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Significant Scots
Buchan, William M.D.


BUCHAN, WILLIAM, M. D. a popular medical writer of great celebrity, was born in 1729, at Ancrum in Roxburghshire. His grandfather had been obliged, for some time, to reside with his family in Holland, on account of the religious troubles which preceded the Revolution. His father possessed a small estate, in addition to which he rented a farm from the Duke of Roxburgh. His genius for medicine was displayed before he could have received any adequate instruction; and even when a school-boy, he was at once the physician and surgeon of the village. Nevertheless, being destined by his friends for the church, he repaired to Edinburgh, to study divinity.

At the university he spent the unusual time of nine years, studying anything rather than theology. At this period of his life, mathematics and botany were among his favourite pursuits. Finally, he devoted himself wholly to medicine. He enjoyed, at this time, the friendship of the illustrious Gregory, whose liberal maxims are believed to have had great influence over his future life. Before taking his degree, he was induced, by the invitation of a fellow-student, to settle in practice for some time in Yorkshire. While established in that district, he became a candidate for the situation of Physician to the Foundling Hospital, then supported by parliament at Ackworth, and, after a fair trial of skill with ten professional men, was successful. In this situation he laid the foundation of that knowledge of the diseases of children, which afterwards appeared so conspicuous in his writings.

Having returned to Edinburgh to take out his degree, he became acquainted with a well-connected lady of the name of Peter, whom he soon after married. He continued to be Physician to the Ackworth Foundling Hospital, till parliament, becoming convinced of the bad effects of such an institution, withdrew the annual grant of sixty thousand pounds, upon which it had hitherto been supported. He then removed to Sheffield, where for some time he enjoyed extensive practice. He appears to have spent the years between 1762 and 1766, in this town. He then commenced practice at Edinburgh, and for several years was very well employed, though it was allowed that he might have enjoyed much more business, if his convivial habits had not distracted so much of his attention. He was not, however, anxious for an extensive practice. Having for a considerable time directed his attention to a digest of popular medical knowledge, he published, in 1769, his work entitled, "Domestic Medicine; or, the Family Physician - being an attempt to render the Medical Art more generally useful, by showing people what is in their own power, both with respect to the prevention and cure of diseases: chiefly calculated to recommend a proper attention to regimen and simple medicines." This work, which had been much indebted, in respect of its composition, to the ingenious William Smellie, was published by Balfour, an eminent bookseller at Edinburgh, at the price of six shillings; and such was its success, that "the first edition," says the author, "of 5000 copies, was entirely sold off in a corner of Britain, before another could be got ready." The second edition appeared in 1772, "with considerable additions."

The Domestic Medicine is constructed on a plan similar to that adopted by Tissot in his Avis au Peuple. It appealed to the wants and wishes of so large a class of the community, that, considering it to have been the first work of the kind published in Britain, there is no wonder that it should have attained such success. Before the death of the author in 1805, nineteen large editions had been sold, by which the publishers were supposed to realise annually about 700, being exactly the sum which they are said to have given at first for the copyright. The learned Duplanil of Paris, Physician to the Count d' Artois [Charles X.], published an elegant translation in five volumes, with some excellent notes, which rendered the work so popular on the Continent, that in a short time no language in Christendom, not even the Russian, wanted its translation. It would almost appear that the work met with more undivided applause on the Continent than in Britain. While many English and Scottish physicians conceived that it was as apt to generate as to cure or prevent diseases, by inspiring the minds of readers with hypochondriacal notions, those of other countries entertained no such suspicions.

Among the testimonies of approbation which Dr. Buchan received from abroad, was a huge gold medallion, sent by the Empress Catherine of Russia, with a complimentary letter. The work is said to have become more popular in America and the West Indies, than in the elder hemisphere. The reputation which the author thus acquired, induced him to remove to London, where for many years he enjoyed a lucrative practice, though not so great as it might have been made by a more prudent man. It was his custom to resort daily to the Chapter Coffee-house, near St Paul’s, where he partly spent his time in conversation with literary and eminent men, and partly in giving advice to patients, who here resorted to him in great numbers, exactly as if it had been his own house. At one time, he delivered lectures on Natural Philosophy, which he illustrated by an excellent apparatus, the property of his deceased friend James Ferguson. And in this capacity he is said to have manifested as respectable abilities as in his character of a physician!

Dr. Buchan was a man of pleasing exterior, most agreeable manners, and great practical benevolence. He cherished no species of antipathy, except one against apothecaries, whom he believed to be a set of rogues, actuated by no principle except a wish to sell their own drugs, at whatever hazard to their patients. His conversation was much courted on account of his lively spirits, and a fund of anecdote which seemed to be perfectly exhaustless. He enjoyed a good constitution, which did not give way till the 25th of February, 1805, when "he died in a moment", at his own house, while walking between his sofa and his bed. The disorder was water in the chest, which had been advancing upon him for some time, but was, up to the last moment, so little alarming, that immediately before rising from the sofa, he had been talking in his usual manner. The Doctor left a son and daughter – the former a man of respectable gifts, and a fellow of the London Royal College of Physicians. His remains were interred in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, next to those of the celebrated Jebb.

Two other works were published by the Doctor. 1. A Treatise on Gonorrhea. 2. An Advice to Mothers on the subject of their own health, and on the means of promoting the health, strength, and beauty of their offspring. Each in one volume, 8vo.


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