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Significant Scots
Andrew Balfour


BALFOUR, (Sir) ANDREW, Bart. M.D. who first introduced the dissection of the human body into Scotland, and that at a very superstitious period; who projected the first hospital in the country, for the relief of disease and poverty at the public expense; who was the founder of the botanic garden at Edinburgh, and almost the father of the science in Scotland; who planned the royal college of physicians at Edinburgh; and bequeathed to the public a museum, which at that time would have been an ornament to any university, or any metropolis, - was the fifth and youngest son of Sir Michael Balfour of Denmilne in Fife, and was born at that place on the 18th of January, 1630. He prosecuted his studies in the university of St Andrews, where he took his degree of A.M. At this period his education was superintended by his brother Sir James Balfour, the famous antiquary, and lion king at arms to Charles I., who was about thirty years older than himself. At college he first discovered his attachment to botany, which in him is said to have led to the study of physic, instead of being, as it generally is, a handmaid to that art. Quitting the university about the year 1650, he removed to London, where his medical studies were chiefly directed by the celebrated Harvey, by Sir Theodore Mayerne, the distinguished physician of king James I., and various other eminent practitioners. He afterwards traveled to Blois in France, and remained there for some time, to see the botanic garden of the Duke of Orleans, which was then the best in Europe, and was kept by his countryman Dr Morison. Here he contracted a warm friendship for that great botanist, which continued unimpaired while they lived. From Blois he went to Paris, where, for a long time, he prosecuted his medical studies with great ardour. He completed his education at the university of Caen, from which he received the degrees of bachelor and doctor of physic, on the 20th of September, 1661.

Returning to London soon afterwards, Dr Balfour was introduced to Charles II., who named him as the most proper person to attend the young earl of Rochester on his continental travels. After an absence of four years, he returned with his pupil in 1667. During their tour he endeavoured, and at that time not without some appearance of success, to recall that abandoned young nobleman to the paths of virtue, and to inspire him with the love of learning. Rochester himself often acknowledged, and to Bishop Burnet, in particular, only three days before his death, how much he was bound to love and honour Dr Balfour, to whom, next to his parents, he thought he owed more than to all the world.

On returning to his native country, Balfour settled at St Andrews as a physician. "He brought with him," says Dr Walker, in his Essays on Natural History, "the best library, especially in medicine, and natural history, that had till then appeared in Scotland; and not only these, but a perfect knowledge of the languages in which they were written; likewise many unpublished manuscripts of learned men, a series of antique medals, modern medallions, and pictures and busts, to form the painter and the architect; the remarkable arms, vestments, and ornaments of foreign countries; numerous mathematical, philosophical, and surgical instruments, which he not only possessed, but used; with operations in surgery, till then unknown in this country; a complete cabinet with all the simples of the material medica, and new compositions in pharmacy; and large collections of the fossils, plants, and animals, not only of the foreign countries he traversed, but of the most distant parts of the world."

Dr Balfour’s merit was too conspicuous to suffer him to remain long at St Andrews. In the year 1670, he removed to Edinburgh, where he immediately came into great practice. Here, among other improvements, he prosecuted the manufacture of paper, and was the means of introducing that valuable art into the country – though for many years it remained in a state of complete, or nearly complete dormancy; the people deriving stationary articles of all kinds from Holland. Adjoining to his house, he had a small botanic garden, which he furnished by the seeds he received from his foreign correspondents; and in this garden he raised many plants which were then first introduced into Scotland. One of his fellow-labourers in this department was Patrick Murray of Livingston, whom he had initiated into the study of natural history. This young gentleman, who enjoyed an ample fortune, formed at his seat in the country a botanic garden, containing one thousand species of plants, which at that period was a very large collection. He traversed the whole of France in quest of the plants of that country; and on his way to Italy, he prematurely died of a fever. Soon after his death, Dr Balfour transferred his collection from Livingston to Edinburgh; and with it, joined to his own, he had the merit of laying the foundation of the public botanic garden. The necessary expense of this new institution was at first defrayed by Dr Balfour, Sir Robert Sibbald, and the Faculty of Advocates. But at length the city allotted a piece of ground near Trinity College Church for a public garden, and out of the revenues of the university, allowed a certain sum for its support As the first keeper of this garden, Dr Balfour selected Mr James Sutherland; who, in 1684, published a work, entitled, Hortus Edinburgensis. [See Sutherland.] The new institution soon became considerable: plants and seeds were sent from Morison at Oxford, Watts at London, Marchant at Paris, Herman at Leyden, and Spottiswood at Tangier. From the last were received many African plants, which flourished in this country.

