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Significant Scots
Alexander Monro


MONRO, ALEXANDER, M.D., usually called Secundus, to distinguish him from his father, an eminent medical writer and teacher. Before entering upon the memoirs of this individual, it is necessary to give some account of his father, Dr. Monro, Primus, the founder of the medical school of Edinburgh, who, having been born in London, is not precisely entitled to appear in this work under a separate head.

Dr Monro, Primus, was born in London, September 19, 1697. He was the son of Mr John Monro, a surgeon in the army of king William, descended from the family of Monro of Milton, in the north of Scotland. His mother was of the family of Forbes of Culloden. Having retired from the army, Mr Monro settled in Edinburgh about the beginning of the eighteenth century, and entering the college of surgeons, soon acquired considerable practice. His favourite employment, however, was to superintend the education of his son, whose talents he perceived at an early period. Though medical and anatomical chairs at that time existed in the university of Edinburgh, they were quite inefficient, and hence it was found necessary to send young Monro elsewhere for the completion of his education. He went successively to London, Paris, and Leyden, and became the attentive pupil of the great men who then taught at those universities, among whom were Cheselden, Hawksby, Chowel, Bouquet, Thibaut, and Boerhaave. Not content with listening to the instructions of these teachers, he studied assiduously by himself, especially in the department of anatomy. While attending Cheselden in London, he made numerous anatomical preparations, which he sent home; and, while here, even laid the foundation of his important work on the bones, a sketch of which he read before a society of young surgeons and physicians, of which he had been elected a member. Before his return, his father had presented several of his preparations to the college, so that his skill was already well known. The titular professor of anatomy to the college of surgeons had even formed the resolution of relinquishing his appointment in favour of this promising young anatomist, who, he thought, would be able to convert it into a useful profession. Accordingly, on his arrival in Edinburgh, in 1719, when only twenty-two years of age, he was nominated to this dignity. Early in the ensuing year, he commenced the first regular course of anatomical and chirurgical lectures and demonstrations, which were ever delivered in that city. From his abilities and zeal, and the preparations with which he illustrated his discourses, success could hardly fail to attend his labours. It could not, however, be expected that an anatomical and surgical course alone, however valuable, or a single professor, however great his abilities, could be sufficient to raise the fame of a medical school, which had to combat many rival seminaries of deserved eminence. It became, therefore, a matter of the utmost consequence to obtain such associates as could second and support his labours. His father, to whose zeal for the establishment of a medical school in Edinburgh, much of his son’s success is to be attributed, prevailed on Dr Alston, then king’s botanist for Scotland, to begin a course of lectures on the materia medica. He also took an expedient for improving his son’s mode of lecturing. Without the young teacher’s knowledge, he invited the president and fellows of the college of physicians, and the whole company of surgeons, to honour the first day’s lecture with their presence. This unexpected company threw the doctor into such confusion, that he forgot the words of the discourse, which he had written and committed to memory. Having left his papers at home, he was at a loss for a little time what to do; but, with much presence of mind, he immediately began to show some of the anatomical preparations, in order to gain time for recollection; and very soon resolved not to attempt to repeat the discourse which he had prepared, but to express himself in such language as should occur to him from the subject, which he was confident that he understood. The experiment succeeded; he delivered himself well, and gained great applause as a good and ready speaker. Thus discovering his own strength, he resolved henceforth never to recite any written discourse in teaching, and acquired a free and elegant style of delivering lectures.

The want of lectures on other branches, which still remained as an obstacle to the creation of a medical school, was soon altogether overcome by the zeal of the elder Monro, through whose influence his son and Dr Alston were put upon the college establishment, together with co-operative lectureships, undertaken by Drs Sinclair, Rutherford, and Plumer. Such was the origin of the medical school of Edinburgh, which for a century has been one of the most eminent and most frequented in Europe. The system was completed in the course of a few years, by the establishment of the Royal Infirmary at Edinburgh, which was chiefly urged forward by Dr Monro, with a view to the advantage of his pupils, and by George Drummond, the lord provost of the city. In this institution, Dr Monro commenced clinical lectures on the surgical, and Rutherford a similar course on the medical cases. The former, in his various capacities of physician, lecturer, and manager, took an active part in the whole business of the Infirmary. He personally attended the opening of every body; and he not only dictated to the students an accurate report of the dissection, but, with nice discrimination, contrasted the diseased and sound state of every organ. Thus, in his own person, he afforded to the students a conspicuous example of the advantages of early anatomical pursuits, as the happiest foundation for a medical superstructure. His being at once engaged in two departments, the anatomical theatre and the clinical chair, furnished him with opportunities for experiment both on the dead and living body, and placed him in the most favourable situation for the improvement of medicine; and from these opportunities he derived every possible advantage which they could afford.

