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Significant Scots
Dr Archibald Pitcairne


PITCAIRNE, (DR) ARCHIBALD, an eminent physician of the seventeenth century, was born at Edinburgh on the 25th December, 1652. His father, who was descended of an ancient family in Fife, was an eminent merchant, and one of the magistrates of the city. His mother, whose name was Sydserf, was a member of a highly respectable family in East Lothian. Dr Pitcairne received the earlier part of his education at Dalkeith. He was afterwards removed to the university of Edinburgh, where he made great progress in classical learning and completed a regular course of philosophy. His subsequent education ranged over the extensive field of the three professions pre-eminently styled learned At the request of his friends, who were desirous that he should devote himself to the church, he first entered on the study of theology, but finding neither the study, nor the profession to which it led, at all suitable to his temper, disposition or habits, he abandoned it, and turned his attention to law.

To this pursuit, which he found more congenial than the other, and in which he became fired with an ambition to excel, he devoted himself with an ardour and intensity of application, that induced symptoms of approaching consumption. To arrest the progress of this malady, he was advised by his physician to repair to the south of France for the benefit of the milder climate of that country. By the time, however, that Mr Pitcairne reached Paris he found himself so much better, that he determined on remaining in that city, and resuming his legal studies there; but having formed an acquaintance, while in the French capital, with some agreeable young men from Scotland, who were engaged in the study of medicine, he was prevailed upon by them to abandon the law, and to join in their pursuits. To these he applied accordingly for several months, when he was recalled to Edinburgh by his father. This was now the third profession which he had begun, and the indecision of his conduct with regard to a permanent choice, naturally gave much uneasiness to his friends but this was allayed by his finally declaring for physic, and applying himself with extraordinary diligence to the study of botany, pharmacy, and materia medica. He afterwards went a second time to Paris to complete his studies and on that occasion acquired an entire and profound knowledge of medicine. Thus prepared he returned to his native city, where he practised with singular success till the year 1692, when his great reputation, which was now diffused throughout Europe, and which had been not a little increased by his able treatise regarding Hervey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, entitled "Solutio problemati de inventoribus," procured him an invitation from Leyden to accept of the professorship of physic in the celebrated university of that city and so sensible were those who had the nomination of this appointment, of the merits of Dr Pitcairne, and of the value of his services, that the invitation was accompanied by the offer of a much larger salary than had been usually attached to the office. Dr Pitcairne accepted the invitation, but remained in Leyden only twelvemonths. At the end of that period he came over to Edinburgh to marry a daughter of Sir Archibald Stevenson, an eminent physician in the latter city, to whom he had been betrothed before leaving Scotland, and whom it was his intention to carry along with him to Leyden; but the lady’s friends objected to her going abroad, and Dr Pitcairne so far yielded to these objections, as to resign his professorship, and reconcile himself to the resumption of his practice as a physician in his native city. Nor had he any reason to regret the change thus in a manner forced upon him, for he soon found himself in possession of a most extensive and lucrative business. During the short time he was at Leyden, Dr Pitcairne chose the texts of his medical lectures from the writings of Bellini, who, in return for this flattering compliment, dedicated to the doctor his "Opuscula."

Dr Pitcairne’s reputation for skill in his profession now daily increased. He was consulted by patients in distant parts of Scotland, and frequently from England and Wales, and was altogether looked upon as the most eminent physician of his time. Nor was his fame as a scholar behind that which he enjoyed as a medical practicioner. His "Solutio problematic," &c., published soon after he had first commenced business in Edinburgh, had gained him much reputation as a learned man, as well as a skilful physician, and he still more strongly established his claims to the former character by a 4to work, entitled, "Archibaldi Pitcarnii Dissertationes Medicae," which was published in Rotterdam in 1701, and dedicated to his friend Bellini. Dr Pitcairne also wrote Latin poetry with very considerable elegance and taste, although Wodrow, in his Analecta, speaks of him in this capacity, as only "a sort of poet." But he was something more than this, and had not the subjects of his muse unfortunately been all of but transitory interest, and therefore now nearly wholly unintelligible, his fame as a Latin poet would have been very far from contemptible. Some of these poems were published in 1727, by Ruddiman, in order to meet a charge which had been made upon Scotland, that it was deficient in this department of literature.

Dr Pitcairne’s chief work was published in 1718, under the title of "Elementa Medicinae Physico-Mathematica," consisting of his lectures at Leyden. He was considered to be the first physician of his time. His library is said to have been one of the best private collections of that time; it was purchased, after his death, by the Czar of Russia. In addition to his Latin verses, he was the author of a comedy called "The Assembly," which is a sarcastic and profane production; also, "Babell, or the Assembly, a poem, 1692," both being intended to turn the proceedings of the General Assembly into ridicule. Dr Pitcairne was a Jacobite, and an Episcopalian; and his talent for satire was often directed against the Presbyterians, who accused him of being an atheist, and a scoffer and reviler of religion. Wodrow even goes the length of retaliating upon him by a serious charge as to his temperance. An atheistical pamphlet published in 1688, entitled, "Epistola Archimedis ad regem Gelonem Albae Graecae, reperta anno serae Christianae," was ascribed to Pitcairne; and when the Rev. Thomas Halyburton entered upon the office of professor of divinity in the university of St Andrews, in 1710, his inaugural discourse was a refutation of the arguments of his performance, and was published in 1714, under the title of "Natural Religion Insufficient, and Revealed Necessary to Man’s Happiness." His verses written on Christmas Day have been referred to as a proof of Dr Pitcairne’s orthodoxy, on which he had himself thrown a doubt by his profane jesting and his habitual scoffing at religious men; and it is added, on the authority of Dr Drummond, that, during his last illness, he evinced just apprehensions of God and religion, and experienced the tranquillity of mind which can arise from no other source. As a man of science, he was far in advance of the age in which he lived; and the zeal with which he propagated Hervey’s beautiful discovery of the circulation of the blood, is a proof of liberality of feeling which was by no means common at that period among medical men, by whom the doctrine of the circulation was long treated as a heresy in science, and its discoverer nearly persecuted out of the profession. That his disposition was generous and friendly in a remarkable degree, is beyond doubt, and the reader may find a striking instance of it in the life of Ruddiman.


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