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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Dr. Alexander Hamilton, Professor of Midwifery


The Medical School of Edinburgh had been established for a very considerable period of time, before it was found necessary to institute a Professorship to teach the principles and practice of Midwifery. So early as 1726, Mr. Joseph Gibson had been appointed by the Town Council to give instructions in the art of midwifery; but he appears to have confined his teaching to females only. The truth is, that in those days the practice of midwifery was almost solely confined to that sex, as it was only in difficult cases that the assistance of male practitioners was called in; and hence it very frequently happened that the labour was found to be too far advanced to admit of their aid being of material service, and thus, from want of skill, the lives of many mothers and children were lost. The public owe it to the strenuous exertions of Dr. Young (the first Professor of Midwifery in the College of Edinburgh), and of the subject of this memoir, that so few fatal cases occur in this way, in the metropolitan districts of Scotland. Both of these gentlemen were indefatigable in their efforts to impress upon the public the necessity and advantages of all who practised midwifery, both male and female, being regularly instructed in the art. In their days, they had very formidable prejudices to encounter. They had not only to contend with the gross ignorance of those who were in established practice, and whose interests were so nearly related to the continuance of the system; but such was the state of public feeling, that there were many who pretended to the name of philosophers, who encouraged the prejudice. The principal argument upon which they insisted, which happens not to be fact in all cases, was, that nature is the proper midwife. This, combined with certain fastidious notions of delicacy, had the effect of confining the obstetrical art to females. But such has been the gradual improvement of the age in which we live, that we have the highest authority (even that of the present excellent Professor in the University of Edinburgh) for affirming that the public conviction of the utility of the art is so great, that there is now hardly a parish of Scotland, the midwife of which has not been regularly taught; and it may with truth be added, that the propriety and advantage of males practising as accoucheurs is now so generally admitted, as to make it very probable that the employment of females in midwifery may in time be entirely superseded. In three of the four Universities of Scotland there are Professors of Midwifery, viz., in Glasgow, Marischal College, and in Edinburgh, in which city there was established, in 1791, a Lying-in Hospital, under the more immediate patronage of the magistrates, the Lord Provost being President, and the Professor of Midwifery Ordinary Physician.

The Plate contains a striking likeness of the late Dr. Alexander Hamilton. This gentleman was born, in 1739, at Fordoun, near Montrose, where his father, who had been a surgeon in the army during Queen Anne's wars, was established as a medical practitioner. He came to Edinburgh about the year 1758, as assistant to Mr. John Straiton, a surgeon then in extensive practice; and on that gentleman's death, in 1762, he was urged by a number of respectable families to settle in Edinburgh. He accordingly, on application, was admitted a member of the College of Surgeons in that city, for the Royal College was not incorporated until 1778. Of an active and bustling disposition, it was not long before he was elected Deacon of the Incorporation, and consequently became a member of the Town Council. He was at the same time chosen Convener of the Trades.

Intent on the practice of midwifery, he found it necessary to obtain a medical degree as a physician before he could be admitted a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. This he accordingly obtained, having probably applied to the University of St. Andrews. The Royal College was founded in 1681, and according to the charter, every graduate of any of the Scottish Universities has a right to be admitted, upon paying the fees. He was first admitted a licentiate, and at a suitable interval chosen a fellow of the College.

In 1775, Dr. Hamilton published his "Elements of Midwifery," which has gone through several editions, under the title of "Outlines of Midwifery;" and in 1780, he published also a "Treatise on the Management of Female Complaints," adapted to the use of families, which continues to be a popular work. In the same year he was conjoined in the Professorship of Midwifery in the College of Edinburgh with Dr. Thomas Young ; and on the death of that gentleman, in 1783, he was appointed sole Professor.

Dr. Young and Dr. Hamilton gave alternately three courses of instructions annually to male and female pupils, till the death of the former, when the whole duty devolved upon the latter gentleman. Being now at liberty to adopt any improvement in teaching the class he might judge proper, he set about enlarging the plan of his lectures. His predecessors, though undoubtedly men of abilities, felt themselves narrowed in the sphere of their exertions, and cramped in their endeavours to perform their academical duty to their own satisfaction, in consequence of the strong prejudices that prevailed against the system of tuition. In his own time, these prepossessions were beginning to give way; but he completely effected what was obviously wanting in the scheme of medical education at the University of Edinburgh, by giving a connected view of the diseases peculiar to women and children. Still, however, the midwifery class was not in the list of those necessary to be attended before procuring the degree of Doctor of Medicine. His son has succeeded in accomplishing this object, after encountering a great deal of opposition.

Upon the 29th March, 1797, the Magistrates of Edinburgh, who are the patrons, had resolved that it should not be in the power of any Professor to appoint another to teach in his room, without their consent; but, upon application, Dr. Hamilton was allowed, on the 25th December, 1798, to employ his son as his assistant, and this office he discharged for two years. The doctor resigned his professorship upon the 2Gth of March, 1800, and on the 9th of April, his son, the late Professor, was unanimously elected to the chair.

Dr. Hamilton married Miss Reid of Gorgie, by whom he had a numerous family. He died upon the 23rd of May, 1802, in the sixty-fourth year of his age.


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