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Significant Scots
Duncan Liddel


LIDDEL, (DR) DUNCAN, a physician of eminence, was born in Aberdeen in the year 1561, and was son to a respectable citizen of that town. [Inscription on a brass plate, in the church of St Nicholas, Aberdeen; Sketch of the Life of Dr Duncan Liddel, Aberdeen, 1790. This pamplet, understood to have been written by the late Mr John Stewart, professor of Greek in Marischal college, gives so accurate and concise an account of its subject, that little can be added. We are aware of but one work having any reference to Liddel, which has been overlooked. The Literae ad Joannem Kepplerum contain one or two letters from him.] He received his education at the schools, and the university of King’s college, in his native city. In the year 1579, at the early age of eighteen, he visited the continent, passing over to Dantzic, whence he travelled through Poland to Frankfort on the Oder, where he had the good fortune to meet with a beneficent countryman, Dr John Craig, afterwards physician to James VI., who then taught logic and mathematics. His views, which were previously wavering, were fixed by the kind attention and assistance of his friend, who enabled him to study mathematics, philosophy, and medicine, for three years in the university of Frankfort, where Craig was himself a professor. In 1582, Craig proposing to return to Scotland, his pupil proceeded to prosecute his studies at Breslaw in Silesia, under the conduct of a statesman at that period of considerable note—Andreas Dudithius, to whose attention his zealous countryman had recommended him. In this new sphere of exertion, he is said to have made extensive progress in his favourite study of the mathematics, under the tuition of professor Paulus Wittichius. After spending somewhat more than a year at Breslaw, he returned to Frankfort, where he again turned his attention to medicine, and commenced a course of private tuition in mathematics and philosophy. A contagious distemper which broke out at Frankfort in 1587, dispersing the students in various directions, induced him to change his place of residence for the celebrated university of Rostock. Here he appears to have first acquired celebrity for his professional knowledge and conversational information, and particularly for his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. He became the companion and pupil of Brucaeus, a physician and philosopher of Flanders, who, although the senior of Liddel, both in years and celebrity, acknowledges himself to have received much useful information and assistance from the young philosopher, while Caselius, another companion and friend of Liddel, pays a tribute to the comprehensiveness of his genius and reading, by remarking that "he was the first person in Germany who explained the motions of the heavenly bodies, according to the three different hypotheses of Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Tycho Brahe."

The illustrious individual last mentioned, had likewise studied at the university of Rostock: it is probable that the pursuits of the two philosophers brought them into contact, and the author of the Biography of Liddel, considers it sufficiently established, that they were intimate with each other in after life, and that the Danish philosopher frequently visited the subject of our memoir in his journeys to Scotland. There is, however, a shadow of authority for supposing [On the authority of Caselius’s dedication to Craig, and the funeral oration on Liddel.] that Liddel held the higher rank of an opponent of Tycho Brahe, and maintained a disputation with him on equal terms. The eccentric Sir Thomas Urquhart, who, whatever information he may have chosen to receive on the subject, certainly was enabled to have made himself master of the true state of the circumstances which he related, says, "These mathematical blades put me in mind of that Dr Liddel, who for his profoundness in those sciences of sensible immaterial objects, was every where much renowned, especially at Frankfort de Main, Frankfort on the Odor, and Heidelberg, where he was almost as well known as the monstrous bacchanalian tun that stood there in his time. He was an eminent professor of mathematics, a disciple of the most excellent astronomer Tycho Brahe, and condisciple of that worthy Longomontanus: yet in imitation of Aristotle, (whose doctrine with great proficiency he had imbued,) he esteemed more of truth than either of Socrates or Plato; when the new star began to appear in the constellation of Cassiopaeia, there was concerning it such an intershocking of opinions betwixt Tycho Brahe and Dr Liddel, evulged in print to the open view of the world, that the understanding reader could not but have commended both for all; and yet (in giving each his due) praised Tycho Brahe most for astronomy, and Liddel for his knowledge above him in all the other parts of philosophy." It is not improbable that the imaginative author of the Jewel may have thought proper, without much inquiry, to bestow on a person born in his own near neighbourhood, the merit of a conflict in which a Scotsman, whose name may not have then been known, was engaged; at the same time adding to the lustre of the achievements of his countryman. The author of the Life of Dr Liddel observes, "Upon what authority this circumstance is founded cannot be discovered, for there is no mention of it in either of the very full accounts of the life and writings of Tycho Brahe, by Gassendi and Montucla, nor in a large volume written by Tycho himself, concerning this new star; although he there animadverts at great length upon the opinions of many other astronomers, who had also treated of it. Nor could any such controversy have possibly happened at the time mentioned by Sir Thomas Urquhart, for the new star there spoken of was observed by Tycho Brahe in 1572, and the account of it published in 1573, when Dr Liddel was only twelve years of age. There is indeed in the volume of Astronomical epistles of Tycho Brahe, a long letter from him to his friend Rothmannus, chiefly filled with severe reflections upon the publications of a certain Scotsman against his account of the comet of 1577, not of the new star in Cassiopaeia; but it appears from Gassendi that this Scottish writer was Dr Craig, formerly mentioned, and not Dr Liddel." When we recollect that Liddel and Craig, as intimate literary associates, may have imbibed the same theories, and similar methods of stating them, this last circumstance approaches a solution of the difficulty.

