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Significant Scots
James Johnstone


JOHNSTONE, JAMES, a physician of some eminence, was born at Annan in the year 1730. He was the fourth son of John Johnstone, Esq. of Galabank, one of the oldest branches of the family of that name. He received the rudiments of his classical education from Dr Henry, the well known author of The History of Great Britain. The science of medicine he studied first in Edinburgh and afterwards in Paris; and such was his progress in these studies, that he took the degree of doctor of medicine before he had completed his twenty-first year. On this occasion he published a thesis, "De Aeris Factitii Imperio in Corpore Humano," which discovered an ability that procured him many valuable friends. On completing his education, Dr Johnstone commenced practice at Kidderminster, in Worcestershire, where he quickly acquired a great degree of celebrity by the successful manner in which he treated a peculiar epidemic, called, from its remarkable virulence in that locality, the Kidderminster fever. Of this fever, and his mode of treating it, he published an account in 1758, an exceedingly important treatise, from the circumstance of its pointing out the power of minerals and vapours to correct or destroy putrid febrile contagion. This discovery, now so frequently and successfully employed in arresting the progress of infection, and in purifying infected places, though since claimed by others, belongs beyond all doubt to Dr Johnstone; who pointed out also the simple process by which it was to be effected -- viz., by pouring a little vitriolic acid on common salt.

Dr Johnstone was well known in the learned world by several interesting publications on subjects connected with his profession, and by several important additions which he made to the general stock of medical knowledge. Amongst these was the discovery of a curee for the ganglion of the nerves, and of the lymphatic glands.

From Kidderminster he removed to Worcester, where he continued to practise till within a few days of his death, which happened in 1802, in the seventy-third year of his age. His death was much regretted, and it was then considered that the medical science had by that event lost one of its brightest ornaments. Dr Johnstone acquires no small degree of additional celebrity from his having been the intimate friend of the amiable George lord Lyttleton, and from his being the author of the affecting account of that nobleman’s death, inserted by Dr Johnson in his Lives of the Poets.

In a letter which he addressed to the editor of Doddridge’s Letters, he says— "Lord Bacon reckons it a great deficiency in biography that it is for the most part confined to the actions of kings and princes, and a few persons of high rank, while the memory of men distinguished for worth and goodness in the lower ranks of life has been only preserved by tradition." The latter character was Dr Johnstone’s, and the deficiency would indeed have been great had his name been omitted in the list of those who have deserved well of their country and of posterity. His general character and conduct are spoken of in terms of high admiration by all his contemporaries and biographers; and the serenity of his death, the cheerful and resigned spirit in which he contemplated and awaited that event, is made a conspicuous feature in the history of his useful but unobtrusive life.

His celebrity as a medical practitioner was very great, and his professional skill was fortunately associated with a singular degree of kindness and amenity of manner - qualities to which the Rev. Job Orton, a man himself celebrated for piety and talent, thus bears testimony: "I left Shrewsbury and came to Kidderminster, that I might have the advice of a very able and skilful physician, Dr Johnston, who hath always proved himself a faithful and tender friend, to whose care as a physician I, under God, owe my life, and to whose friendship I am indebted for some of the greatest comforts of it."

Several of Dr Johnstone’s physiological inquiries were published in the Philosophical Transactions, and are to be found in the 54th, 57th, and 60th volumes of that work. They were afterwards enlarged and printed separately.


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