Such efforts as these, by a native Scotsman, occurring at a time when the attention of the country seems to have been almost exclusively devoted to contending systems of church-government, are truly grateful in the contemplation. It is only to be lamented, that the spirit which presided over them, was premature in its appearance; it found no genial field to act upon, and it was soon forgotten in the prevailing distraction of the public mind. Sir Andrew Balfour was the morning-star of science in Scotland, but he might almost be said to have set before the approach of day.

He was created a baronet by Charles II., which seems to indicate that, like most men of literary and scientific character in that age, he maintained a sentiment of loyalty to the existing dynasty and government, which was fast decaying from the public mind at large. His interest with the ministry, and with the municipality of Edinburgh, seems to have always been considerable, and was uniformly exerted for the public good, and for the encouragement of merit.

Upon his settlement in Edinburgh, he had found the medical art taught in a very loose and irregular manner. In order to place it on a more respectable footing, he planned, with Sir Robert Sibbald, the royal college of physicians; and of that respectable society his brethren elected him the first president. When the college undertook the publication of a Pharmacopaeia, the whole arrangement of the material medica was committed to his particular care. For such a task he was eminently qualified by his skill in natural history. This performance made its appearance in 1685; and, in the opinion of Dr. Cullen, it is superior to any Pharmacopaeia of that era.

Not long before his decease, his desire to promote the science of medicine in his native country, joined to the universal humanity of his disposition, led him to project the foundation of an hospital in Edinburgh. The institution was at first narrow and confined, but it survived to be expanded into full shape, as the royal infirmary, under the care of George Drummond. Sir Andrew died in 1694, in the sixty-fourth year of his age, after a severe conflict with the gout and other painful disorders; which afforded him an opportunity of displaying upon the approach of death; those virtues and that equanimity, which had distinguished him during his life. His person, like his mind and manners, was elegant. He possessed of a handsome figure with a pleasing and expressive countenance; of a grateful elocution; and by his natural disposition, as well as his long intercourse with the higher ranks of society, of a most courteous and polite demeanour. A print of him was executed at Paris; but no copy is known to exist.

His library and museum were the anxious result of fourteen years of traveling, and between twenty and thirty more of correspondence. For their accommodation, he had built an addition to his house when he had nearly arrived at his fortieth year; but after the building was completed, he found himself so infirm as to be unable to place them in that order which he intended. After his death, his library, consisting of about three thousand volumes, besides manuscripts, was sold, we suppose, by public auction. There is a printed catalogue still extant. His museum was deposited in the hall which was, till 1829, occupied as the university library. There it remained many years, useless and neglected; some parts of it falling into inevitable decay, and other parts being abstracted. "Yet, even after 1750," says Dr Walker, "it still continued a considerable collection, which I have a good reason to remember, as it was the sight of it, about that time, that first inspired me with an attachment to natural history. Soon after that period," to pursue a narrative so deeply disgraceful to the age and the institution referred to, "it was dislodged from the hall where it had been long kept; was thrown aside, and exposed as lumber; was further and further dilapidated, and at length almost completely demolished. In the year 1782, out of its ruins and rubbish I extracted many pieces still valuable and useful, and placed them here in the best order I could. These, I hope, may remain long, and be considered as so many precious relics of one of the best and greatest men this country has produced."

From the account that has been given of Sir Andrew Balfour, every person conversant in natural history or medicine must regret that he never appeared as an author. To his friend, Mr Murray of Livingston, he addressed a series of familiar letters, for the direction of his researches while abroad. These letters, forming the only literary relics of Balfour, were subsequently published by his son, in the year 1700.


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