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Significant Scots
John Barclay M.D.


BARCLAY, JOHN, M.D., an eminent lecturer on anatomy, was the nephew of John Barclay, the Berean, after whom he was named. He was born in 1759, or 1760, at Cairn, near to Drummaquhance, in Perthshire. His father was a respectable farmer in that part of the country, and was characterized by great natural shrewdness and vivacity. His son, John, was educated at the parish school of Muthill, and early distinguished himself by his superior powers of mind, and by his application. Being destined for the church, he, in 1776, repaired to the university of St Andrews, where he became a successful candidate for a bursary. He made great proficiency in the Greek language, then taught by the late principal George Hill, and also discovered a partiality for the study of mathematics, although he does not appear to have prosecuted this important branch of science. After having attended the usual preliminary classes at the united college of St Salvador and St Leonard, Barclay studied divinity at St Mary’s, attaching himself to the moderate party in the church. He studied divinity at St Andrews, under the professor, Dr Spence, for two or three sessions, but having engaged to teach a school, he found it more convenient to deliver the prescribed exercises before the professor in Edinburgh. On one of these occasions there took place a very singular occurrence, which the Doctor himself used to relate. Having come to Edinburgh for the express purpose of delivering a discourse in the hall, he waited upon his uncle, who was an excellent scholar. It was what is called "An Exercise and Addition," or a discourse, in which the words of the original are criticized – the doctrines they contain illustrated – and it is concluded by a brief paraphrase. He proposed to read it to his uncle before he delivered it – and when he was in the act of doing so, his respected relative objected to a criticism which he had introduced, and endeavoured to show that it was contrary to several passages in the writings of the apostle Paul. The doctor had prepared the exercise with great care, and had quoted the authority of Xenophon in regard to the meaning of the word. The old man got into a violent passion at his nephew’s obstinacy, and seizing a huge folio that lay on the table, hurled it at the recusant’s head, which it fortunately missed. Barclay, who really had a great esteem for his uncle, related the anecdote to a clergyman a few days after it happened, and laughed very heartily at it. Barclay wrote about this time, "A History of all Religions," but of this no trace was to be found among his manuscripts. Having delivered with approbation his trial discourse, he obtained license from the Presbytery of Dunkeld. Meanwhile he acted as tutor to the two sons of Sir James Campbell, of Aberuchill, whose daughter, Eleonora, in 1811, became his wife. In 1789 he accompanied his pupils to Edinburgh, where he preached occasionally for his friends. The medical school of Edinburgh then at the height of its reputation. Cullen’s brilliant career was drawing to a close, and he was succeeded by the celebrated Dr Gregory. Dr Black and the second Monro still shed luster on their respective departments. Barclay was principally attracted to the anatomical class by the luminous prelections of Dr Monro, and appears to have thenceforward devoted himself to a complete course of medical study. In 1796 he took the degree of M.D., choosing as the subject of his thesis, De Anima, seu Principo Vitali, the vital principle having long been with him a favourite topic of speculation. After graduation, Dr Barclay proceeded to London, and attended the anatomical lectures of Dr Marshall, of Thavies Inn. In 1797 he commenced to deliver private lectures on anatomy in a small class room in the High School-yards, Edinburgh, but had to contend with formidable difficulties; the popularity of the second Monro, and of the late John Bell, being still undiminished amongst the students. Dr Barclay, therefore, had few students at first; but he resolved to persevere. The introductory lectures (which, after his death, were published by his friend, Sir George Ballingall, M.D.) were prepared with scrupulous care. He studied to express himself in plain and perspicuous language, which he justly esteemed to be the chief quality of style in lecturing. His illustrations were clear and copious, and not unfrequently an apposite anecdote fixed more strongly in the memories of his pupils the particular part he was demonstrating; and, at a time when it was by no means fashionable, be never omitted to point out the wisdom of God, as displayed in that most wonderful of all his works, the formation and support of the human body.

Barclay’s first literary performance was the article Physiology, in the third edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In 1803 he published a new anatomical nomenclature. This had been long the subject of his meditation, and was a great desideratum in anatomy. The vagueness or indefinite nature of the terms of anatomy has been perceived and regretted by all anatomists. They have produced much ambiguity and confusion in anatomical descriptions, and their influence has been strongly felt, particularly by those who have just entered upon the study. Barclay was the first who, fully aware of the obstacles that were thus thrown in the way of students, set about inventing a new nomenclature. The vagueness of the terms principally referred to those implying position, aspect, and direction. Thus, what is superior in one position of the body, becomes anterior in another, posterior in a third, and even inferior in a fourth. What is external in one position is internal in another, etc. These terms become much more ambiguous in comparative anatomy. His object was to contrive a nomenclature, in which the same terms should universally apply to the same organ, in all positions of the body, and in all animals. It is the opinion of very candid judges that he has succeeded in his endeavour, and that, were his nomenclature adopted, the greatest advantages would accrue to the study of the science. The proposal is delivered with singular modesty, and discovers both a most accurate knowledge of anatomy and great ingenuity.

In 1808, appeared his work on the muscular motions of the human body, and, in 1812, a description of the arteries of the human body—both of which contain a most complete account of those parts of the system. These three works were dedicated to the late Dr Thomas Thomson, Professor of Chemistry in the University of Glasgow. The last work which Dr Barclay lived to publish, was an inquiry into the opinions, ancient and modern, concerning life and organization. This, as we have mentioned, formed the subject of his thesis.

He also delivered, during several summers, a course of lectures on comparative anatomy, a branch of study for which he had always shown a marked partiality, not only as an object of scientific research, but as of great practical utility. At one time he proposed to the town council, the patrons of the university of Edinburgh, to be created professor of that department of the science; how the proposal was received is not known. The writer of the memoir of Dr Barclay, in the Naturalist’s Library, furnishes a characteristic illustration of the lively interest he felt in the dissections of uncommon animals which came in his way in the Scottish metropolis. "At one of these we happened to be present. It was the dissection of a Beluga, or White Whale. Never shall we forget the enthusiasm of the Doctor wading to his knees amongst the viscera of the great tenant of the deep, alternately cutting away, with his large and dexterous knife, and regaling his nostrils with copious infusions of snuff, while he pointed out, in his usual felicitous manner, the various contrasts or agreements of the forms of the viscera with those of other animals and of man." Barclay was the means of establishing, under the auspices of the Highland Society, a veterinary school in Edinburgh. He might be called an enthusiast in his profession: there was no branch of anatomy, whether practical or theoretical, that he had not cultivated with the utmost care; he had studied the works of the ancient and modern, foreign and British anatomists with astonishing diligence. Whatever related to natural science was certain of interesting him. The benevolence and generosity of his temper were also unbounded. No teacher was ever more generally beloved by his pupils than Dr Barclay, to which his uniform kindness and affability, and readiness to promote their interest upon every occasion, greatly contributed. Many young men in straitened circumstances, were permitted to attend his instructions gratuitously; and he has even been known to furnish them with the means of feeing other lecturers.

It is a curious circumstance, that Dr Barclay often declared that he had neither the sense of taste nor of smell.

His last appearance in the lecture-room was in 1825, when he delivered the introductory lecture. He died 21st August, 1826, and was buried at Restalrig, near Edinburgh, the family burying-ground of his father-in-law, Sir James Campbell. His funeral was attended by the Royal College of Surgeons as a body.

A bust of Dr Barclay, subscribed for by his pupils, and executed by Joseph, was presented to the College of Surgeons, to which he bequeathed his museum—a valuable collection of specimens, particularly in comparative anatomy, and which is to retain his name. His design in this legacy was to prevent it from being broken up and scattered after his death.


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