None of the professors connected with medicine in the Edinburgh university, contributed so much to the formation of the school as Dr Monro, who was indefatigable in the labours of his office, and in the cultivation of his art, and soon made himself known to the professional world by a variety of ingenious and valuable publications. During a period of nearly forty years he continued, without any interruptions to deliver a course of lectures, extending from the end of October to the beginning of May; and so great was the reputation which he acquired that students flocked to him from the most distant parts of the kingdom. His first and principal publication was his Osteology, or Treatise on the Anatomy of the Bones, which appeared in 1726, when he was as yet under thirty years of age. This treatise, though intended originally for the use of his pupils, speedily became popular among the faculty in general, and was translated into most of the languages of Europe. The French edition, in folio, published by M. Sue, demonstrator of sculpture to the Royal Academy of Paris, was adorned with masterly engravings. In the later editions, Dr Monro added a concise Neurology, or description of the nerves, and a very accurate account of the lacteal system and thoracic duct.

In every society at Edinburgh, for the improvement of arts, or of letters, Dr Monro was one of the most distinguished ornaments. He was a member of the Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons; of the Medical Society; of the Philosophical Society; of the Select Society for questions in morality and politics; and of the Society for promoting arts, sciences, and manufactures in Scotland. He was also a member of several foreign societies, to which he had been recommended by his great reputation. It was to his zeal and activity that the world was chiefly indebted for the six volumes of Medical Essays and Observations, by a society at Edinburgh, the first of which appeared in 1732. Dr Monro acted as editor of this work, and contributed to it many valuable papers on anatomical, physiological, and practical subjects; the most elaborate of which was an Essay on the Nutrition of the Foetus, in three dissertations. On this society being afterwards revived under a different title, Dr Monro again took an active part in its proceedings as one of the vice-presidents, and was a liberal contributor to its publications, of which three volumes appeared, under the title of Essays, Physical and Literary. His last publication was an Account of the Success of Inoculation in Scotland, written originally as an answer to some inquiries addressed to him from the committee of the faculty of physicians at Paris, appointed to investigate the merits of the practice. It was afterwards published at the request of several of his friends, and contributed to extend the practice in Scotland. Besides the works which he published, he left several manuscripts, written at different times, of which the following are the principal: A History of Anatomical Writers,—an Encheiresis Anatomica,—Heads of many of his Lectures,--a Treatise on Wounds and Tumours,—a Treatise on Comparative Anatomy,--and an oration De Cuticula. The last two were printed in an edition of his whole works, in one volume, 4to, published by his son, Dr Alexander Monro, 1781.

The advance of age and infirmity, induced Dr Monro to resign his chair, in 1759, in favour of his son; but he continued almost to the close of his life to perform his duties in the Royal Infirmary. Several of his latter years were imbittered by a severe disease, a fungous ulcer in the bladder and rectum; but he bore his distresses with great patience and resignation, and at last died in perfect calmness, July 10, 1767, in the seventieth year of his age.

Dr Monro had in early life married Miss Isabella Macdonald, daughter of Sir Donald Macdonald of Sleat, by whom he had eight children, four of whom, three sons and a daughter, reached maturity. Two of his sons became distinguished physicians—namely, Dr Donald Monro, who attained an eminent practice in London, and became the author of several valuable treatises,—an Essay on Dropsy, 1765—on the Diseases of Military Hospitals, 1764—on Mineral Waters, 1771--on preserving the Health of Soldiers, &c.,—and died in 1802; and Dr Alexander Monro secundus, of whose life we shall proceed to give an extended notice.

Dr Monro secundus, was the youngest son of Dr Alexander Monro primus, whose life has just been commemorated, and was born at Edinburgh, on the 20th of March, 1733. He learned the first rudiments of classical education, under the tuition of Mr Mundell, then an eminent teacher of languages, at Edinburgh. At the university of his native city, Dr Monro went through the ordinary course of philosophy, preparatory to his medical studies. During that course, he was a pupil of the celebrated Maclaurin, for Mathematics,—of Sir John Pringle, for ethics,—and of Dr Matthew Stewart, for experimental philosophy. About the 18th year of his age, he entered on his medical studies under his illustrious father, who, from his lectures and writings, had, by that time, justly obtained very great celebrity. Young Monro soon became a very useful assistant to his father in the dissecting-room, and was highly respected for his early acquirements, among the companions of his studies; several of whom, Dr Hugh Smith of London, Dr Matthew Dobson of Liverpool, Dr William Farr of Plymouth, and some others, were afterwards justly celebrated in the annals of medicine, by their writings.

