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Significant Scots
James Gregory


GREGORY, JAMES, M.D., an eminent modern medical teacher, was the eldest son of Dr John Gregory, equally celebrated as a medical teacher, by the honourable Elizabeth Forbes, daughter of William, thirteenth lord Forbes. He was born in 1753, at Aberdeen, where his father then practiced as a physician, being removed in boyhood to Edinburgh, where his father succeeded Dr Rutherford as professor of the practice of physic, he received his academical and professional education in that city, and in 1774, took his degree as doctor of medicine, his thesis being "De Morbis Caeli Mutatione Medendia." An education conducted under the most favourable circumstances had improved, in the utmost possible degree, the excellent natural talents of Dr Gregory, though he had the misfortune to lose his father before its conclusion. Notwithstanding the latter event, he was appointed, in 1776, when only twenty-three years of age, to the chair of the theory of physic in the Edinburgh university. As a text book for his lectures, he published in 1780-2, his "Conspectus Medicinae Theoretica," which soon became a work of standard reputation over all Europe, not only in consequence of its scientific merits, but the singular felicity of the classical language with which it was written.

In consequence of the death of Dr Cullen, the subject of this memoir was appointed, in 1790, to the most important medical professorship in the university, that of the practice of physic; an office upon which unprecedented lustre had been conferred by his predecessor; but which for thirty-one years he sustained with even superior splendour. During this long period, the fame which his talents had acquired, attracted students in Edinburgh from all parts of the world, all of whom returned to their homes with a feeling of reverence for his character, more nearly resembling that which the disciples of antiquity felt for their instructors, than anything which is generally experienced in the present situation of society. Descended by the father’s side from a long and memorable line of ancestors, among whom the friend and contemporary of Newton is numbered, and by the mother’s from one of the oldest baronial families in the country, the character of Dr Gregory was early formed upon an elevated model, and throughout his whole life he combined, in a degree seldom equalled, the studies and acquirements of a man of science, with the tastes and honourable feelings of a high-born gentleman. By these peculiarities, joined to the point and brilliancy of his conversation, and his almost romantic generosity of nature, he made the most favourable impression upon all who came in contact with him.

Dr Gregory had early bent his acute and discriminating mind to the study of metaphysics and in 1792, he published a volume, entitled "Philosophical and Literary Essays," in which is to be found one of the most original and forcible refutations of the doctrine of Necessity, which has ever appeared. His reputation as a Latinist was unrivalled in Scotland in his own day; and the numerous inscriptions which he was consequently requested to write in this tongue were characterized by extraordinary beauty of expression and arrangement. His only philological publication, however, is a "Dissertation on the Theory of the Moods of Verbs," which appears in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1790. Dr Gregory’s eminence as a man of science, and his fame throughout Europe, were testified by his being one of the few British honoured with a seat in the Institute of France.

While officiating for nearly fifty years as a medical teacher, Dr Gregory carried on an extensive and lucrative practice in Edinburgh. As a physician, he enjoyed the highest reputation, notwithstanding a certain severe sincerity, and occasional brusquerie of manner, which characterized him in this capacity. It is probably that, but for the pressure of his professional engagements, he might have oftener employed his pen, both in the improvement of medical knowledge, and in general literature. His only medical publication, besides his matchless "Conspectus," was an edition of Cullen’s "First Lines to the Practice of Physic," 2 vols. 8vo. It is with reluctance we advert to a series of publications of a different kind, which Dr Gregory allowed himself to issue, and which it must be the wish of every generous mind to forget as soon as possible. They consisted of a variety of pamphlets, in which he gave vent to feelings that could not fail to excite the indignation of various members of his own profession; the most remarkable being a memorial addressed, in 1800, to the managers of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, complaining of the younger members of the college of surgeons being there allowed to perform operations. A list of these productions is given in the preface to Mr John Bell’s Letters on Professional Characters and Manners, 1810, and we shall not therefore allude further to the subject, than to say, that the language employed in several of them affords a most striking view of one of the paradoxes occasionally found in human character, the co-existence of the same bosom of sentiments of chivalrous honour and benevolence, with the most inveterate hostility towards individuals.

Dr Gregory died at his house in St Andrew’s square, Edinburgh, April 2, 1821, leaving a large family, chiefly in adolescence.


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