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The Scottish Nation
Pitcairn


PITCAIRN, a local surname, derived from lands of that name in the parish of Leslie, Fifeshire. The family of Pitcairn of Pitcairn was one of the oldest in that county. Piers de Pitcairn, their ancestor, swore fealty to Edward I. in 1296. Nisbet (Historical and Critical Remarks on Ragman Roll, appended to System of Heraldry, vol. ii. p. 38) states that he had seen charters of this family as far back as 1417, and adds: “Of them was Robert Pitcairn, commendator of Dunfermline, secretary during the regency of Moray, Lennox, Mar, and Morton; a great complier with everything uppermost, a great timeserver, a great enemy to Queen Mary, and a very humble servant of the regents. There is no memory of him remaining.” He was one of the nine persons chosen by the regent Moray to accompany him to England in 1568, when he went to justify his proceedings against Queen Mary, and one of the commissioners for him during all the conferences at York. Calderwood (Historie, vol. ii. p. 504) calls him “a wise and trustie man.” He was appointed a lord of session in 1568, was often chosen a lord of the articles, and in 1570 was secretary of state, which office he held during the three succeeding regencies, and afterwards under James VI. After the assassination of the regent Moray and the retirement of the lords of the queen’s party to Linlithgow, the commendator of Dunfermline was sent ambassador to Queen Elizabeth to solicit her aid against them, and to signify to her that a regent would not be chosen without her appointment or consent. In 1572 he was one of the commissioners appointed to meet, “and conclude with the superintendents and ministers in the kirk, or commissioners authorized by them, anent all matters” relating to the church. The following year he was one of the commissioners who signed the articles of pacification concluded at Perth. IN 1578 he was sworn a member of the king’s council. ON 28th January 1581, with the rest of the king’s household, he subscribed the second Confession of Faith, commonly called the king’s confession. He was one of the parties engaged in the Raid of Ruthven in 1582, and in August of the following year, when colonel William Stewart, (see PITTENWEEM, baron), had regained all his favour with the king, the commendator of Dunfermline sent him a velvet purse, containing 30 four-pound pieces of gold, and desired friendship with him. The colonel straightway informed the king, insinuating that it was a bribe that he might betray his majesty, and divided the pieces among thirty of the guard. Every man bent his piece and carried it hanging at his knapsack or hat, all the way from Perth to Falkland, while the purse was carried on a spear point, (Calderwood, vol. iii. p. 721). A few days thereafter, the commendator of Dunfermline was apprehended at Falkland, where the king then was, and confined in Lochleven castle, where he remained about a month. He was set at liberty on 23d September, on finding caution to remain in Dunfermline, and about six miles round about, under a penalty of £10,000. On his death in 1584, he was succeeded as commendator of Dunfermline by the master of Gray, on whose extrusion in 1587, Henry Pitcairn became commendator.

One of the family of Pitcairn of Pitcairn acquired by marriage the estate of Forthar, also in Fifeshire, after which the lands of Pitcairn went to a younger son, from whom was descended Archibald Pitcairne of Pitcairn, the celebrated physician, poet, and wit, a memoir of whom is given below. Of the elder branch, David Pitcairn, M.D., became the representative, on the death of his uncle, Dr. William Pitcairn, who practiced as a physician in London for nearly half a century, and was many years president of the college of physicians there. Of Dr. David Pitcairn a notice is also given below.

Mr. Robert Pitcairn, writer to the signet, the editor of the valuable and extensive collection of ‘Ancient Criminal Trials of Scotland,’ 3 vols, 4to, which bears his name, was a native of Perth. For a long time he was the head of the Edinburgh Printing and Publishing Company, and secretary of the Calvin Translations Society, instituted in May 1843, for the publication of new and original translations of the writings of John Calvin. For the last two years of his life he held a situation in the General Register House, Edinburgh. He died suddenly, on the street, in July 1855.

