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Significant Scots
John Abercrombie


ABERCROMBIE, JOHN, M.D., the subject of this brief memoir, was one of the latest of that medical school of which Scotland is so justly proud. He was born in Aberdeen, on the 11th of October, 1781, and was son of the Rev. Mr. Abercrombie, who for many years was one of the ministers of that town, and distinguished by his piety and worth. The excellent training which John enjoyed under such a parent, imparted that high moral and religious tone by which his whole life was subsequently characterized. After a boyhood spent under the paternal roof, and the usual routine of a classical education, he was sent, in consequence of his choice of the medical profession, to the university of Edinburgh, at that time distinguished as the best medical school in the empire. Here he applied to his studies with indefatigable diligence, and while his fellow students marked his progress with admiration, they were not less struck with the moral excellence of his character, and the deep, practical, unobtrusive piety by which, even thus early, his whole life was regulated. It was this confirmed excellence of character, expressed alike in action and conversation, combined with his high professional talents and reputation, that afterwards won for him the confidenece of his patients, and imparted to his attentions at the sick-bed a charm that, of itself, was half the cure. When the usual prescribed course of study at the medical classes had expired, Mr. Abercrombie graduated at the university of Edinburgh on the 4th of June, 1803, while only in his twenty-second year, the subject of his thesis being "De Fatuitate Alpina." He then went to London, and after a short period of study at the schools and hospitals of the metropolis, returned to Edinburgh, and was admitted a Fellow of its Royal College of Surgeons on the 12th of November, 1804. On this occasion, his probationary Essay, submitted to the president and council, entitled, "On Paralysis of the Lower Extremities from Diseased Spine," was characterized by such clearness of thought and perspicuity of style, as fully indicated the eminence that awaited him not only in his professional capacity, but also in the ranks of authorship.

Thus prepared for action, Dr. Abercrombie, though still young, and comparatively a stranger in Edinburgh, resolved to establish himself at once as a physician in the northern capital, instead of commencing his career in some more humble district. He accordingly took a house in Nicolson Street, and as a general or family practitioner his reputation continued to grow from year to year without interruption. Even this, however, was not enough for his active and benevolent mind; and therefore, notwithstanding the increase of business, and its tempting emoluments, he gave much of his time to attendance on the poor, as one of the medical officers of the Royal Public Dispensary. Still deeming his own personal exertions insufficient, he would not rest until he had imparted his enthusiasm to others; and therefore, when his reputation in clinical knowledge had gathered round him a host of pupils emulous to follow his example, he divided the city into districts, to each of which a few of these students were attached for medical superintendence. In this way, while the health of the humblest of the population of Edinburgh was cared for, an efficient class of experienced physicians was trained for the kingdom at large. Besides this important service, on being appointed vaccinator along with Drs. Gillespie and Bryce, he was enabled to take with them an active part in introducing the practice of the Jennerian discovery into Scotland.

At length, when after a course of years, the professional experience and reputation of Dr. Abercrombie had reached their height, an event occurred by which it was hoped their excellence would be duly honoured. This was a vacancy in the Chair of Medicine in the university of Edinburgh, occasioned by the death of Dr. Gregory in 1821. On this occasion Dr. Abercrombie added his name to the list of candidates, while his friends were sanguine in the hope of his success. But town-councils are not always infallible judges of scientific attainments, and his application was unsuccessful. The following list of his writings, which he presented to the Provost and Town-Council of Edinburgh, on announcing himself as candidate for the Chair, will sufficiently show how his hours of literary leisure, amidst a throng of professional occupations extending over the preceding course of years, had been occupied and improved:--

1. On Diseases of the Spinal Marrow.
2. On Dropsy; particularly on some modifications of it which are successfully treated by blood-letting
3. On Chronic Inflammation of the Brain and its Membranes, including Researches on Hydrocephalus.
4. On Apoplexy.
5. On Palsy.
6. On Organic Diseases of the Brain.
7. On a Remarkable and Dangerous Affection, producing Difficulty of Breathing in Infants.
8. On the Pathology of the Intestinal Canal. Part I. On Hens.
9. Ditto. Part II. On Inflammation of the Bowels.
10. Ditto. Part III. On Diseases of the Mucous Membranes of the Bowels.
11.On the Pathology of Consumptive Diseases.
12. On Ischuria Renalis.