Dr Monro, after completing the academical course of medical study at Edinburgh, under Drs Rutherford, Plumer, Sinclair, Alston, and other eminent men, obtained the degree of Doctor of Medicine, on the 17th of October, 1755. On that occasion, he published and defended an inaugural dissertation, De Testibus et Semine in variis Animalibus. That dissertation, which manifests his accurate knowledge of minute anatomy, was illustrated by five capital engravings, each plate containing several different figures; and it laid the foundation of the important discoveries which he afterwards made with regard to the lymphatic system. The public testimony which Dr Monro thus gave of his anatomical knowledge, and the reputation which he had acquired both as a demonstrator and lecturer, when occasionally assisting his father, naturally attracted the attention of the patrons of the university of Edinburgh; and to secure to the seminary under their care a young man of such distinguished abilities, he was, on the 12th of July, 1755, when he had but just entered on the twenty-third year of his age, admitted into the university as professor of anatomy and surgery, in conjunction with his father; but that father, still in the vigour of life, and fully able to execute every part of the duties of his office, did not require the immediate assistance of his son. Accordingly, young Monro, after finishing his academical studies at home, resolved to prosecute them abroad. With this intention, he visited both London and Paris, where he had an opportunity of being a pupil of the most eminent professors in these cities. But his foreign studies were principally prosecuted at the university of Berlin. There he had every opportunity of improving himself under the celebrated professor Meckell, who was at that time justly esteemed one of the first anatomical teachers in Europe. During his residence in Berlin, he was not only a pupil at the prelections of Meckell, but lived in his house, and thus enjoyed the benefit of his instructions both in public and private. That from these sources his natural and acquired abilities were much improved may readily be supposed; and he himself was so fully sensible of what he owed to so eminent a preceptor as Meckell, that, during the long period for which he taught anatomy at Edinburgh, he allowed not a single year to pass without repeatedly expressing his gratitude for the instruction he had received under the roof of this justly celebrated professor.

From Berlin, Dr Monro returned to Edinburgh in summer 1758. Immediately upon his return he was admitted a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians, and entered upon actual practice. As soon as the regulations of the college would permit, he was raised to the rank of Fellowship, and took his seat as a member of that respectable body on the 1st of May, 1759. After that date, for more than half a century, he continued to exert himself with unwearied activity, not only as a professor and practitioner, but as an improver of the healing art, and of our knowledge of the philosophy and structure of the animal frame. This will abundantly appear from a short review of the different publications with which he has enriched the treasury of medical philosophy, conveying important instruction both to his contemporaries, and to the latest posterity.

Very soon after he settled in Edinburgh, he not only became a colleague of his father in the college, but succeeded him also as secretary to the Philosophica1 Society of Edinburgh. In the volumes published by the society, Dr Monro first appeared as an author. His first publication was printed in the first volume of a well known and justly celebrated work, entitled, Essays and Observations, Physical and Literary, read before a Society in Edinburgh, and published by them. This volume of their memoirs appeared in 1754, and contains two anatomical essays by Alexander Monro, student of medicine in the university of Edinburgh; from both of which he obtained very great credit as an intelligent and industrious young anatomist. In their second volume, published in 1756, are contained also two articles from his pen; the dissection of a monster, and the history of a genuine volvulus of the intestines; both of which served materially to improve the philosophy of medicine, and to do credit to the author. His next three publications were more of a controversial nature than calculated to extend our knowledge of the structure or philosophy of the human body. From a very early period, as appears from his inaugural dissertation, he had adopted the idea that the valvular lymphatics over the whole of the animal body, were one general system of absorbents: and, with the view of promulgating this doctrine, he published at Berlin, in 1758, a short treatise, De Venis Lymphaticis Valvulosis. The grand idea, however, which this short treatise contained, was afterwards claimed by Dr William Hunter of London; and this claim drew from the pen of Dr Monro two other publications,--Observations, Anatomical and Physiological, wherein Dr Hunter’s claim to some Discoveries, is examined,—and, Answer to the Notes on the Postscript to Observations Anatomical and Physiological. Here, the only difference between these two men was, not with regard to the extent or use of the valvular lymphatics, but with regard to the merit of being the discoverer of their use. A judgment on that controversy is now of very little importance; and perhaps neither of them is justly entitled to the merit of the discovery. For, prior to either, that the lymphatics were a general system, had been explicitly stated by the illustrious Hoffman. But that the anatomical labours, both of Monro and Hunter, independently of any information which the one derived from the other, tended very much to extend our knowledge of the lymphatic system, will not be denied by any intelligent reader.

