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Significant Scots
Andrew Duncan


DUNCAN, ANDREW, SENR. M.D., an esteemed physician and professor of the institutions of medicine in the university of Edinburgh, was born at St Andrews on the 17th October, 1744. His father, who was formerly a merchant and shipmaster in Crail, was descended from a younger branch of the Duncans of Ardownie, in the county of Angus; and his mother, a daughter of professor Villant, was related to the Drummonds of Hawthornden. He received his preliminary education for the profession of medicine at St Andrews, from the university of which city he obtained the degree of master of arts in May, 1762. He then transferred his residence to Edinburgh, where he pursued his medical studies under the happiest auspices, being the pupil, as he was afterwards the friend, of Dr Cullen, Dr John Gregory, Dr Monro the second, Dr John Hope, and Dr Black. The university of Edinburgh was at this period beginning to hold a prominent position in the scientific and literary world; for although the many discoveries that have since been made, lay then concealed like precious stones in their mines, unknown and unsuspected, yet the general and visible advancement of the progressive sciences which were here taught and cultivated by their respective professors, began to be duly felt and appreciated both at home and abroad. The professors, who held not their offices as sinecures, toiled incessantly and indefatigably to advance the interests and extend the known boundaries of science; and the students, emulating their examples, were likewise animated by a spirit of zeal and inquiry, which in turn reflected back honour on the university. It is not, then, to be supposed that our young candidate for medical honours, who had already distinguished himself by his talents and acquirements at St Andrews, would be less active than his fellow-students; and accordingly, we find that he soon obtained their suffrages of respect and esteem, in being elected a president of the Royal Medical Society in the session of 1764, the second year after the commencement of his medical studies in Edinburgh. In the welfare of this society he ever afterwards took a warm interest, nor did he hesitate to declare, that he considered it an essential part of the medical school of Edinburgh. In the year 1768-9, having completed his studies, he went a voyage to China, in the capacity of surgeon to the honourable East India company’s ship Asia, under the command of captain, afterwards Sir Robert Preston. So much to the satisfaction and advantage of the ship’s company did he discharge his professional duties, that when the vessel returned to England on the termination of the voyage, the captain offered him the sum of 500 guineas to go out with him a second time; but this offer, however complimentary, he thought it expedient to decline, for the purpose of pursuing a different and more congenial tenor of life. In the October, therefore, of the same year (1769), he received the diploma of doctor of medicine from the university of St Andrews, and in the month of May following, was admitted a licentiate of the royal college of physicians in Edinburgh. Dr Duncan immediately sought to distinguish himself in his profession, and in 1770 came forward as a candidate for the professorship of medicine in the university of St Andrews, that chair having become vacated by the death of Dr Simpson. On this occasion he produced flattering testimonials from all the members of the medical faculty of the university of Edinburgh, and from other eminent members of the profession; but his application proved unsuccessful, the rival candidate being duly elected. In the four sessions succeeding that of 1769-70, he was annually re-elected one of the presidents of the royal medical society, and during this period exerted himself in completing the arrangements for the erection of the medical hall, now occupied by the society. About this time he became attached to, and married a lady with whom he enjoyed an uninterrupted union of upwards of fifty-seven years, and by whom he had twelve children. She was a Miss Elizabeth Knox, the daughter of Mr John Knox, surgeon in the service of the East India company, who, it may be added, was the eldest son of the Rev. William Knox, minister of Dairsie, in the county of Fife, and great-grand-nephew to the illustrious reformer.

