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Significant Scots
James Douglas


DOUGLAS, JAMES,M. D., a skilful anatonsist and surgeon, and accomplished physician, was born in Scotland in the year 1675. Having completed his preliminary education, he proceeded to London, and there applied himself diligently to the studies of anatomy and surgery. Medical science was at that period but little advanced, nor were the facilities of acquiring a proficiency in any branch of it, by any means considerable. Dr Douglas laboured with assiduity to overcome the difficulties against which he had to contend;—he studied carefully the works of the ancients, which were at that time little known to his contemporaries, and sought to supply what in them appeared defective, by closely studying nature. The toils of patient industry seldom go unrewarded; and he was soon enabled so far to advance the progress of anatomy and surgery, as to entitle himself to a conspicuous place in the history of medicine. His "Descriptio Comparativa Musculorum Corporis Humani et Quadrupedis"was published in London in 1707. The quadruped he chose for his analogy was the dog; and he thus appears to have proceeded in imitation of Galen, who left on record an account of the muscles of the ape and in man. "As for the comparative part of this treatise, or the interlacing the descriptions of the human muscles with these of the canine, that" says Dr Douglas, "needs no apology. The many useful discoveries known from the dissection of quadrupeds, the knowledge of the true structure of divers parts of the body, of the course of the blood and the chyle, and of the use and proper action of the parts, that are chiefly owing to this sort of dissection; these, I say, give a very warrantable plea for insisting upon it, though it may be censured by the vulgar." His descriptions of the muscles, their origin and insertion, and their various uses, are extremely accurate; and to them many recent authors on myology, of no mean authority, have been not a little indebted. It soon obtained considerable notice on the continent, where, in 1738, an edition appeared in Latin, by John Frederic Schreiber. His anatomical chef d’oeuvre, however, was the description he gave of the peritonaeum, the complicated course and reflections of which, he pointed out with admirable accuracy. His account entitled "a description of the Peritonaeum, and of that part of the Membrana Cellularis which lies on its outside," appeared in London in the year 1730. Nicholas Massa, and others of the older anatomists, had contended that the peritonaeum was a uniform and continuous membrane, but it remained for Dr Douglas to demonstrate the fact; in which, after repeated dissections, he satisfactorily succeeded. Ocular inspection can alone teach the folds and processes of this membrane;—but his description is perhaps the best and most complete that can even yet be consulted. Besides his researches in anatomy, Dr Douglas laboured to advance the then rude state of surgery. He studied particularly the difficult and painful operation of lithotomy, and introduced to the notice of the profession the methods recommended by Jacques, Rau, and Mery. In the year 1726, he published "a History of the lateral operation for Stone," which was republished with an appendix, in 1733, and embraced a comparison of the methods used by different lithotomists, more especially of that which was practised by Cheselden. Dr Douglas taught for many years both anatomy and surgery; and his fame having extended, he was appointed physician to the king, who afterwards awarded him a pension of five hundred guineas per annum. It may be worth noticing, that while practising in London, he seems to have obtained considerable credit for having detected the imposition of a woman named Maria Toft, who had for some time imposed successfully on the public. This impostor pretended, that from time to time she underwent an accouchement, during which, she gave birth—not to any human being—but to rabbits; and this strange deception she practised successfully on many well educated persons. Dr Douglas detected the fraud and explained the mode by which it was enacted, in an advertisement which he published in Manningham’s Journal. During the period that Dr Douglas lectured on anatomy, he was waited upon by Mr, afterwards the celebrated Dr William Hunter, who solicited his advice in the direction of his studies. Pleased with his address, and knowing his industry and talents, Dr Douglas appointed him his assistant, and invited him to reside under his roof; an invitation which Mr William Hunter could not accept, until he had consulted Dr Cullen, with whom he had previously arranged to enter, when he had finished his education, into partnership, for the purpose of conducting the surgical part of his practice—but his friend Dr Cullen, seeing how important to him would be his situation under Dr Douglas, relinquished cheerfully his former agreement; and young Hunter was left at liberty to accept the situation he desired. He thus became the assistant of, and found a kind benefactor in Dr Douglas; who must have been amply rewarded, had he lived to see the high fame to which his pupil attained. Thus often it happens, that the patron and preceptor of an obscure and humble boy, fosters talents which afterwards rise and shine even with greater brilliancy than his own. Dr Douglas not only attended to the practical duties of his profession, but excelled in what may be termed its literary department. He was an erudite scholar, and published a work entitled "Bibliographiae Anatomicae specimen, seu Catalogus pene Omnium Auctorum qui ab Hippocrate ad Harveium rem Anatomicam ex professo vel obiter scripsit illustrarunt." This work appeared in London in the year 1715, and was republished in Leyden in 1734, which edition was enriched by several important additions from the pen of Albinus. Portal, in his history of anatomy and surgery, thus eulogises this valuable work—"c’est le tableau le plus fidele, et le plus succinct de l’anatomie ancienne. Douglas fait en peu de mots l’histoire de chaque anatomiste, indique leurs editions, et donne une légere notice de leurs ouvrages; sa liste des ecrivains est tres étendue. . .c’est ouvrage est une des meilleurs modelles qu’on puisse suivre pour donner l’histoire d’une science et j’avoue que je m’en suis beaucoup servi."Haller, when in London, visited Dr Douglas, and informs us that he was highly pleased with his anatomical preparations; particularly with those which exhibited the motions of the joints, and the internal structure of the bones. A tribute of admiration from such a man as the illustrious Haller cannot be too highly appreciated;—he observes, that he found him "a learned and skilful person; modest, candid, and obliging; and a very diligent dissecter." Besides devoting his attention to those departments of his profession in the exercise of which he was most particularly engaged, Dr Douglas seems to have pursued botany, not only as a recreation, but as a graver study. In the year 1725, he published " Lilium Sarmiense," or a description of the Guernsey lily. His work, descriptive of this beautiful flower, appeared in folio, illustrated by a plate, and is an admirable monograph. He also analysed with peculiar care the coffee seed, and published a work entitled "Arbor Yemensis," a description and history of the coffee tree, which may still be consulted as containing a great deal of curious and valuable information. We also find in the Transactions of the royal society of London that he contributed to that work, a description of the flower and seed vessel of the Crocus Autumnalis Sativus; and an essay on the different kinds of Ipecacuanha. In addition to these labours, more or less connected with his immediate professional avocations, we find that he collected, at a great expense, all the editions of Horace which had been published from 1476 to 1739. Dr Harwood, in his view of Greek and Roman classics, observes, that "this one author multiplied, must thus have formed a very considerable library." An accurate catalogue of these is prefixed to Watson’s Horace. [See also Haller Bib. Anat. and Chirurg.]

In addition to the works we have mentioned, Dr Douglas projected a splendid design of one on the bones, and another on Hernia, which, notwithstanding the great advancement of medical science since his time, we regret that he did not live to complete. He died in the year 1742, in the sixty-seventh year of his age; and when we consider the period in which he lived, and the essential services he rendered towards the advancement of medical science, the homage of the highest respect is due to his memory.


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