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Sir James Young Simpson
Chapter IX. Archaeology—Practice


His versatility—The Lycium of the Muses—The Catstane—Was the Roman Army provided with medical officers?—Weems—His lack of business method—Fees and no fees—Generosity often imposed upon—His unusual method of conducting private practice—The ten-pound note—Simpson and the hotel proprietors.

PROFESSOR SIMPSON'S versatility was remarkable. He turned from one subject to another and displayed a mastery over each; it was not merely the knowledge of principles which astonished but the intimate familiarity with details. He was able to discuss almost any subject in literature, science, politics, or theology with its leading exponent on equal terms. He had the power of patient listening as well as the gift of speech ; more than that he had the ability to charm speech from others, of making each man reveal his inmost thoughts, betray his most cherished theories, or narrate his most stirring experiences; the most reticent man would not realise until he had left Simpson's presence, that in a brief interview, perhaps the first, he had told his greatest adventures, or laid bare his wildest aspirations before this student of mankind who was summarising his life and character as he spoke. Simpson built up his knowledge not so much from books as by the exercise of his highly developed faculty of observation aided by his memory. He enjoyed the study of his fellow-men and extracted all that was worth knowing from those with whom he came into contact. He never undertook work without a definite object in view, and rarely abandoned his task before that object was accomplished. Quite small researches would lead to considerable and unexpected labour. He preserved his scientific method, his desire to appeal only to the evidence of facts—not to other men's fancies—through his archaeological work as well as in more professional lines of study. He laboured long and carefully over such an object as the study of old skulls dug up in antiquarian excursions; setting before himself the object of finding out by the condition and wear of the teeth what kind of food had been consumed by the owners, probably primeval inhabitants of some district. He impressed his methods upon those who worked for him or with him. We find him writing to his nephew, who was about to visit Egypt, telling him when there to gather information as to the suitability of the country for invalids, and directing him how to employ his leisure in furthering this object. He was to study German on the voyage thither, and to take with him as models Clarke's book on Climate and Mitchell's on Algiers, and any French or German books on the subject he might hear of. He would require to collect (1) The average daily temperature ; (2) The hygrometric and barometric states daily; (3) The temperature of the Nile; (4) The temperature of any mineral springs; (5) The general character of the geology; (6) The genera- character of the botany of the country. He asked him to inquire specially as to the effect of the climate on consumption, and pointed out that Pliny described Egypt seventeen centuries ago as the best climate for phthisical patients. For amusement he was to take some good general book on Egypt and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The serious study of a succession of inquirers was to be the young man's holiday amusement !

Simpson's most notable contributions to archaeology were made when his time was most occupied professionally. The researches on Leprosy were first enlarged and improved. In 1852, when in the British Museum, his eye was attracted by a small leaden vase bearing a Greek inscription signifying the Lycium of the Muses. By a painstaking inquiry he established that this lycium was the Lykion indikon of Dioscorides, a drug used by ancient Greeks as an application to the eyes in various kinds of ophthalmia. It was obtained from India, and is still used for these purposes in that country. He discovered that there were three other 154 examples of this ancient receptable for the valued eye-medicine in modern museums.

He had correspondents in different parts of Scotland engaged in making researches into antiquities, which he encouraged and directed. Among such were inquiries into the whereabouts of a church said to possess holy earth brought from Rome ; and a hunt for ancient cupping-vessels. The work on the Cat-stane of Kirkliston was elaborate, and a perfect example of his method. Probably this stone, a massive unhewn block of greenstone-trap, had been a familiar object to him in his youth, for it lay alone in a field close to the Linlithgow road. In his monograph he endeavoured to show by close reasoning, with profuse references to forgotten authorities and ancient history, that the stone was the tomb of one Vetta, the grandfather of Hengist and Horsa. His argument ran as follows : The surname Vetta, which figured on the inscription carved upon the stone, was the name of the grandfather of Hengist and Horsa, as given by the oldest genealogists, who described him as the son of Victa. The inscription ran thus : VETTA F(ilius) VICTI. Vetta was an uncommon Saxon name, and no other Vetta, son of Victa, was known in history. Two generations before Hengist and Horsa arrived in England a Saxon host was leagued with the Picts, Scots, and Attacots in fighting a Roman army, and these Saxons were probably commanded by an ancestor of Hengist and Horsa. The battlefield was situated between the two Roman wails, and consequently included the tract where the stone is now placed. The palaeographic characters of the inscription indicated that it was carved about the end of the fourth century. Latin (with a very few exceptions in Greek) was the only language known to have been used at that time by Romanised Britons and foreign conquerors for the purpose of inscriptions. The occasional erection of monuments to Saxon leaders is proved by the fact mentioned by Bede that in his time, the eighth century, there stood in Kent a monument commemorating the death of Horsa. In 1659 a writer had described this tomb of Horsa as having been destroyed by "storms and tempests under the conduct of time."