On the death of Dr John Gregory, professor of the theory of medicine in the university of Edinburgh, which occurred in February, 1773, Dr Drummond was appointed to that chair, but being absent from the country, Dr Duncan was chosen to supply the temporary vacancy. He, accordingly, during the sessions 1774-5 and 1775-6, delivered lectures on the theory of medicine; in addition to which he revived the judicious plan adopted by Dr Rutherford, of illustrating the select cases of indigent patients labouring under chronic complaints, by clinical lectures. Dr Drummond still failing to attend to his duties, the magistrates and town council, on the 12th June, 1776, declared the chair to be again vacant, and on the 19th of the same month elected Dr James Gregory, the son of the late professor, to the professorship, the duties of which had been for two years discharged by Dr Duncan. The life of every man is more or less chequered by disappointment, and assuredly this could not be otherwise than keenly felt by Dr Duncan, who, in his concluding clinical address, after reviewing the records of the hospital, and alluding to the successful practice he there adopted, thus proceeds: "I have the satisfaction of being able to retire from this arduous task with ease in my own mind, and I hope not without some additional credit in your estimation. My academical labours have not indeed in other respects been attended with equal advantage. I was not without hopes that by my exertions here, I should still have been able to hold the office of a teacher in the university, and I had no hesitation in offering myself a candidate for the chair lately vacant. In that competition I had indeed no powerful connexion, no political interest to aid my cause; but I thought that my chance for success stood on no infirm basis when it was rested on what I had done to deserve it. Although, however, I can no longer act in an equally conspicuous capacity, yet I hope I may hereafter be employed; as a teacher in one not less useful. I am neither arrived at that age which requires ease, nor am I placed in those circumstances which will allow of it. It is therefore my present intention, still to dedicate my labours to the service of the students of medicine. * * * * I have already lived long enough to have experienced even advantages from disappointment on other occasions, and time alone can determine whether the present disappointment may not yet afford me the strongest instance of the favour of heaven." The human mind often acquires additional strength and activity from the fruits of adversity; and in the present instance, Dr Duncan immediately determined on delivering an independent course of lectures on the theory and practice of physic, without the walls of the university; besides which, as his clinical lectures had been so numerously attended, he also announced his intention of continuing them. "While these lectures," said he, in announcing his intention, "are more immediately intended for the instruction of students, they will be also the means of furnishing the indigent with advice and medicines gratis, when subjected to chronical diseases." He soon found that the number of sick poor who applied to him for relief was so considerable, that he was. induced to project a scheme for the establishment of a dispensary for the purpose of alleviating the sufferings of those whose diseases were not of a nature to entitle them to admission into the royal infirmary. When, in addition to the gnawing miseries of poverty, the victims of ill fortune have to writhe under the tortures of slow and lingering, disease, sad indeed are the endurance of suffering humanity; and no wonder therefore it is that when the objects of this institution, by the unwearied exertions of Dr Duncan, were brought fully and fairly before the public, a sufficient fund was raised to carry his views into effect. In Richmond Street, on the south side of the city, a commodious building for this charity was erected, and in 1818, the subscribers were incorporated by royal charter. Notwithstanding the increasing number of similar institutions, this dispensary continues to flourish, and a picture of the venerable founder is in its hall.

In the same year that Dr Duncan commenced lecturing (1773), he also undertook the publication of a periodical work, entitled "Medical and Philosophical Commentaries," which was avowedly on the plan of a similar publication of a periodical work, entitled "Medical and Philosophical Commentaries," which was avowedly on the plan of a similar publication at Leipsic;—the "Commentarii de Rebus in Scientia Naturali et Medicina gestis,"—which obviously could only be a very imperfect channel for the communication of British medical literature. The Medical and Philosophical Commentaries contained an account of the best new books in medicine, and the collateral branches of philosophy; medical cases and observations; the most recent medical intelligence, and lists of new books: it appeared in quarterly parts, forming one volume annually, and continued until the year 1795 under his sole superintendence, when it had extended to twenty volumes. It was afterwards continued by him under the title of "Annals of Medicine," until the year 1804, when it consisted of eight volumes more, after which, Dr Duncan ceased to officiate as editor, and changing its appellation, it became the "Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal," which, under the care of his son, became subsequently one of the most influential medical journals in Europe.

In the year 1790, Dr Duncan was elected president of the college of physicians in Edinburgh, and in the same year, his venerable friend Dr Cullen having resigned the professorship of the practice of medicine, Dr James Gregory was translated to that chair. The object of Dr Duncan’s former ambition he now obtained, for after having lectured with increasing reputation for fourteen years without the walls of the college, he was elected successor to Dr James Gregory as the professor of the institutions of medicine.