PITCAIRNE, ARCHIBALD, an eminent physician and poet, was born at Edinburgh, December 25, 1652. His father, Alexander Pitcairne, who was engaged in trade, and became one of the magistrates of that city, was a descendant, as above indicated, of the ancient family of Pitcairn of Pitcairn, in Fifeshire, and his mother, whose name was Sydserf, belonged to a good family in the county of Haddington, descended from Sydserf of Ruthlaw. He commenced his classical education at the school of Dalkeith, and from thence removed in 1668 to the university of Edinburgh, where he obtained in 1671 his degree of M.A. He studied first divinity, and then the civil law, the latter of which he pursued with so much ardour as to injure his health. He was, in consequence, advised by his physicians to proceed to the south of France; but by the time he reached Paris, he found himself much recovered, and resolved to attend the law classes at the university there. Meeting, however, with some of his countrymen, who were medical students, he was induced to abandon the study of the law, and for several months attended the hospitals with them. On his return to Edinburgh he became acquainted with Dr. David Gregory, the celebrated professor of mathematics, and directing his attention to the exact sciences, he soon attained to such proficiency as to make some improvements in the method of infinite series, then lately invented.
Believing, with many learned men of his time, that there was some necessary connection between mathematics and medicine, and hoping to reduce the healing art to geometrical precision, he finally fixed on physic as a profession. There being, however, in Edinburgh at this period, no other medical school than the sick-chamber and the drug-shop, he returned to Paris about 1675, where he prosecuted his medical studies with diligence and enthusiasm. In August 1680 he received from the faculty of Rheims the degree of M.D., which in August 1699 was likewise conferred on him by the university of Aberdeen. After making himself master of the science of medicine from the earliest periods, he returned to Edinburgh, with the firm resolution to reform and improve it in practice. In November 1681 the royal college of physicians of Edinburgh was incorporated, and his name, as one of the first members, graced the original patent from the crown. He settled as a physician in his native city, and ere long rose to the highest eminence in his profession.

Soon after establishing himself in Edinburgh, he married Margaret, daughter of Colonel James Hay of Pitfour, who died, after bearing him a son and a daughter, when he wrote an elegiac poem to her memory. The children, also, were soon removed by death. In 1688 he published his ‘Solutio Problematis de Historicis,’ in vindication of Harvey’s claim to the discovery of the circulation of the blood. In consequence of his high reputation, he was invited, in 1692, by the curators of the university of Leyden, to fill the chair of physic there, at that time vacant. His well-known Jacobite principles excluding him from all public employments at home, he accepted the invitation, and delivered his inaugural oration the 26th April of that year. During his residence at Leyden, where among his pupils was the celebrated Boerhaave, he published several dissertations, chiefly with the view of showing the utility of mathematics in the study of medicine. In little more than a year after, he returned to Scotland to fulfil a matrimonial engagement with Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Archibald Stevenson, one of the king’s physicians at Edinburgh. This lady he married in 1693, and as her friends were unwilling that she should leave her native place, he resigned his chair at Leyden, and once more settled in practice in Edinburgh. His great success, however, as well as his powers of satire, soon raised around him a host of enemies, and he was attacked in various publications of the period, particularly in a sarcastic little volume, entitled ‘Apollo Mathematicus,’ the production of Dr., afterwards Sir Edward, Eyzat. Sir Robert Sibbald having published a treatise in ridicule of the new method of applying geometry to physic, Dr. Pitcairne published an answer in 1696, under the title of ‘Dissertatio de Legibus Historiae Naturalis.’ The opposition to him was shown even within the college of physicians itself. Having, on November 18, 1695, tendered a protest against the admission of certain Fellows, one of whom was Dr. Eyzat, on account of its having been conducted in an irregular manner, the matter was referred to a committee, who, on the 22d, delivered in a report that Dr. Pitcairne’s protestation was “a calumnious, scandalous, false, and arrogant paper.” The meeting approving of this report, did thereupon suspend him “from voting in the college, or sitting in any meeting thereof;” nay, it was even proposed to prohibit him from the practice of physic. After a violent and protracted contention, during which various attempts at reconciliation were made, the president, Dr. Dundas, on January 4, 1704, proposed an act of oblivion, which was unanimously agreed to, and Dr. Pitcairne resumed his seat in the college.

