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Significant Scots
Sir Gilbert Blane


BLANE, SIR GILBERT, M.D., of Blanefield, Ayrshire, and Culverlands, Berkshire, Bart.— This eminent physician was the fourth son of Gilbert Blane of Blanefield, in the county of Ayr, and was born at that place A.D. 1749. Being destined by his parents for the church, he was sent at an early age to the university of Edinburgh; but in consequence of certain religious scruples, he abandoned the purpose of studying for the ministry, and turned his thoughts to the medical profession, for which he soon found that he had a peculiar vocation. His remarkable diligence and proficiency in the different departments of medical science secured the notice not only of his classfellows, but the professors, so that on graduating as a physician, he was recommended by Dr. Cullen to Dr. William Hunter, at that time of high celebrity in London, both as physician and teacher of anatomy, who soon learned to estimate the talents and worth of his young protege. He therefore introduced Dr. Blane to the notice of Lord Holdernesse, whose private physician he soon became, and he was afterwards appointed to the same office to Lord Rodney. This transition from the service of a peaceful statesman to that of an active naval hero, introduced the Doctor to a wider sphere of medical practice, but to one also of greater danger and trial. When Lord Rodney, in 1780, assumed the command of the West India station, Blane accompanied him, and was present in six naval engagements, in the very first of which he found himself compelled to forego his professional privilege of being a non-combatant. This was in consequence of every officer on deck being killed, wounded, or otherwise employed, so that none remained but himself who could be intrusted with the admiral’s orders to the officers serving at the guns. This hazardous employment he cheerfully undertook and ably discharged, receiving a slight wound in its performance. His conduct on this occasion was so gratifying to his Lordship, that at his recommendation, he was at once raised to the important office of physician to the fleet, without undergoing the subordinate grades. On this station, where disease is so prevalent among our seamen, he was unremitting in his attention to the health of the ships’ crews, and the success of his efforts was felt by the whole fleet. During this period, also, he found a short interval for gratifying those literary tastes which he had cultivated at college; and his account of the important naval engagement of the 12th of April, 1782, which he sent to Lord Stair, was so distinct and so animated, that it soon found its way into print. This victory, indeed, which Lord Rodney obtained over Count de Grasse off Guadeloupe, was of itself well worthy of admiration; for it not only saved Jamaica, ruined the allied fleet of our enemies in that quarter, and restored the supremacy of the British flag, but was the first great trial of the experiment of breaking the line which Nelson afterwards so successfully adopted. Soon after his return from the West India station, which he left in 1783, Dr. Blane published in London a work entitled, "Observations on the Diseases of Seamen," in one volume 8vo. It contained the results of his own careful experience, and the conclusions he had drawn from the medical returns of the surgeons of the fleet, and abounded with so much sound and practical wisdom upon that important subject, that it soon became a standard work, and was repeatedly reprinted with additional improvements. On his return, it was found that he was precluded from half-pay, on account of his appointment having been made without his having passed the intermediate steps or service. But a still more honourable requital awaited his labours; for, in consequence of a joint application from all the officers on the West India station to the Admiralty, Dr. Blane was rewarded by a pension from the crown, which was afterwards doubled at the suggestion of the Lords of the Admiralty. Even this, too, was not the full amount of benefit which he owed to the esteem of his fellow-officers; for one of these, a midshipman of Rodney’s fleet—but who was no less a person than the Duke of Clarence, afterwards William IV.—obtained for him the appointment of physician extraordinary to the Prince of Wales, in 1786; he was also, chiefly through the popular influence of Lord Rodney, elected physician to St. Thomas’s Hospital. About the same time, also, he was appointed one of the commissioners of sick and wounded sailors. As he was now on shore, and in prosperous circumstances, he sought a permanent and comfortable home by marriage; and, on the 11th July, 1780, was united to Elizabeth, only daughter of Abraham Gardner, merchant. By this lady, who shared with him the honours and comforts of a long life, and whose death preceded his own by only two years, he was the father of six sons and three daughters. Having about the time of his marriage been elected a fellow of the Royal Society, he was appointed, in 1788, to deliver the Croonian lecture of that year, a duty which he performed with signal ability, having chosen "Muscular Motion" for his subject, and illustrated it with great extent of information, as well as much profound and original thinking. The essay was published in 1791, and afterwards republished in his "Select Dissertations," in 1822 and 1834. In 1790, an essay of his on the "Nardus or Spikenard of the Ancients," was also published in the 80th volume of the "Transactions of the Royal Society."

