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Significant Scots
John Burns


BURNS, JOHN, M.D., a distinguished medical writer, and elder brother of Allan, the subject of the preceding notice, was born in Glasgow, in 1774. He was descended from a family of the name of Burn; his grandfather, John Burn, was a teacher of English in Glasgow, and the author of an "English Grammar," bearing his name, a work highly popular as a school-book in the west of Scotland about a century ago. His father was the Rev. John Burns, D.D., who, as has been already mentioned, was minister for upwards of sixty-nine years, of the Barony Parish of Glasgow, and who died in 1839. John, who was the eldest surviving son of Dr. Burns, was born in 1775. He began his professional studies in Glasgow, and continued them in Edinburgh. He had just completed his studies when the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, in which he was the first surgeon’s-clerk, was opened for the reception of patients in 1792. His favourite department of medical science was surgical anatomy, in which he made remarkable progress. He soon began to give instructions to others, and was the first private teacher of anatomy in Glasgow. His lecture-room was originally at the head of Virginia Street, at the north-west corner, behind the present Union Bank. At that period, and for thirty years afterwards, subjects for dissection could only be obtained by violating the repose of the dead; a practice most demoralizing to those immediately engaged in it, and not unfrequently productive of unpleasant consequences to lecturers and students. An affair of this nature having transpired in connection with the lecture-room of Mr. Burns, proceedings were instituted against him by the authorities, but were quashed on his coming under a promise to discontinue his lectures on anatomy. His younger brother Allan, however, took up the anatomical lectures, and John began to lecture on midwifery. The lecture-room of the brothers was removed to a tenement built on the site of the old Bridewell, on the north side of College Street. They were both successful as lecturers. Allan’s style was monotonous and unpleasing, but his demonstrations were admirable. John’s manner was the more agreeable, his knowledge was exact, his views were practical, and his lectures were interspersed with anecdotes and strokes of humour which rendered them highly attractive to the students. Dr. Burns now began to exhibit the fruits of his studies in a series of important contributions to the literature of his profession. His first publication of note was the "Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus," which appeared in 1799. This was followed in 1800 by two volumes on "Inflammation," in which he was the first to describe a species of cancer, which is now known by the name of "fungus hoematodes." These two works stamped their author as an observing, original, and practical inquirer. They were followed by "Observations on Abortion," in 1806; "Observations on Uterine Hoemorrhage," in 1807; and by the most popular of all his medical writings, "The Principles of Midwifery," in 1809; a book which has been translated into various languages, and has passed through numerous editions. In 1828-38 appeared the "Principles of Surgery," in two volumes, a work which cost Dr. Burns much pains, but did not meet with corresponding success. He likewise published a popular work on the "Treatment of Women and Children."

Dr. Burns married, in 1801, the daughter of the Rev. John Duncan, minister of the parish of Alva, in Stirlingshire. He continued to lecture on midwifery till 1815, when the Crown instituted a regius professorship of surgery in the university of Glasgow, to which chair he was appointed, and discharged its duties till the close of his life. In 1810 his wife died, and he remained a widower during the forty years that he survived her. By her he had four children, the youngest, Allan, named after his uncle, was born in January, 1810.

At an early period in his professional career, Dr. Burns became surgeon to the Royal Infirmary, and distinguished himself by the nerve with which he operated. He subsequently became the partner of Mr. Muir, and, after that gentleman’s death, of Mr. Alexander Dunlop, a connection which brought him into excellent family practice. His son, Allan, followed the medical profession, and, having completed his studies, after a residence of three years on the Continent, he commenced practice in 1832. With an intimate knowledge of medical science, and a strong love of anatomical pursuits, he was rising fast into eminence, when intermittent fever, caught in the prosecution of his duties, carried him off after a short illness, in November, 1843, in the thirty-fourth year of his age. It was not till his son entered upon public practice, that the subject of this memoir took out his degree, which he had previously refused to do. He was shortly afterwards elected physician to the Royal Infirmary. He had subsequently considerable practice as a consulting physician. Dr. Burns had, however, been gradually retiring from the labours of his profession, when the severe affliction, caused by his son’s death, befel him. He then gave up everything but his professorial duties, devoting much of his time to carrying out the views of the principal and professors of the college as respected the medical school—and, in token of their gratitude, he was requested by the Senatus to sit for his portrait, which, having been painted by Mr. John Graham Gilbert, was placed in the Hunterian museum of the college.

Early in life, and while yet a student in the university of Edinburgh, his mind was imbued with those religious principles which regulated his whole career, and sustained him amidst many afflictive bereavements. To the religious world he became favourably known by a work entitled, "The Principles of Christian Philosophy," which has gone through several editions, and promises to hold a permanent place in religious literature. In this treatise, the author illustrates the following propositions:--"Man is created for a future state of happiness; the means by which a future state of happiness is procured; what is required of man that he may obtain it; nature of, and preparation for, the future state of happiness; personal and relative duties; the duties men owe to God; the admonitions and consolations afforded by the Christian religion." The principles of the work are thoroughly scriptural and evangelical; its style is elegant, chaste, and grave; its spirit earnest and solemnizing. It is the utterance of a heart much exercised in affliction, and intimately conversant with the sources of true and permanent consolation. It gives expression to remarkably elevating yet sober conceptions of the heavenly felicity, and dwells with touching interest on the prospect of the re-union of the ties of affection severed on earth. "The Christian Philosophy" is at once meditative, devotional, and practical, and to many "mourners in Zion" the author must often have proved himself "a son of consolation."

Dr. Burns also published another religious book, entitled, "Christian Fragments." Although brought up in the Church of Scotland, of which he was an elder, he became a member of the Episcopalian Church, and died in its communion. His end was sudden and melancholy. He perished in the wreck of the Orion steam-boat, on her passage from Liverpool to Glasgow, on the 18th of June, 1850. Having finished his course and kept the faith, he was removed from the world in the attitude and exercise of prayer. He had reached the mature age of seventy-five.

Dr. John Burns was F.R.S., and a member of the Institute of France, and of several other scientific institutions in various countries. In politics, he was a staunch Conservative. He was of a cheerful disposition, was a great favourite with his patients, and towards his professional brethren he behaved on all occasions in the most honourable manner. In person he was under the middle height, with grey flowing locks, and his dress was scrupulously neat and antique. Few individuals in Glasgow were unacquainted with his exterior, and thousands who knew little of his professional attainments were yet familiar with his appearance as a venerable medical gentleman of the old school. His eldest and only surviving son, Lieutenant-Colonel Burns, of the second Queen’s Regiment, died at the Cape of Good Hope towards the close of 1853.


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