In October 1701 the college of surgeons admitted him a Fellow, an honour which had never been bestowed upon any other physician. He appears to have held, also, the nominal appointment of medical professor in the university of Edinburgh. During the year last mentioned he republished his Medical Treatises, with some new ones, at Rotterdam, in one volume 4to, under the title of ‘Dissertationes Medicae,’ dedicating the work to Lorenzo Bellini, professor at Piza, who had inscribed his ‘Opuscula’ to him. A more correct edition of the same appeared a few months before his death.

Dr. Pitcairne died at Edinburgh, October 20, 1713, and was interred in the Greyfriars’ churchyard. By his second wife he had a son and four daughters, one of whom, Janet, was, in October 1731, married to the earl of Kelly. He was universally considered the first physician of his time. He is said to have had one of the best private libraries of that day, which, after his decease, was purchased by the czar of Russia. His Latin poems, collected after his death, were, with others, published by Ruddiman, in 1727, in a small volume, entitled ‘Selecta Poemata Archibaldi Pitcairnii et aliorum;’ and, according to Lord Woodhouselee, they comprise almost all that are of any value in that publication. He was also the author of a comedy called ‘The Assembly,’ printed at London in 1722, which Mr. George Chalmers says is “personal and political, sarcastic and profane, and never could have been acted on any stage.”

At the solicitation of his literary and political friends Dr. Pitcairne was in the habit of printing, for private circulation, the numerous jeux d’esprit which he composed from time to time with extraordinary facility. These were generally on single leaves or sheets of writing paper, and many of them were distinguished for their brilliancy and elegant Latinity; but, from this ephemeral way of distributing them, few of them, it is supposed, have been preserved. Of these pieces, Archibald Constable, Esq., the well-known publisher of Edinburgh, who died in 1827, and who was named after Dr. Pitcairne, had formed a very large and valuable collection, with numerous manuscript effusions in prose and verse. These Mr. Constable had intended to publish, with the rest of his miscellaneous poetry, accompanied by a Life of Pitcairne, for which he had amassed extensive materials. A large folio volume of printed and MS. Pieces, being part of these collections, appeared in a London bookseller’s catalogue, priced at £10 10s.; but it is not known into whose possession the volume was transferred.

A small atheistical pamphlet, attributed to Dr. Pitcairne, entitled ‘Epistola Archimedis qad regem Gelonem Albae Graecae, reperta anno aerae Christianae,’ 1688, was made the subject of the inaugural oration of the Rev. Thomas Halyburton, professor of divinity in the university of St. Andrews, in 1710, which was published at Edinburgh in 1714, under the title of ‘Natural Religion Insufficient, and Revealed Necessary to Man’s Happiness.’ Dr. Pitcairne has been generally represented as a professed unbeliever, and it must be admitted that his profane jests but too much exposed him to the character of a scoffer at religion. But, as remarked by the writer of his life in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, whatever doubts might be entertained as to the soundness of his creed, they are completely removed by his verses written on Christmas Day; and Dr. Drummond has stated, that, during his last illness, he continued in the greatest tranquility of mind, and evinced just apprehensions of God and religion.

A pleasing specimen of this eminent physician’s poetical powers, being a poem ‘On the King and Queen of Fairy,’ in two versions, Latin and English, will be found in Donaldson’s Collection, under the assumed name of Walter Denestone. An account of the Life and Writings of Dr. Pitcairne, by Charles Webster, M.D., was published at Edinburgh in 1781.

Dr. Pitcairne was likewise author of ‘Babell, or the Assembly, a Poem, M.DC.XCII.’ Like the comedy of ‘The Assembly,’ this satirical poem was written in ridicule of the proceedings of the General Assembly, in the year 1692; but until 1830 it remained in MS., when it was printed for the members of the Maitland Club, under the editorial care of George R. Kinloch, Esq. That gentleman made use of two MSS., one in the possession of Dr. Keith of Edinburgh, the other in the library of Mr. Dundas of Arniston, which had formerly belonged to the well-known Scottish collector, Robert Milne of Edinburgh.