The life of a physician, unlike that of a statesman, a soldier, or adventuring artist, whether poet or painter, is seldom diversified by any stirring or remarkable incidents; it flows equably and unobtrusively along, never coming immediately under the gaze of the public, and although in ministering to the wants of the afflicted, human nature be seen often under the most varied and touching aspects, yet over every scene that speaks to the heart of charity, a veil is drawn; the secrets of the sick chamber being always esteemed sacred and inviolable. No class of men are brought so closely and so continually into contact with human wretchedness; yet even this charity, which constitutes perhaps the most estimable feature of the human mind, can seldom be duly appreciated, for it is manifested only in secret, and seeks not the empty approbation of the multitude. Fortunately, in the instance of Dr Duncan, his actions speak for themselves, and prove him to have been always actuated by the most philanthropic, generous, and humane motives. The cast of his mind was truly benevolent. In 1792, perceiving how destitute was the condition of those unhappy beings suffering under the bereavement of reason, he brought forward a plan for the erection and endowment of a lunatic asylum, which he laid before the royal college of physicians of Edinburgh. It is said that the idea of such an institution was suggested to him by the death of the poet Ferguson, who in 1774, a few years after Dr Duncan had settled in Edinburgh, expired in the cells of the common charity work-house, in a state of the most abject and appalling wretchedness. After much time had elapsed, and many difficulties been surmounted, a petition was presented to the king, who granted a royal charter, dated the 11th April, 1807, under which, a lunatic asylum was erected and opened at Morningside. In September, 1808, the magistrates and town council of Edinburgh presented Dr Duncan with the freedom of the city, as a public acknowledgment of the sense they entertained of the services he had rendered the community by the establishment of the public dispensary and lunatic asylum; and assuredly this honour was never more deservedly conferred.

In 1809, Dr Duncan brought forward a scheme for another public association for the purpose of contributing to the interests and happiness of society. He observed that the study of horticulture had been too much neglected in Scotland, and proposed therefore the institution of a society which should receive communications and award prizes to those who distinguished themselves by making discoveries, or promoting the interests of this science. His proposal, and exertions in accomplishing this favourite object, he lived to see amply rewarded; for the horticultural society soon attaining considerable importance in the estimation of the public, was incorporated by royal charter, and among the number of its members will be found the names of many who are an ornament and an honour to their country. "The latest public object undertaken by Dr Duncan," says his friend Dr Huie, "was connected with this society, in the success of which he ever took the warmest interest. This was the establishment of a public experimental garden, for the purpose of putting to the test various modes of horticulture, and also for collecting specimens and improving the method of cultivating every vegetable production, from every quarter of the globe, which could either be agreeable to the palate, or pleasing to the eye. By means of private subscriptions, assisted by a loan from government, this object was at last attained; and the venerable promoter of the scheme had the satisfaction, before his death, of seeing his views on the subject in a fair way of being realized." [Harveian Oration for 1829, by R. Huie, M.D., who succeeded Dr Duncan as secretary to the Harveian Society.] On the death of Dr James Gregory, which happened in 1821, Dr Duncan, who had long served his majesty when prince of Wales in that capacity, was appointed first physician to the king for Scotland.

The royal college of physicians in 1824, as a signal mark of respect and favour, re-elected Dr Duncan president; but he had now attained that advanced age when men find it necessary to retire from the more active cares and anxieties of the world. He, however, continued so long as he could command bodily strength to participate in the business of those institutions which had been his pride in earlier life. More especially it was his pride to continue his physiological lectures in the university; and to pay that attention to his pupils which always showed the natural kindness of his heart. He made a point, like his venerable preceptor Dr Cullen, of inviting them to his house, and cultivating a friendly and confidential intercourse with them. It was his custom to invite a certain number to be with him every Sunday evening, which he intimated by little printed circulars, twenty or thirty of which he would issue at a time, taking his pupils in the order they entered to his class, until every one had been invited. On these occasions he conversed cheerfully and freely with them on all subjects; a practice which is surely encouraging to the pupil, and calculated to increase rather than diminish his respect and attachment towards the professor. His kindness of heart was indeed unbounded. He never heard of a pupil having to struggle against the ills of poverty, or being in any kind of distress, that he did not exert himself to emancipate him from such difficulty; and many now live whose feelings of silent gratitude are the most appropriate homage to his memory. "While his benevolence fell with the warmth of a sunbeam on all who came within the sphere of its influence, it was more especially experienced," says Dr Huie, "by those students of medicine who came from a distance, and had the good fortune to attract, or be recommended to his notice. Over them he watched with paternal solicitude. He invited them when in health to his house and his table. He attended them when in sickness, with assiduity and tenderness, and when they sunk the victims of premature disease, the sepulchre of his family was thrown open for their remains." [Ibid, p. 24.]

