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Significant Scots
Sir John Pringle


PRINGLE, (SIR) JOHN, a distinguished physician and cultivator of science, was born at Stitchel house, in Roxburghshire, April 10, 1707. He was the youngest son of Sir John Pringle of Stitchel, Bart., by Magdalen Elliot, sister of Sir Gilbert Elliot of Stobs. His education was commenced at home under a private tutor, and advanced at the university of St Andrews, where he had the advantage of living with his relation, Mr Francis Pringle, professor of Greek. Having determined on physic as a profession, he spent the winter of 1727-8 at the medical classes in Edinburgh, and afterwards proceeded to Leyden, where, in 1730, he received his diploma, which was signed by the distinguished names of Boerhaave, Albinus, and Gravesande, under whom he had studied. He then settled as a physician in Edinburgh, and in a few years had so much distinguished himself as to be, in 1734, appointed assistant and successor to the professor of pneumatics and moral philosophy in the university. He continued in this situation till 1742, when, chiefly by the influence of Dr Stevenson, (an eminent whig physician, and the patron of Dr Blacklock,) he was appointed physician to the earl of Stair, then in command of the British army in Flanders. By the interest of this nobleman, he was, in the same year, constituted physician to the military hospital in Flanders. An extensive field of observation was thus opened to Dr Pringle; and that he cultivated it with advantage, is sufficiently shown by his "Treatise on the Diseases of the Army," subsequently published. At the battle of Dettingen, he was in a coach with the minister, lord Carteret, and, at one particular crisis of the action, was involved in considerable danger. On the resignation of the earl of Stair, he also proposed resigning, but was prevented by his lordship, whom he accompanied, however, forty miles on his way to England, as a mark of his respect. Having gained equal favour with the duke of Cumberland, Dr Pringle was, in March, 1745, appointed physician-general to the forces in the Low Countries, and physician to the royal hospitals in the same countries. He now resigned his Edinburgh professorship, the duties of which had been performed by deputy in his absence, In the latter part of the year 1745, he returned to Britain, in attendance upon the forces which were brought over to suppress the rebellion. In passing through London in October, he was chosen a Fellow of the Royal Society. Early in the ensuing year, he accompanied the duke of Cumberland to Scotland, and remained with the army, after the battle of Culloden, till its return to England, in the middle of August. In 1747 and 1748, he again attended the army abroad.

After the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, in the latter year, he settled as a physician in London, under the patronage of the duke of Cumberland, who, in April, 1749, appointed him his physician in ordinary. In 1750, Dr Pringle published his first work, a pamphlet on the Jail and Hospital Fever, hastily prepared, to meet the exigency of the breaking out of that distemper in London. It was afterwards revised, and included in the work on the diseases of the army.

About this time, Dr Pringle commenced his scientific career, by reading a series of papers to the Royal Society, on septic and antiseptic substances, and their use in the theory of medicine; which procured for their author the honour of Sir Godfrey Copley’s gold medal, and not only gave him reputation as an experimental philosopher, but helped to stimulate the spirit of physical inquiry, then rising into force in Britain. A great variety of other papers by Dr Pringle are found in the Transactions of the Society, during the four ensuing years. In 1752, he married Charlotte, the second daughter of Dr Oliver, an eminent physician in Bath; who died a few years after, leaving him no children. In the same year, he published his great work on the diseases of the army, which instantly placed the author in the first rank of medical writers. In 1761, he was appointed physician to the household of the young queen Charlotte; an honour which was followed, in rapid succession, by the appointments of physician extraordinary, and physician in ordinary, to her majesty. He now became an intimate and confidential person in the family of the king, who, in 1766, raised him to the dignity of a baronet of Great Britain. In 1768, he was appointed physician in ordinary to the king’s mother, the princess of Wales, with a salary of one hundred pounds a-year.

After having for many years acted as a member of the council in the Royal Society, he was, in November, 1772, elected president of that distinguished body; by far the highest mark of honour he ever received. It has always, on the other hand, been acknowledged, that the zeal and assiduity displayed by Sir John in this situation, communicated an impulse to the exertions of the society, of which the most sensible proofs are to be found in its Transactions published during the years of his presidency. The last medical honour conferred on Sir John Pringle was his appointment, in 1774, as physician extraordinary to the king.

It would be wearisome to repeat the list of honours showered upon him by foreign learned bodies; we shall only allude to his succeeding Linnaeus, in 1778, as one of the eight foreign members of the French Academy.

Long ere this period, Sir John had acquired a considerable fortune by his practice and from other sources, and lived in a style of dignified hospitality suitable to his high character. He was in the habit of holding conversations on the Sunday evenings, which were attended by men of literature and science from all countries. After passing his seventieth year, feeling his health declining, he resigned the presidency of the Royal Society, in which he was succeeded (1778) by Mr (afterwards Sir) Joseph Banks, and formed the resolution of retiring to spend the remainder of his days in his native country. Having passed the summer of 1780 very pleasantly in Scotland, he purchased a house in Edinburgh, sold off that in which he had long resided in London, and in the spring of 1781 made a decided remove to the Scottish capital. It seems to have been the hope of the declining veteran, that he might more agreeably sink to rest amidst the friends and the scenes of his youth, than amongst strangers; and he also contemplated with pleasure in the regular evening conversations, for which he intended to throw open his house. It is painful to relate, that he was disappointed in his views. The friends of his youth had almost all passed away; the scenes were changed to such a degree, that they failed to suggest the associations he expected. The society of Edinburgh he found to be of too limited a nature, to keep up a system of weekly conversations with the necessary degree of novelty and spirit. He also suffered considerably from the keen winds, to which Edinburgh is so remarkably exposed. These evils were exaggerated by his increasing infirmities, and perhaps by that restlessness of mind, which, in the midst of bodily complaints, is still hoping to derive some benefit from a change of place. He determined, therefore, to return to London, where he arrived in the beginning of September.

Sir John Pringle did not long survive this change of residence. On the evening of the 14th of January, 1782, while attending a stated meeting of scientific friends in the house of a Mr Watson, a grocer in the. Strand, he was seized with a fit, from which he never recovered. He expired on the 18th, in the seventy-fifth year of his age, and was interred in St James’s church. Sir John left the bulk of his fortune to his nephew, Sir James Pringle of Stitchel, who also inherited from him the British baronetcy, in addition to that of Nova Scotia, which the family had previously possessed. As a physician and philosophical inquirer, his character was of the first order; nor were his private virtues less eminent. He never grudged his professional assistance to those who could not afford to remunerate him; and he was a sincere, though liberal and rational, professor of the truths of religion. His conduct, in every relation of life, was upright and honourable. He informed Mr Boswell—and few gentlemen of that period could make such a boast—that he had never in his life been intoxicated with liquor. There is a monument to Sir John, by Nollekins, in Westminster Abbey.


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