More important, however, than all these appointments that were successively conferred upon Dr. Blane, was that of being placed at the head of the Navy Medical Board, which occurred in 1796. It was here that he had full scope and exercise for his talents, philanthropy, and nautical experience as a physician. In proportion as the empire of Britain was extended, the number and length of voyages were increased, so that the draught upon our island population for the royal and merchant service was every year becoming greater. But a still more serious danger than any that arose from storm or battle, and more wasteful in its silent effects, was that which originated in scurvy, the ocean-pestilence, from which there had hitherto been no protection, except at the expense of a long delay by recruiting on a friendly shore. The causes of this disease were the cold and unhealthy atmosphere on ship-board, owing to defective ship-building, the sand used for ballast, the unwholesome miasma of the bilge-water, and the imperfect means of washing and ventilating the vessel. But these were trivial compared with the diet of our sailors, which, on long voyages, consisted merely of salted meat and biscuit. The defective nourishment and excessive stimulus of this kind of food made the scurvy still prevalent in our fleets, notwithstanding the improvements by which the other causes were counteracted; and the point and limit seemed to have been already attained, beyond which the British flag could be carried no farther. "The cure seems impossible by any remedy, or by any management that can be employed," says the historian of Anson’s voyage despairingly, when he describes the condition of the commodore’s crew on his arrival at Juan Fernandez, where, after a loss of four-fifths of his sailors, he had, out of the two hundred survivors, only eight who were capable of duty. It was to root out, or at least to diminish this disease, and bring it under proper management,that Dr. Blane now addressed himself; and in this humane and patriotic purpose he was ably seconded by Earl Spencer, at that time First Lord of the Admiralty. The Doctor well knew that the only antiscorbutics available for the prevention or cure of sea-scurvy are those vegetables in which acid predominates; and that of all fruits, the genus citrus is most effective. Here, then, was the remedy; and since the fruit could not be carried fresh during a long voyage, the preserved juice might be used as a substitute. Such was the cure he suggested, and through the influence of Earl Spencer, it was immediately introduced throughout the whole British navy. Several gallons of lemon juice, having a tenth part of spirit of wine, to preserve it, was supplied to each ship; and, in a fortnight after leaving the port, the use of it began, each sailor being allowed one ounce of it, with an ounce and a half of sugar, to mix with his grog or wine. The immense advantages of an innovation apparently so very simple—and therefore so very difficult to be discovered—were quickly apparent. In the statistics of our navy we find, that during nine years of consecutive warfare from 1778 to 1795, the number of men voted for the service by parliament was 745,000, of whom 189,730 were sent sick on shore, or to the hospitals. But during the nine following years of consecutive warfare, that is to say, from 1796, when the use of lime juice was introduced into the navy, till 1806, during which period 1,083,076 men were voted for sea-service, of these, the sick amounted to no more than 123,949. The amount of disease had thus diminished by one-half, because scurvy had almost wholly disappeared; and our fleets, instead of being utterly drained of their seamen, as would have been the case under the former ratio, were enabled for twenty years to go onward in a career of victory unchecked, and repair their losses as fast as they occurred. And the merchant service, too, from which these victories derive their value, has been equally benefited by the remedy of Dr. Blane, so that its vessels may traverse every sea in safety, and return after the longest voyages with a healthy and happy crew; while a spectacle such as had been seen more than once—like that of the Oriflamma, for instance, where the whole crew had died, and the deck was piled with the corpses, while not a hand was left to guide her course as she slowly drifted before the wind—would be reckoned as impossible as a realization of the tale of the "Ancient Mariner."

