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Dr. William Cullen, Professor of Chemistry


Dr. William Cullen was born in the parish of Hamilton, county of Lanark, in the year 1710. He received the first part of his education under Mr. Brisbane, at the grammar-school of Hamilton; and, having chosen medicine as a profession, he was apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary in the city of Glasgow. It does not appear that he went through a regular course of education at the University, so that the chief means of improvement he possessed at this time were derived from observing his master's practice, and perusing such medical works as fell in his way. It is not known at what age he went to Glasgow, nor how long he continued there; but in very early life he engaged as a surgeon to a vessel that traded between London and the West Indies, and performed several voyages in that capacity. Disliking a sea-faring life, he attempted to get into medical practice in his native country, and first settled in the parish of Shotts. He remained there only for a short time, and then removed to Hamilton, where he was chosen one of the magistrates of that burgh. The Duke of Hamilton happening to be taken suddenly ill, Dr. Cullen was called in; and his mode of treatment was much approved by Dr. David Clark, who had been brought from Edinburgh. This accidental circumstance added much to his medical reputation in that quarter.

During his residence at Hamilton, Dr. Cullen became acquainted with Mr. William Hunter. These two celebrated characters, who were destined to do so much, each in his own line, for the advancement of medical science, had very early entered into habits of the strictest intimacy. Dr. Hunter had been originally intended for the Church; and with that view had attended some of the classes at the University of Glasgow. Cullen's conversation, however, gave a different direction to his studies, and he resolved to study medicine.

In consequence of the extension of his practice, Cullen resolved to apply to the University of Glasgow for a medical degree, and this he accordingly obtained upon the 14th September, 1740. On the 13th November, 1741, he married Ann Johnston, the daughter of a neighbouring clergyman, by whom he had a numerous family. His eldest son, Robert, was a Lord of Session and Justiciary.

During the residence of Dr. Cullen in Hamilton, Archibald Earl of Islay, afterwards Duke of Argyle, being in that part of the country, required some chemical apparatus. It was suggested to him that Dr. Cullen was more likely to have what his lordship wanted than any other person. He was accordingly invited to dinner by his lordship, and fortunately made himself very agreeable. This interview was one of the chief causes of his future rise in life. He had secured the patronage of the Prime Minister of Scotland, the future Duke of Argyle, besides the countenance of the Duke of Hamilton. In 1746, the lectureship on chemistry, in the University of Glasgow, which is in the gift of the College, became vacant. Cullen offered himself as a candidate, and was accordingly elected. He commenced his lectures in the month of October of the same year. In 1751, the professorship of medicine (in the gift of the Crown) becoming vacant, the interest of Argyle procured it for him. He appears to have taught both classes. In 1755, he transmitted a paper to the Physical and Literary Society of Edinburgh, "On the cold produced by Evaporating Fluids, and of some other means of producing cold,"—the only chemical essay he ever published.

In 175G, he was unanimously elected Professor of Chemistry in the University of Edinburgh, where the medical school was already formed; and he had much greater incitements to exertion than he had in Glasgow. Dr. Whytt, who taught the institutes of medicine, died in 1766, and Dr. Cullen obtained the vacant chair. Dr. John Gregory, a short time before, had succeeded to the chair of the practice of physic; and these two Professors continued each to teach his own class for three sessions. At the conclusion of the session, 12th April, 1769, Dr. Cullen proposed to the patrons that Dr. Gregory and he should alternately teach the institutes and the practice. This was complied with; and it was declared that the survivor should have in his option which professorship he preferred. Upon the lamented death of Dr. Gregory, 10th February, 1773, Dr. Cullen chose the practice; and upon the 17th of the same month he was duly installed into the office.

