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Significant Scots
George Cheyne


CHEYNE, GEORGE, a physician of considerable eminence, was born in 1671, of a good family, though neither the name of his father, nor the place of his birth, has been commemorated. He received a regular and liberal education, and was at first designed by his parents for the church. But though his mind was naturally of a studious and abstracted turn, he afterwards preferred the medical profession. He studied physic at Edinburgh, under the celebrated Dr Pitcairne, to whom he became much attached, and whom he styles, in the preface to his Essay on Health and Long Life, "his great master and generous friend." He has informed us that he was, at this period of his life, addicted to gay studies and indulgences; but that he was soon apprised by the shaking of his hands and a disposition to be easily ruffled on a surprise, of the unfitness of his constitution for intemperance. When about thirty years of age, having taken the degree of M. D. he repaired to London, and there commenced practice as a physician. It affords a curious picture of the times, that he found it necessary to become a frequenter of taverns in order to get into practice. His cheerful temper, and vivacious conversation soon rendered him the favourite of the other gentlemen who frequented those places; he "grew daily," he says, "in bulk, and in friendship with those gay men, and their acquaintances." But this could not last long. He soon became excessively fat, short-winded, and lethargic, and being further admonished by an attack of vertigo, nearly approaching to apoplexy, he was obliged to abandon that style of life altogether.

Previous to this period, he had written, at the request of Dr Pitcairne, "A new Theory of Acute and Slow continued Fevers; wherein, besides the appearances of such, and the manner of their cure, occasionally, the structure of the glands, and the Manner and Laws of Secretion, the operation of purgative, vomitive, and mercurial medicines, are mechanically explained." Dr Pitcairne had wished to write such a work himself; in order to overthrow the opposing theories of some of his brethren, but was prevented from doing so by his constant application to practice, and therefore desired Dr Cheyne to undertake the task in his place. The work was hastily produced, and, though it was favourably received, the author never thought it worthy of receiving his name. The next work of Dr Cheyne was entitled, "Fluxionum Methodus Inversa: sive quantitatum fluentium leges generales." Like many men who are eminent in one professional branch of knowledge, he was anxious to display an amateur’s accomplishment in another; and hence this attempt at throwing light upon the mysteries of abstract geometry. In later life, he had the candour to say of this work, that it was "brought forth in ambition, and brought up in vanity. There are some things in it," he adds, "tolerable for the time, when the methods of quadratures, the mensuration of ratios, and transformation of curves into those of other kinds, were not advanced to such heights as they now are. But it is a long time since I was forced to forego these barren and airy studies for more substantial and commodious speculations: indulging and rioting in these so exquisitely bewitching contemplations being only proper to public professors, and those who are under no outward necessities. Besides, to own a great but grievous truth, though they may quicken and sharpen the invention, strengthen and extend the imagination, improve and refine the reasoning faculty, and are of use both in the necessary and luxurious refinement of mechanical arts; yet, having no tendency to rectify the will, sweeten the temper, or mend the heart, they often leave a stiffness, positiveness, and sufficiency on weak minds, much more pernicious to society, and the interests of the great ends of our being, than all the advantages they can bring can recompense."

On finding his health so materially affected by intemperance, Dr Cheyne left off eating suppers entirely, and in his other meals took only a little animal food, and hardly any fermented liquor. He informs us, that being now confined to the penitential solitude of a sick chamber, he had occasion to experience the faithlessness of all friendship formed on the principle of a common taste for sensual indulgences. His boon companions, even those who had been particularly obliged to him, left him like the stricken deer, to bewail his own unhappy condition; "so that at last," says the doctor, "I was forced into the country alone, reduced to the state of cardinal Wolsey, when he said, ‘if he had served his Maker as faithfully and warmly as he had his prince, he would not have forsaken him in that extremity;’ and so will every one find, when union and friendship is not founded on solid virtue; and in conformity to the divine order, but in mere jollity. Being thus forsaken, dejected, melancholy, and confined in my country retirement, my body melting away like a snow-ball in summer, I had a long season for reflection. Having had a regular and liberal education, with the instruction and example of pious parents, I had preserved a firm persuasion of the great fundamental principles of all virtue and morality; namely, pure religion; in which I had been confirmed from abstract reasonings, as well as from the best natural philosophy. This led me to consider who of all my acquaintance I could wish to resemble most, or which of them had received and lived up to the plain truths and precepts contained in the gospels, or particularly our Saviour’s sermon on the Mount. I then fixed on one, a worthy and learned clergyman; and as in studying mathematics, and in turning over Sir Isaac Newton’s philosophical works, I always marked down the authors and writings mostly used and recomnmended, so in this case I purchased and studied such spiritual and dogmatic authors as I knew this venerable man approved. Thus I collected a set of religious books of the first ages since Christianity, with a few of the most spiritual of the moderns, which have been my study, delight, and entertainment ever since, and on these I have formed my ideas, principles, and sentiments, which have never been shaken." Dr Cheyne further informs us, that this reformation in his religious temperament, contributed greatly to forward the cure of his nervous diseases, which he perfected by a visit to Bath.

