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Significant Scots
Alston, Charles, M.D.


ALSTON, CHARLES, M.D. an eminent botanist, was born in 1683, in Lanarkshire, and spent his early years at Hamilton palace, under the patronage of the duchess of Hamilton. Her grace wished him to study the law, but he preferred botany and medicine, and accordingly, in 1716, set out for Leyden, where those sciences were at that time taught by the illustrious Boerhaave. Here he found a great number of young Scotsmen engaged in the same pursuit, and all inspired with an uncommon degree of enthusiasm in their studies, which they had caught from their master. Alston, after taking his degree as doctor of physic, returned to his native country, and began to practise in Edinburgh. He obtained the sinecure office of king's botanist, through the influence of the duke of Hamilton, heritable keeper of Holyrood-house, to which the garden was attached. This garden he enriched by large collections which he had made in Holland, where botanical science was then more highly cultivated than in any other country in Europe. In 1720, notwithstanding that a botanical class was taught in the college by a professor of eminence named Preston, he began a course of lectures in the king's garden. Preston, at length waxing old, Alston was, in 1738, chosen to succeed him, as professor of botany and materia medica united. He was exceedingly laborious in his duties as a professor, giving a course on botany every summer, and one on materia medica every winter; and never sparing any pains which he thought could be conducive to the progress of his pupils. The celebrated Dr Fothergill, in his character of Dr Russell, bears ample testimony to the assiduity of Dr Alston, who had been his master; and describes in glowing language the benefit which those who attended him had the means of reaping, his caution in speculation, and how laborious he was in experiment. 

For the assistance of his pupils, he published, about 1740, a list of the officinal plants cultivated in the Edinburgh medical garden. Of Linnaeus's system, which was first promulgated in 1736, Dr Alston, like many other philosophers of his day, was a steady opponent. He published a paper against it, on the sexes of plants, in the first volume of "Physical and Literary Essays," a miscellany which was commenced at Edinburgh, in 1751. The controversy which took place at that period amongst naturalists has now lost all its interest, seeing that the method of Linnaeus, after serving a useful purpose, has been, superseded by the natural system, to the foundation of which Linnaeus in no small degree contributed, but which it was left to Jussieu and De Candolle to mature. Dr Alston also contributed some articles to an Edinburgh miscellany entitled "Medical Essays;" the most important is one on opium. In 1753, he published an introduction to Dr Patrick Blair's Index Materiae Medicae, a work which resembled his own index in a considerable degree. This introduction was a separate work, and was entitled, Tyrocinium Botanicun Edinburgense. Dr Alston, as the contemporary of the first Monro, and professor of a kindred branch of science, was by no means unworthy of either his time or his place. He must be considered as one of those who have contributed to the exaltation of the college of Edinburgh, as a school of medical science. He died on the 22nd of November, 1760, in the seventy-seventh year of his age.


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