He was in some respects eccentric; but there was not an eccentricity or custom he adopted which did not indicate that some generous or good feeling was the ruling principle of his actions. In addition to the institutions to which we have alluded, of a grave character, Dr Duncan established the Esculapian and Gymnastic clubs, at which, by assembling round the social and convivial board, it was intended to soften down those asperities and inimical feelings which, proverbially and from the most ancient time, have been imputed to medical men. With the same object in view, and to encourage a taste for experimental research, in the year 1782 he founded the Harveian Society, to which, for a period of forty-seven years, he discharged the duties of secretary. This society, which still flourishes, proposes annually a question, or the subject for an essay; and an honorary reward, consisting of a gold medal and a copy of the works of the great exemplar, is awarded to the successful candidate. The adjudication takes place publicly on the anniversary of Harvey’s birthday, which is afterwards commemorated by an elegant convivial entertainment. Before adjudging the prize, the secretary is appointed to pronounce an eloge on some deceased ornament of the profession; and among others, those read by Dr Duncan on the lives of Alexander Munro primus, Alexander Munro secundus, and Sir Joseph Banks, merit particular notice. Dr Duncan occasionally stepped aside from the ordinary avocations of his profession to indulge in effusions - both prose and verse—little consonant with the more general tenor of his occupations. Among these we may notice, a work he published entitled, "Elogiorum Sepulchralium Edinensium delectus—Monumental inscriptions selected from burial grounds near Edinburgh;" in the preface of which, speaking as the editor, he observes: "Since the death of an amiable son, the editor has made it a religious duty to pay a visit to his grave every Christmas-day, the period of his death. This visit he has also extended to other church-yards, where the dust of several of his best friends is now deposited His meditations, during these mournful visits, have led him to imagine that he was invited by the calls of gratitude, to take this method of promulgating commemorations of departed worth." He then adds, that he has selected the inscriptions and printed them in that form for the benefit of "an able scholar, who, depressed by accidental misfortunes in the mercantile line, now supports a young family by his knowledge of ancient and modern languages." This is peculiarly characteristic both of the affectionate and charitable disposition of his nature. He always, even to the very latest period of his life, looked back with satisfaction and pride at the period when he participated in the proceedings of the royal medical society; and it was his custom to go down to the medical hall one night or more every season, for the purpose of hearing the discussions, in which he always expressed great interest. In the winter of 1827, he visited it for the last time, being then in the eighty-third year of his age. The members of that society had two years previously testified the high esteem in which they held his memory, by subscribing for a fall length portrait of him, which was admirably executed by Mr Watson Gordon, and now adorns the hall of the institution. It had been Dr Duncan’s custom for more than half a century to pay an annual visit to the summit of Arthur’s Seat every May-day morning. This feat of pedestrianism he accomplished as usual on the 1st of May, 1827; but he was obliged from a feeling of physical infirmity to relinquish the attempt in May, 1828, on which day he had invited some friends to dine with him; finding himself rather unwell in the morning, he was under the necessity of retiring and confining himself to his chamber. From this period he was never able to go abroad. His appetite and flesh failed him, and without having suffered any acute distress, he expired on the 5th of July, in the eighty-fourth year of his age.

His funeral was attended by the magistrates and town council of Edinburgh; the principal and professors of the university, the royal college of physicians, the managers and medical officers of the royal public dispensary, the royal medical society, the royal physical society, the Caledonian horticultural society, and a large assemblage of private gentlemen, and friends of the venerable deceased.

He published numerous works during the course of his life; among which, Elements of Therapeutics—Medical Commentaries—Heads of lectures on the Theory and Practice of Physic—Annals of Medicine - Essay on Consumption— Medical Cases and Observations, may be regarded as important additions to the medical literature of that period. To the royal college of physicians he bequeathed seventy volumes of MS. notes from the lectures of the founders of the Edinburgh school of medicine, Drs Munro primus, Rutherford, Alston, St Clair, and Plummer, together with one hundred volumes of practical observations in his own hand writing, which he had employed as notes for his clinical lectures. His exertions in his profession, and in the general cause of humanity, obtained for him the highest respect of his contemporaries, both at home and abroad. He was elected a corresponding member of the medical society of Denmark in 1776, and of the royal medical society of Paris in 1778; he was chosen a member of the American philosophical society of Philadelphia in 1786, and of the medical society of London in 1787; he was appointed an honorary member of the Cesarian university of Moscow in 1805, and first president of the medico-chirurgical society of Edinburgh at its institution in 1821. As a professor in the university of Edinburgh, he was deserved and esteemed. His lectures were written in a perspicuous and unadorned style, and the physiological doctrines he promulgated, were those which were considered the best established at that period; and these he explained in so clear a manner that his course of lectures may even yet be regarded as valuable, notwithstanding the additions that have been since made to our knowledge in this department of medical science. His style of lecturing was simple and unaffected, and no man could discharge more conscientiously the duties of his office. Both as a professor and a man, in his public and private career, his many estimable qualities endeared him to society, where all who had the good fortune to know him, yet justly venerate his memory.


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