After the decease of Dr. Gregory, Dr. Abercrombie although unsuccessful in his application for the Chair of Medicine, succeeded him as consulting physician, in which situation his services were often in demand, not only in Edinburgh, but over the whole of Scotland. He was also appointed physician to the king for Scotland—a mere title, it is true, but at the same time one of those honorary titles that often stamp the value of the man, and prove a passport to the substantialities of eminence and wealth. In 1834, his reputation was so completely fixed, that the university of Oxford, departing from its usual routine in behalf of the alumni of Scottish colleges, conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine, and on the following year he was elected Lord Rector of the Marischal college of Aberdeen. Besides these, he held other offices of distinction, most of which were connected with benevolent societies. In this way his life went onward, and while he increased in wealth and professional reputation, his piety made him the friend of the good, and his benevolence the honoured of the poor. But all was brought to an abrupt termination by his sudden death, at his house in York Place, on the 14th of November, 1844. On the morning of that day, having breakfasted at nine o’clock, he retired to his private room, while several patients were waiting for him, and his carriage standing at the door. As nearly an hour elapsed, his servant, alarmed at such unusual delay, entered the room, and found his master lying extended and lifeless on the floor, his death having been apparently all but instantaneous. It was found, on a post mortem examination, that the cause of his death was the bursting of a coronary artery. Thus unexpectedly was closed the life of one whom all classes esteemed, and whose loss is still felt and remembered.

Dr. Abercrombie was distinguished not only as a most eminent and successful medical practitioner, but also as an able and eloquent writer. At first, his exertions in authorship were confined to the "Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal," and other similar professional periodicals; but when his literary strength was matured, he produced a separate treatise entitled "Pathological and Practical Researches on Diseases of the Brain and the Spinal Cord." Edinburgh: 1828. 8vo. This work, which abounds in pure scientific knowledge, and evinces his profound research into mental character, as connected with physical condition and action, was followed in the same year by another of still higher merit, having for its title, "Pathological and Practical Researches on the Diseases of the Intestinal Canal, Liver, and other Viscera of the Abdomen." Edinburgh; 1828. 8vo. These, however, though so highly meritorious, were but prelusive efforts to something still more important; and after a careful study and arrangement of the materials which he had been accumulating for years, he produced two works; the one entitled, "Inquiries concerning the Intellectual Powers, and the Investigation of Truth." Edinburgh: 1820. 8vo; and the other, "The Philosophy of the Moral Feelings." London: 1833. 8vo. Upon these works, of which the latter is a sequel to the former, his literary reputation will chiefly rest; and they will always continue to be prized by the reflective mind, from the views which they unfold of the intellectual and moral stature of man, and the harmonious combination which exists between the truths of science and the revelations of Christianity. Independently, however, of these writings, so distinguished by their profound medical, ethical, and metaphysical knowledge, and so practical in their bearings, Dr. Abercrombie’s pen was employed on the subjects of humble every-day usefulness, and pure unmixed religion and vital godliness, so that shortly after the publication of his "Philosophy of the Moral Feelings," he produced his "Treatise on the Moral Condition of the Lower Classes in Edinburgh,"and subsequently, "The Elements of Sacred Truth," which were first published singly and at intervals, and afterwards collected into a small volume. "These tracts," an able reviewer has observed, "reflect the highest honour on Dr. Abercrombie. It is beautiful to see an individual of his professional celebrity thus dedicating his talents and a portion of his time to religious instruction. Such an example is above all praise."


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