When Dr. Cullen taught the "Institutes," he published "Heads of Lectures for the use of Students in the University of Edinburgh," but he proceeded no farther than physiology. In 1772, appeared, in two volumes octavo, "Synopsis Nosologic Methodicae," which was written in Latin. The merit of this performance is universally admitted. He criticised impartially the works of those who had gone before him in this department of medical science, and candidly pointed out in what respects his own arrangement might be objected to. This seems to have been particularly designed, in order to prepare the public for his great work, which he was then composing, and which was looked for with general impatience: it, however, did not appear till 1776. It was entitled "First Lines of the Practice of Physic." Its circulation through Europe was both rapid and extensive. It became exceedingly popular, and not only raised his reputation very high, but enriched him considerably, as it is said to have produced upwards of three thousand pounds sterling. About a year before his death, he published "A Treatise on the Materia Medica," in two volumes quarto.

The high respect in which the genius and character of the venerable Professor were held by the patrons, professors, and students of the University of Edinburgh, as also by societies in Ireland and America, will appear from the following addresses and resolutions:—

"On the 8th January, 1790, the Lord Provost, Magistrates, and Council of Edinburgh voted a piece of plate, of fifty guineas value, to Dr. Cullen, as a testimony of their respect for his distinguished merits and abilities, and his eminent services to the University, during the period of thirty-four years in which he has held an academical chair. On the plate was engraved an inscription expressive of the high sense the Magistrates, as patrons of the University, had of the merit of the Professor, and of their esteem and regard."

"A meeting of the Pupils of Dr. Cullen was held on the 12th, in the Medical Hall, when an address to the Doctor was agreed upon, and ordered to be presented by the following gentlemen:—Dr. Jackman, Mr. Gagahan, and Mr. Gray, annual presidents of the Medical Society; Dr. Black, Dr. Gregory, Dr. Duncan, Mr. Alexander Wood, Mr. Benjamin Bell, Dr. James Hamilton, and Dr. Charles Stuart. A motion was also made, and unanimously agreed to, that a statue, or some durable monument of the Doctor, should be erected in a proper place, to perpetuate the fame of the illustrious Professor. The execution of this, and of all necessary measures for the purpose, was also committed to the above gentlemen."

"The Royal Physical Society presented an address to Dr. Cullen. The gentlemen of the deputation were very politely received by the Doctor's sons, Robert (afterwards Lord Cullen) and Dr. Henry Cullen, (Dr. Cullen himself being much indisposed), and a suitable answer returned."

Similar addresses were presented by the Hibernian Medical Society, and by the American Physical Society of Edinburgh.

The following resolution was agreed to by the Senatus Academicus of the University of Edinburgh:—

"Edinburgh College, January 27.—The Principal and the Professors of the University of Edinburgh being this day convened in the Senatus Academicus, Dr. Gregory informed them, that, at a meeting of the Eoyal Medical Society, and of the other gentlemen, the former and present pupils of Dr. Cullen, it had been resolved to erect some durable monument of grateful respect for their venerable instructor; and the committee appointed for carrying this determination into execution, thinking a conspicuous place in the new College would be most proper for that purpose, he was empowered to request, in their name, the consent of the Senatus Academicus.

"The members of the Senatus Academicus, thoroughly acquainted with the eminent and various talents of their illustrious colleague, and sensible how much they have contributed towards increasing the reputation of the school of medicine in the University, unanimously expressed the warmest approbation of this resolution ; and they have no doubt their venerable patrons, who, with their usual attention to the welfare of the University, have already given a public and honourable testimony of the estimation in which they hold the genius and merit of Dr. Cullen, will readily concur with them in granting what is desired. And the Senatus Academicus desired their secretary to furnish Dr. Gregory with an extract of this minute, to be by him communicated to the Royal Medical Society, and the other gentlemen concerned.

(Signed) "Wm. Robertson, Principal.

"Andw. Dalziel, Secretary."

Dr. Cullen, now far advanced in years, had thus the satisfaction of anticipating, from these flattering testimonials of respect, in what estimation his character was likely to be held by posterity. He died, at his house in the Mint Close, on the 5th of February, 1790, aged eighty-one.


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