The famine which prevailed over the whole of Britain during the years 1799 and 1800, was too severe to be easily forgotten by the present generation; and, with the view of directing attention to its alleviation, as well as preventing its recurrence, Dr. Blane published in 1800 an "Inquiry into the Causes and Remedies of the Late and Present Scarcity and High Price of Provisions; with Observations on the Distresses of Agriculture and Commerce which have prevailed for the last three years." As he had now attained a high medical reputation, and enjoyed an extensive private practice in addition to his public duties, he resigned the office of physician to St. Thomas’s Hospital, after having held it twenty years. The fruits of his observations during that period he gave to the world in a dissertation "On the Comparative Prevalence and Mortality of Different Diseases in London," which was first published in the "Transactions of the Medico-Chirurgical Society," and afterwards embodied in his "Select Dissertations." The unhappy Walcheren expedition was one of the last public services on which Blane was employed. That island of fogs, swamps, and pestilential vapours had loomed so alluringly in the eyes of our statesmen, that nothing short of its possession would satisfy them, and one of the largest armaments that had ever left a British port, conveying 40,000 soldiers, was sent to achieve its conquest. It was soon won and occupied; but our troops found, on entering into possession, that a deadlier enemy than any that France could furnish was arrayed against them to dispute their footing; so that, independently of the fearful amount of mortality, ten thousand brave soldiers were soon upon the sick list. As for the disease, too, which produced such havoc, although it was sometimes called fever, and sometimes ague, neither its nature, causes, nor cure, could be satisfactorily ascertained. All this, however, was necessary to be detected, if our hold was to be continued upon Walcheren; and the chief medical officers of the army were ordered to repair in person to the island, and there hold an inquest upon the malady, with a view to its removal. But no medical Curtius could be found to venture into such a gulf: the surgeon-general of the army declared that the case was not surgical, and ought therefore to be superintended by the physician-general; while the latter as stoutly argued, that the duty indisputably belonged not to him, but to the inspector-general of army hospitals. In this way, an office reckoned tantamount to a death-warrant, from the danger of infection which it involved, was bandied to and fro, while the unfortunate patients were daily sickening and dying by the hundred. One man, however, fully competent for the task, and whose services on such an occasion were completely gratuitous, departed upon the perilous mission. This was Dr. Blane, who, as belonging to a different department, had no such obligations as his army brethren, but who, nevertheless, undertook the obnoxious duty in 1809, while the disease was most prevalent. It is, perhaps, unnecessary to add, that the British soon after abandoned their possession of Walcheren.

Another public service on which Dr. Blane was employed in the following year (1810), was to visit Northfleet, and report on the expediency of establishing a dock-yard and naval arsenal there. This terminated his public official labours, which were so highly valued, that in 1812 he was raised to the rank of baronet, and appointed in the same year physician in ordinary to the Prince Regent. In 1819, he reappeared as an author, by the publication of "Elements of Medical Logic," the most useful of his writings, and one so highly prized, that, in the course of a few years, it went through several editions. In 1821, having now for two years been past the "three score and ten" that constitute the common boundary of human life, he suffered under the effects of old age in the form of prurigo senilis, for which he was obliged to take such copious doses of opium, that he became a confirmed opium eater; but this habit, so fatal in most instances, seems in him to have been counteracted by the disease which it alleviated, for he continued to the last in full possession and use of his intellectual faculties. In 1822, he published "Select Dissertations on Several Subjects of Medical Science," most of which had previously appeared in the form of separate papers in the most important of our medical periodicals. In 1826, he was elected a member of the Institute of France. Although a long period of peace had now occurred, his zeal for the welfare of the navy still continued. This he had first manifested on his being placed at the head of the Navy Medical Board, when he caused regular returns or journals of the state of health and disease to be kept by every surgeon in the service, and forwarded to the Navy Board, from which returns he drew up those dissertations that were read before the Medico-Chirurgical Society, and published in its "Transactions." But anxious still more effectually to promote emulation and reward merit in the medical department of the British naval service, he founded in 1829, with the sanction of the Lords of the Admiralty, a prize medal for the best journal kept by the surgeons of his Majesty’s navy. This medal is awarded every second year, the commissioners selecting four of the best journals for competition. On the accession of William IV. to the throne in 1830, the sovereign was not forgetful of his old shipmate, and Sir Gilbert was appointed first physician to the king. Fully rewarded with wealth and honours, and laden with years, Sir Gilbert Blane could now retire gracefully from the scene of public life, and leave his place to be filled by younger men; and this he did in a manner that was consistent with his previous career. The whole island was filled with consternation at the coming of the cholera, and the havoc which it wrought wherever it appeared, upon which he published a pamphlet in 1831, entitled, "Warning to the British Public against the Alarming Approach of the Indian Cholera." After this he retreated, at the age of eighty-two, into peaceful retirement, where he solaced his leisure hours in revising and preparing for publication the second edition of his "Select Dissertations," which issued from the press before he died. His death occurred on the 26th of June, 1834, in the eighty-fifth year of his age.


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