Dr. Pitcairne’s published works are:

Solutio Problematis de Historicis; seu de Inventoribus, Dissertatio. Edin. 1688. Afterwards much enlarged. Leyden, 1693, 8vo.
Oratio, qua ostenditur Medicinam ab omni philosophandi secta, esse liberam. Lugd. Bat. 1692, 8vo. Or 4to. Edin. 1713, 4to.
Babell, or the Assembly; a Poem. 1692.
De Sanguinis Circulatione iis animalibus genitis et non genitis. Leyden, 1693, 4to.
Apollo Mathematicus; or the Art of Curing Diseases by the Mathematicks, according to Dr. Pitcairne’s principles, 1695, 8vo.
Dissertatio de Curatione Febrium, quae per evacuations institutor. Edin. 1695, and in various collections.
Dissertatio de Legibus Historiae Naturalis. Edin. 1696, 12mo.
Dissertationes Medicae. Roterdam, 1701, 4to. The same, Edin. 1713, 4to.
Opuscula Medica. Roterdam, 1714, 4to.
Elementa Medica Libris duobus, quorum prior theoriam, posterior praxin exhibit. Hag. 1718, 4to. Leyden, 1737, 8vo. In English. Lond. 1718, 1727, 8vo.
The Assembly; a Comedy. Lond. 1722. New edition. Edin.
Opera omnia, duobus tomis comprehensa. Hag. Cam. 1722, 4to.
Selecta Poëmata Archibaldi Pitcairnii et aliorum. Edin. 1727, 8vo. Published by Ruddiman.
Opera omnia Medica. Ven. 1733. Leyden, 1737, 4to.

PITCAIRN, DAVID, M.D., an eminent physician, the eldest son of Major John Pitcairn of the marines, killed in the attack upon Bunker’s Hill, in 1775, and Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Dalrymple, Esq. of Annefield, Dumfries-shire, was born May 1, 1749, in the house of his grandfather, the Rev. David Pitcairn, minister of Dysart, Fifeshire. After being at the High school of Edinburgh for four years, he attended the classes at the university of Glasgow till he was twenty; spending much of his leisure time with the family of the Rev. James Baillie, minister of Bothwell, Lanarkshire, father of Dr. Matthew Baillie and Joanna Baillie. In 1769 Mr. Pitcairn entered at the university of Edinburgh, and studied medicine there for three years. In 1772 he went to London, and attended the lectures of Dr. William Hunter and Dr. George Fordyce. About the same time, that he might obtain an English degree in physic, he entered at Bennet college, Cambridge, where he graduated. In 1780 he was elected physician to St. Batholomew’s hospital, London, and in 1792 physician to Christ’s hospital. The former office, on account of the great increase of his private practice, he resigned in 1793. By the death of Dr. Warren in June 1797, Dr. Pitcairn was placed at the head of his profession in London. It was his friendship for Dr. Matthew Baillie which first brought that eminent physician into notice. Although there was a great disparity of years, there existed betwixt them a long and uninterrupted friendship, and the confidence reposed by Dr. Pitcairn in the professional abilities of his friend was sincere, Dr. Baillie being his only medical adviser to the last moment of his existence.

Dr. Pitcairn died in April 1809. He was a man of elegant literary accomplishments, joined to much professional knowledge. In person he was tall and erect. He was fond of country sports and athletic games, particularly of golf. It was a saying of his that “the last thing a physician learns in the course of his experience is to know when to do nothing.” A flattering tribute to his memory, written by Dr. Wells, was inserted in the Gentleman’s Magazine soon after his decease. It thus concludes: “Although of great practical knowledge, and having made many original observations on disease, he never published anything, but he fell a victim to a disease which had before escaped the observation of medical men, inflammation of the larynx, and so had the peculiar and melancholy privilege of enlightening his profession in the very act of dying.”


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