In the university of Rostock Liddel received the degree of master of philosophy, and in 1590, he left it to return to Frankfort, at the request of two young Livonians of rank, to whom it is probable he acted as tutor. He did not long remain at Frankfort on his second visit, having heard of the rising fame of the new "Academia Julia," founded at Helmstadt by Henry Julius, duke of Brunswick in 1576. Here he accompanied his pupils, and was restored to the company of his old friend Caselius, whom the duke had invited to his youthful establishment.

In 1591, Liddel, by the recommendation of his friend, and of Grunefeldt, an eminent civilian, was appointed to the lower professorship of mathematics in the new university, as successor to Parcovius, who had been removed to the faculty of medicine; and, on the death of Erhardus Hoffman in 1594, he succeeded to the first, or higher mathematical chair. This eminent station he filled during the course of nine years, giving instructions in geometry, astronomy, and universal geography, and keeping the information he communicated to his pupils, on a level with the dawning progress of discovery. In 1596, he obtained the degree of doctor in medicine, and, in a science which was not at that period considered as so completely abstracted from the circle of general knowledge as its practical extent now compels it to be, he acquired the same celebrity which he had achieved in philosophy and mathematics. He is said by his lectures and writings to have proved the chief support of the medical school of Helmstadt; he acted as first physician to the court of Brunswick, and enjoyed a lucrative private practice among the opulent families in the neighbourhood. In 1599, he was elected dean of the faculty of philosophy, a post of honour to which he was frequently re-elected, both by the faculties of philosophy and of medicine. Meanwhile, in the year 1603, he resigned to Henricus Schaperus the chair of mathematics, of which he had remained occupant, notwithstanding his labours in another science; and in the year following, he was chosen pro-rector of the university. The method of studying his profession, and his courses of public tuition had already made Liddel an author of no inconsiderable extent, and, about this period, the fame he had acquired probably induced him to present the academical works which he had written or superintended, in a distinct manner before the world. In 1605, was published "Disputationes Medicinales Duncani Liddelii Scoti, Phil. et Med. Doctoris, et Professoris Publici in Academia Julia Helmaestadtii." This work, filling four volumes 4to. contains the theses or public disputations maintained by himself and his pupils at Helmstadt from 1592 to 1606; it is dedicated as a mark of gratitude to his early friend and patron Craig, accompanied by the usual multitude of commendatory verses on the author and his works. This book is mentioned by the author of the memoirs of Liddel as having been reprinted at so late a period as 1720. In 1607, he produced a better known work, "Ars Medica, succincte et perspicue explicata," published at Hamburg. This work was dedicated to king James. A second edition was published at Lyons in 1621, and a third at Hamburg in 1628. As in other works on medicine of the period, the range of the author’s investigation was not confined to subjects to which the term medical would now exclusively refer; metaphysics were included. Into the merit of this, as a work on practical medicine, it would now be useless to inquire, and we may be content with ranking the merit of the author, according to the estimation of the work during the 17th century, which was by no means inconsiderable. At the time when the last mentioned work was published, motives which we cannot now discover, induced Liddel to retire for the remainder of his life to his native country, which he had frequently visited during his honoured residence abroad. It would appear that he privately left the university, as Caselius remarks that the duke of Brunswick, if aware of his intention, would probably not have permitted so active a teacher to leave his favourite institution, which was then falling into confusion. On his return, he passed through Germany and Italy, and finally took up his residence in Scotland, although in what part of the country seems not to be known, the earliest information obtained as to his locality being of the year 1612, when he subscribed at Edinburgh a deed of settlement, mortifying certain lands in the neighbourhood of Aberdeen, for the support of six bursars in Marischal college. The magistrates of Aberdeen were appointed trustees for the application of the fund, and according to a not unusual practice, the curse of God was denounced against any one who should abuse or misapply it. [In a minute of the council Records of Aberdeen, of date 6th December, 1638, it is ordained that Dr Liddel’s bursars shall wear a black bonnet and a black gown, both in the college and in the street, conform to the will of the mortifier, under the pain of depridation.] By a settlement dated the 9th December, 1613, he confirmed the previous donation, and left for the establishment of a professorship of mathematics in Marischal college the sum of 6000 merks, which was afterwards profitably laid out on land by the trustees. To the same institution he left his books and instruments. This may be considered the last performance of his active life, for he died eight days after its date, on the 17th of December, 1613. He was buried in the church of St Nicholas in Aberdeen, where a tablet of brass, on which his portrait has been boldly and expressively engraved by an artist at Antwerp, was erected to his memory. He is likewise commemorated by a small obelisk erected in the lands of Pitmedden, near Aberdeen—the same which he mortified for the support of bursars. Dying unmarried, the children of a brother and sister inherited his property, and one of the former succeeded Dr William Johnston (brother to Arthur the poet) in the mathematical chair which Dr Liddel had founded.

Besides the literary efforts already mentioned, a posthumous work by Liddel was published at Hamburg in 1628, entitled "Tractatus de dente aureo;" being an answer to a Tractate by Jacobus Horstius, who had maintained the verity of a fable, which bore that a boy of Silesia who had lost a tooth, received from nature, in return, one of pure gold. The circumstance was considered an omen to encourage the Germans in their wars with the Turks, and predicative of the downfall of the Mahometan faith. The subject can be interesting only to those who study the extent of human credulity.


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