In 1861 Simpson was president of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and delivered an address on the past and present work of archaeology which greatly stimulated antiquarian study in his country. Amongst the honours which his antiquarian achievements brought upon him was that of being appointed Professor of Antiquities to the Royal Academy of Scotland ; he was also elected a member of the Archaeological Societies of Athens, Nassau, and Copenhagen.

He make researches into the subjects of lake dwellings, . primeval pottery, and burial urns. One of his most valuable writings was upon the subject, "Was the Roman Army provided with Medical Officers?" He answered the question in the affirmative after a laborious hunt amongst votive and mortuary tablets ; no Roman historians had left clear indications of the existence of any army medical department. He found that several tablets were preserved bearing inscriptions referring to army surgeons, which suggested that although they were all known as medicus there were degrees of rank amongst them, notably the medicus legionis and the medicus cohort is. There is a well-preserved tablet in the Newcastle Museum found in that neighbourhood, commemorating a surgeon of the first Tungrian cohort, and one in Dresden, referring to a medicus duplicatorius, a term which indicates that the surgeon had been fortunate enough by his attainments to merit, and, we hope, receive double fees for his services.

All his antiquarian study was looked upon by Simpson himself as no more than a relaxation. Fatigued by days and nights of anxious consecutive professional work, he would suddenly dash off for a day into some part of the country where he knew there was a likely "find," leaving patients and students to the care of his assistants. Here he would press into service and infect with his spirit all sorts of local worthies from the squire or laird down to the labourer, who woke up at his stimulation to find that what had been of no concern to them and their fathers before them—perhaps objects of vituperation or superstitious dread—were objects of keen delight and interest, and actually valuable to this astonishing man. Once on a professional visit to Fifeshire he quite casually discovered some remarkable though rough carvings in caves, representing various animals and curious emblems, and he was able to show that they presented features hitherto unnoticed. Fifeshire was famous for its underground dwellings, or, as they are locally called, "weems"—a term which gave origin to the title of the Earldom of Wemyss. After such an excursion he would return to Queen Street full of boyish spirits, eager to narrate his discoveries to interested friends, and refreshed ready to resume the daily round of work. Archaeology was his hobby—the hobby on which he rode away for refreshment and relief from the monotony of his life's work ; not only did the hobby constantly restore his flagging energies, but as it is given to few men to do, he put new life into his hobby whenever he bestrode it.

In the conduct of his practice he was somewhat negligent. He was one of the old school in these matters; he trusted his head rather than paper, and his head had had such a careful self-imposed training since childhood that it was a good servant. But where the brain has such enormous duties to perform, those which appear to it unimportant must of necessity be comparatively neglected.

Had he been more careful of pounds, shillings, and pence, he would have been more attentive to the details of practice. To Simpson, provided he had sufficient money for all his wants—and his wants were wide, for they included those of many others —pecuniary and business matters were of secondary consideration. In his student days he had lived carefully, accounting, as has been seen, for every trivial expenditure to those to whom he was indebted. But now he was free from the harassing necessity of exercising rigid economy, he cast aside the drudgery of business methods and disdained commercial considerations. He certainly received some very large fees, but the curious mixture of human beings who crowded his waiting-rooms were treated all alike whether they paid princely fees or no fee at all ; lots were drawn daily for precedence, and they entered his presence according as they drew. His valet seems to have attained considerable skill in estimating the probable remunerative value of a roomful of waiting patients, and would grumble at night if on emptying the professor's pockets, as was his duty, the result fell short of his calculated anticipations. The man did not approve of the master's habit of giving gratuitous service. There were many who were never asked for a fee, and many others whose proffered guineas were refused. Simpson would not ask for money from those to whom he thought it was a struggle to pay him; the magnitude of his profit-yielding practice rendered this form of charity possible for him; from the really poor he always refused remuneration. His house was filled with all sorts of presents from patients, grateful for benefit conferred, grateful for generosity and consideration. He was also a free giver, and besides supporting orthodox charities made many gifts of goodly sums to persons who appeared to him to be in want, or who succeeded in impressing on him their need for help* He was imposed upon often enough ; not seldom by pseudo-scientists full of some great discovery which a little more capital might enable them to complete. Once he corresponded with an enthusiast of this description who confessed that he had been breakfasting on a waistcoat, dining on a shirt, and supping , on a pair of tough old leather boots, with the object of finding a solid substance, which combined with lead or tin would form gold—nothing more or less than the time-honoured philosopher's stone ! To such a man Simpson gave freely not only once.,