On his return to London, Dr Cheyne commenced living upon a milk diet, which he found remarkably salutary; but after a long course of years he gradually relapsed into a freer style of living, and though he never indulged to the least excess either in eating or drinking, his fat returned upon him, and at last he weighed upwards of thirty-two stone. Being again admonished of the evil effects of his indulgences, he all at once reverted to his milk diet, and in time regained his usual health. From this moderate style of living he never again departed; and accordingly he enjoyed tolerable health till 1743, when, on the 12th of April, he died at Bath, in full possession of his faculties to the last, and without experiencing a pang.

Besides the works already mentioned, Dr Cheyne published, in 1705, his "Philosophical Principles of Natural Religion, containing the Elements of Natural Philosophy, and the Proofs for Natural Religion, arising from them." This work he dedicated to the earl of Roxburgh, at whose request, and for whose instruction, it appears to have been originally written, he also published "An Essay on the True Nature and Due Method of treating the Gout, together with an account of the Nature and Quality of the Bath Waters," which passed through at least five editions, and was followed by "An Essay on health and Long Life." The latter work he afterwards published in Latin. In 1733 appeared his "English Malady, or a Treatise on Nervous Diseases of all kinds, as Spleen, Vapours, Lowness of Spirits, Hypochondriacal and hysterical Distempers." From the preface of this work we have derived the particulars here related respecting his own health through life. In 1740, Dr Cheyne published "An Essay on Regimen." His last work, which he dedicated to his friend and correspondent the earl of Chesterfield, was entitled, "The Natural Method of Curing the Diseases of the human Body, and the Disorders of the Mind attending on the Body."

Dr Cheyne was eminently the physician of nervous distempers. He wrote chiefly to the studious, the voluptuous, and those who inherited bad constitutions from their parents. As a physician, he seemed to proceed, like Hippocrates of old, and Sydenham of modern times, upon a few great perceptible truths. He s to be ranked among those who have accounted for the operations of medicine, and the morbid alterations which take place upon the human body, upon mechanical principles. A spirit of piety and benevolence, and an ardent zeal for the interests of virtue, run through all his writings. It was commonly said, that most of the physicians of his own day were secretly or openly tainted with irreligion; but from this charge Dr Cheyne rendered himself an illustrious exception. He was as much the enemy of irreligion in general society, as of intemperance in his professional character. Some of the metaphysical notions which he has introduced in his writings, may be thought fanciful and ill-grounded; but there is an agreeable vivacity in his productions, together with much candour and frankness, and, in general, great perspicuity. Of his relatives, his half-brother, the Rev. William Cheyne, vicar of Weston, near Bath, died September 6, 1767, and his son, the Rev. John Cheyne, vicar of Brigstock, Northamptonshire died August 11, 1768.

[Note: According to "The Scottish Nation", Dr. George Cheyne was born at Auchencreive, Methlick, Aberdeenshire in 1671. This date is based solely on his age at death in 1743 (72). The only Cheyne family living at Auchencreive is headed by James Cheyne who was one of the commissioners appointed for the Poll Tax record of 1696.  James had a son George baptized on 24 Feb 1673 (Methlick OPR). I believe this to be Dr. George Cheyne's baptism. Other supporting evidence is the fact that George had half brothers. James Cheyne's first wife, Marie Maitland, was buried at Methlick on 8 Jun 1692.  In the Poll Tax record of 1696, James does not mention his wife.  His second wife, Margaret Anderson, was buried on 22 Jul 1707. Amongst her children were John (C.30 Sep 1697) and William (C.20 Jan 1704) Cheynes. As an aside there is probably a family connection to Charles Maitland, the small-pox vaccination pioneer (not on your list).  Charles and George may have been cousins.
Bob Fyvie,  Accredited Genealogist]


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