amusements, except on a Saturday, shunned. "I suspect you have been burning midnight oil, John,' said my brother when he came home on leave from his regiment. Well, I had. With the aid of a teapot, in which tea stewed for hours in the fender, and to which I applied time after time, I kept myself awake, and worked late as well as early. I came out sixth in order of merit in Scots law, in a class of about one hundred, which was far above what I had expected to attain, and it gave me hope of passing creditably when I should come up to be examined for the Bar. I believe that my surviving that teapot's contents, consumed in quarts, is the best proof of how robustness had taken the place of delicacy. My teachers were Professor Fraser—now a nonagenarian, who so ably filled the Logic chair; Professor Shank More, who lectured on Scots Law ; Professor Campbell Swinton, who was in the Civil Law chair; Professor Bell, who taught Conveyancing; and Professor Traijl who lectured on Medical jurisprudence. I also went to the Watt Institution to learn the practical arts of joinery and carpentering and turning, a knowledge of which has been most useful to me in many ways, professional and otherwise. As regards Medical jurisprudence, I have often regretted, having come to know Dr. Littlejohn so well, that I did not take his class at the College of Surgeons, but Professor Trail! was a charming old man, and his lectures and exhibits very instructive. Although there was no examination to be passed on his subject, its highly practical character made it most interesting to me, and I learned much which was of great utility in my criminal practice afterwards. I will confess that, with the exception of the Civic Law, I found the law lectures very dry. Mr. Bell I still seem to hear in the Conveyancing class, repeating: "Morison 2755, Mor son 2755/ the reference being always uttered twice in monotonous tone. And the Scots Law lectures were also terribly humdrum in character. Only one touch of relief do I remember, when the law on slavery was stated, and the dear old modest Professor More, who never looked at the class, but glanced up at the end of every utterance to the upper left-hand corner of the class-room, said in most sober tone; "And so ' (head up) "as the sun can never set on the British Dominions," (head up) "so that sun can never rise upon a British slave."

The worthy gentleman blushed as he looked for the last tine at the corner, when for once the room resounded with a round of applause, possibly to some extent, but kindly as well.

There is one story connected with his name which may bear repetition. A junior counsel had been asked for his opinion on the memorial of a client. He wrote below It::

"Your case docs not seem to me to have a leg to stand upon. Perhaps it would be as well to take in the assistance of one Shank More."

It's also told of him that his good-nature led him on the occasion of an examination, when in answer to his question the student had said, "Yes ' firmly, he gently responded: "Right, but rather 'no."

It was about this time, when King Edward was a lad, that he came to Edinburgh for a season for education. Of course his incognito was respected, but one saw him occasionally. I remember his being violently struck by one of his future subjects, There were several witnesses to the blow, but there was no arrest, and the eager reporter got no "copy" out of it. The Prince was playing racquets in the racquet-court in Rose Street, and getting in the way of the ball, his partner hit him a hard stroke on the shoulder, which made him wince and rub, and made the partner not know what to say. Of course it was the Prince's own fault, and he bore it well. It was probably the only occasion in his life when one of the Queen's subjects made—without intention—an assault so violent upon him. His royal shoulder must have for many days been changing from black to blue, and from blue to yellow. Had the ball struck him behind his ear, or on the temple, he might never have sat on the throne.

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