In the year 1771, the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, which Dr Monro tended not a little to support, by fulfilling all the duties of an intelligent and active secretary, published the third and last volume of their Essays and Observations, Physical and Literary. This volume, among many other valuable essays, is enriched by a production of Dr Monro, entitled, An Attempt to Determine, by Experiments, how far some of the most powerful Medicines, Opium, Ardent Spirits, and Essential Oils, affect Animals, by acting on those Nerves to which they are primarily applied, and thereby bringing the rest of the Nervous System into sufferance, by what is called Sympathy of Nerves; and how far these Medicines affect Animals after being taken in by their Absorbent Veins, and mixed and conveyed with their Blood in the course of circulation; with Physiological and Practical Remarks. This elaborate dissertation, highly interesting in the practice of Medicine, afforded ample proofs of the genius, the judgment, and the industry of the author.

In 1783, Dr Monro published a large folio volume, entitled, Observations on the Structure and Functions of the Nervous System. This volume, which was illustrated by numerous engravings, was soon afterwards translated into German and into other modern European languages; and, high as his reputation was before, it tended both to support and to increase his fame.

The same consequences also resulted from another folio volume which he published in the year 1785, entitled, The Structure and Physiology of Fishes, explained and compared with those of Man and other Animals, illustrated with Figures. In 1788, he published a third folio volume, entitled, A Description of all the Bursae Mucosae of the Human Body; their Structure explained, and compared with that of the Capsular Ligaments of the Joints; and of those Sacs which line the cavities of the thorax and abdomen, with Remarks on the Accidents and Diseases which affect these several Sacs, and on the operations necessary for their cure.

For these three works, the folio form was necessary, on account of the size of the plates with which they were illustrated, and which had been engraved at a very great expense. Although all these three folios were presented to the learned world within the short space of five years, yet they may be considered as the scientific fruits of the best part of Dr Monro’s life. For, although a large portion of his time was necessarily occupied in teaching anatomy to numerous classes, and in extensive practice as a physician, yet, amidst all his important avocations, he prosecuted with unwearied assiduity the extension of discovery, and neglected no opportunity of increasing our knowledge of the philosophy of the human body. Of his success in these interesting pursuits, the three works now mentioned, will transmit incontrovertible evidence to the latest posterity.

Dr Monro primus, as already noticed, had officiated for more than thirty years as secretary to a Medical Society in Edinburgh, which was formed of the most eminent physicians of the city at that time. During this period, he had published in their name, six volumes of Medical Essays, which had obtained the approbation of the most eminent physicians in every country of Europe, insomuch, that the illustrious Haller had represented it as a book quem nemo earere potest. But about the year 1750, a proposal was made to unite the physicians and philosophers of Edinburgh into one Society. This proposal was strenuously supported by Henry Home, afterwards lord Kames, and Mr David Hume. The union was accordingly accomplished; and in place of the Medical, they assumed the name of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh. Dr Monro primus still continued to be one of their secretaries, and had conjoined with him Mr David Hume, the historian, for the philosophical department. This society published three volumes of Essays and Observations, Physical and Literary. The first volume, as has already been observed, contains some papers written by Alexander Monro secundus, when a student of medicine. But after his return from his studies on the continent, and after his conjunction with his father in the professorship of anatomy, he was also conjoined with him as secretary to the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh; and although Mr Hume still retained the name of the philosophical secretary, yet Dr Monro secundus may justly be considered as the editor of the two last volumes. With the venerable lord Kames as their president, and Dr Monro secundus as their acting secretary, (for Mr Hume, not long after his appointment, left Edinburgh, to act in a diplomatic character in France,) the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh had regular meetings. The physicians and philosophers, who were then the greatest ornaments of Edinburgh,—lord Kames, Sir George Clerk, Mr John Clerk, Drs Cullen, Home, Hope, Black, Young, Monro, and many others,—constituted the strength of the association; and the Essays and Observations, Physical and Literary, which they published to the world, will ever hold a distinguished place in marking the progress of science. The third and last volume published by the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh in 1771, contains several papers from the pen of Dr Monro secundus. Besides the interesting experiments on opium, ardent spirits, and essential oils, of which mention has already been made, it contains important observations, communicated by him, on Polypus in the Pharynx and Esophagus, and on the use of mercury in convulsive diseases. Soon after the publication of this third volume, a plan was projected for putting the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh upon a still more respectable footing and extensive scale, and of comprehending not only medical and physical science, but every species of literary and philological discussions. This extension was particularly enforced by Dr Robertson, then principal, and Mr Dalzell, then professor of Greek, in the university of Edinburgh. The negotiation terminated in the Philosophical Society as a body, with the addition of many other eminent scholars, being incorporated by royal charter in the year 1782, under the title of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

