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
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."