To young students entering upon professional life with no other capital than their newly acquired qualifications to practice, he was ever generous. The Scots Universities sent forth many such youths, sturdy and independent, and with feelings that would be easily wounded by any attempt to patronise. But his gentleness, and the sympathy born of his own early experiences and shining in his eyes, made help from him something to be proud of.

It could never be urged against Simpson that he was avaricious. Just as when honours were showered upon him he accepted them with less thought of the personal honour than of the appreciation of his friends and the public, and rejoiced that they were pleased; so he rejoiced in the acquisition of ample means chiefly because of the pleasure he might derive therefrom by helping others.

His method of seeing patients was boldly haphazard ; we learn with astonishment that he kept no list of his visits to be made, and started a day's round with only his prodigious memory to guide him as to where he should go. Such a method must have had the result that only cases of interest or urgency were seen. No doubt the able staff" of assistants attended to the others, but these comprised not only sufferers from trivial complaints but those afflicted with imaginary ills who had come to see Simpson, not his assistant. Possibly they had already suffered many things of many physicians and were none the better. Such persons blamed Simpson with some reason. In the case of neurotic persons only was his method not reprehensible ; continued attendance might have undone the benefit of the one application, if we may so term it, of his strong personality, which sometimes was all that was required, so superstitious was the reverence for his powers. A precise system of registration of engagements and visits ought certainly to have been adopted. We can sympathise with those who felt aggrieved that they could not obtain more attention from the great man, but it must be remembered that by his own method he saw a great number of difficult and dangerous cases, and was able to originate out of his wide and unprecedented experience, modes of treatment which are to-day valued highly and successfully made use of by his professional successors. He never wittingly left a fellow-creature's life in danger, but would hasten at all hours to cases of real urgency.

As is usual where large numbers are striving after the same object some were highly careless in their communications with him. Fees were sent to him with a request for a receipt, but no address was given. Engagements were asked for by persons who neglected to say at what hotel they were staying; and others worried him for letters on quite trivial subjects. On one occasion, it is authentically related, a ten-pound note was forwarded to him by a man who might more reasonably have paid one hundred pounds. The note was somewhat carelessly not acknowledged, and the sender kept writing letters demanding an answer in increasing severity of tone. But he was left to rage in vain. A few nights later Simpson's sleep was disturbed by a rattling window; in the dark he rose and groped for a piece of paper wherewith to stuff the chink and stop the irritating noise. His only comment next morning when his wife, having removed the paper and discovered its nature came to him with it, was, "Oh! it's that ten pounds! "

There was a great want of method in all his arrangements, and Dr. Duns confesses to having had considerable difficulty in arranging Simpson's letters and papers, so carelessly were they kept.

The leading hotels in the city benefited by Simpson's reputation. Patients and pilgrims filled their rooms long before tourists began to crowd Scotland as they do to-day. When Simpson was elected to the Chair of Midwifery loud complaints were uttered by the hotel proprietors. His predecessor, Professor Hamilton, had been a man of such wide reputation that they derived much profit from the patients sent in from the surrounding country to be attended by him. How could a young man like Simpson equal this ? And yet when he died there was more than one hotel proprietor who could attribute no small measure of his own success to the patients and visitors who crowded not only from the country districts of Scotland but from the most remote parts of the British Empire, as well as from the great cities of Europe and America, to gain help or speech from or perhaps only to see this same Simpson. And his fame had reached the high point it ever after maintained when he was but a young man—before he was forty years of age. It was estimated that no less than eighty thousand pounds per annum was lost to the hotel, lodging, and boarding-house keepers of Edinburgh when he died.


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