On the establishment of the Royal Society, Dr Monro, whose time was much occupied with extensive practice in medicine, declined any longer officiating as secretary; but he continued not only to be one of their councillors, but to be an active and useful fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; and he enriched their transactions with several valuable communications, particularly with the description of a human male monster, with an elaborate series of experiments on animal electricity or galvanism, which, from the discoveries of Galvani, professor of anatomy of Bologna, has engaged the attention of almost every philosopher in Europe, and with observations on the Muscles, particularly on the effects of their oblique fibres.

The last publication with which Dr Monro enriched medical science, was a quarto volume, consisting of three treatises, on the Brain, the Eye, and the Ear, published at Edinburgh in the year 1797. And although these organs had before been examined with the utmost attention by anatomists of the first eminence, yet, from careful examination, he made no inconsiderable addition to our knowledge, both of the structure and functions of these important organs.

Dr Monro’s talents extended his fame over all Europe, and he had the honour of being admitted a member of the most celebrated medical institutions, particularly of the royal academies of Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Moscow, and other learned Societies. His eminence as an author was not superior to his fame as a teacher of medicine. For a long series of years his class room was attended by crowded audiences; and no hearer of real discernment could listen to him without being both pleased and instructed by his prelections. He began to teach medicine immediately upon his return from the continent, at the beginning of the winter session 1758-59. During that winter, his father, Dr Monro primus, gave the introductory lectures, and a very few others. But by much the greater part of the course was given by the young professor; and for forty succeeding years he performed the arduous duties of the anatomical chair without any assistants. No teacher could attend to the business of his chair with more assiduity. Indeed, during the whole of that period, he made it an invariable rule to postpone to his academical duties every other business that could possibly admit of delay.

While we thus state Dr Monro’s character as an author and a teacher, his worth as a man and a citizen must not be forgotten. With his brethren of the profession, and his colleagues in the university, he lived on the most amicable terms. He seems to have had constantly in his mind the admirable observation of Seneca: "Beneficiis humana vita consistit et concordi‚; nec terrore, sed mutuo amore, in foedus auxiliumque commune constringitur." No man could enjoy to a higher degree, or more successfully lead others to enjoy, innocent mirth at the social board. He was one of the earliest members, and most regular attendants of, the Harveian Society,—a society which was formed with the intention of encouraging experimental inquiry among the rising generation, and in promoting convivial mirth among its living members. In every respect Dr Monro was an honest and an honourable man. He was no flatterer; but he did not withhold applause where he thought it was merited. Both the applause and the censure of Dr Monro upon all occasions, demonstrated the candid, the open, and the honest man. As a citizen, a friend, and a parent, his conduct was amiable and affectionate in the highest degree; and as a medical writer and teacher, he had few equals among his contemporaries. His various published works may be recapitulated as follows: Treatise on the Lymphatics, 1770; On the Anatomy of Fishes, 1785; On the Nerves, 1783; On the Bursae Mucosae, 1788; and three Treatises on the Brain, the Eye, and the Ear, 1797.

Dr Monro’s chief amusements lay in the witnessing of dramatic performances, and in the cultivation of his garden. Not many years after his establishment in Edinburgh he purchased the beautiful estate of Craiglockhart, on the banks of the Water of Leith, within a few miles of the city. He planted and beautified some charmingly romantic hills, which afforded him such delightful prospects of wood and water, hill and dale, city and cottage, as have seldom been equalled; and here he spent many hours stolen from the labours of his profession. In 1800, finding his health declining, he began to receive the assistance of his son, Dr Alexander Monro, tertius, who succeeded him as professor of anatomy; but he continued to deliver the most important part of the lectures till 1808-9, when he closed his academical labours, to the regret of his numerous students. At the same time he gave up his medical practice, but survived till the 2d of October, 1817, when he died in the 85th year of his age.


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