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Sir James Young Simpson
Chapter XI. Further Reforms—Honours


Professional and University Reform—Medical women—Honours—The Imperial Academy of Medicine of France—Baronetcy—Domestic bereavement—The University Principalship—Freedom of the City of Edinburgh—Bigelow of Boston-—Views on education—Graduation addresses.

PROFESSOR SIMPSON took a warm interest in medical politics, and made himself heard as a member of the Senatus of the University. That body was not renowned for any spirit of harmony prevailing in its midst; it included the medical professors many of whom were in professional opposition to each other and were actuated by conflicting interests. The rivalry prevailing amongst the leaders of the profession in the Scots capital was amusingly shown in one of Sir James's letters, where he related how Professor Miller had just given a capital address to the young graduates and recommended them to marry chiefly because Mr. Syme had advised the reverse two years before. "At least," he said, "so Mr. Syme whispered to me, and so, indeed, did Miller himself state to Dr. Laycock!"

On the principles of Medical Reform and University Reform the professors were, however, practically unanimous, but their interests came into conflict with those of the extra-academical school. The two opposing bodies worked hard to gain their own ends when a Parliamentary Committee was appointed in 1852 to inquire into medical reform. The modern Athens became once more disturbed by wordy warfare. The general ends aimed at by the reformers were the obtaining of a proper standing for qualified practitioners 5 some satisfactory means of enabling the public to distinguish between regular and irregular,, quack, practitioners; and to define the amount of general and professional knowledge necessary for degrees and qualifications. It was also desired to remove the absurd anomaly whereby, although Scots medical education was then ahead of English, Scots graduates had no legal standing in England. The Medical Act which was passed in 1858 carried out many of the best suggestions made before the Committee, and effected desirable improvements both in the status of practitioners and in medical education; but it was inadequate, as time has shown, and the question of reform still burns. Simpson took an active interest in the proceedings before the Committee, and made several dashes up to London to further the projects which he had at heart. The annual meeting of the British Medical Association was held in Edinburgh in July, 1858, at the moment when the fete of the Bill hung in the balance. As the journal of the Association said at the time the fruit of a quarter of a century's growth was plucked in the midst of the rejoicings. Sir Robert Christison publicly stated that owing to Simpson's energetic efforts certain fer-reaching and objectionable clauses, which had been allowed to creep into the Bill, were expunged at the last moment. Simpson went up to London by the night train, employed the following day in effecting his purpose, and returned the next night ; this was when the journey took nearly twice as many hours as now.

The Universities (Scotland) Act was also passed in 1858 ; by it the complete control of the University, and with it the patronage of many of the Chairs, was lost to its original founders, the Town Council, who had so carefully and successfully guided it through nearly three centuries. The Council did not part from their charge without a struggle-; in urging their cause they proudly pointed to the fact that they had appointed Simpson to the Chair, of Midwifery against the opposition of the medical faculty. To have elected him, they thought, under such circumstances displayed their discernment, vindicated their existence, and pleaded for the perpetuation of their elective office.

When the question of the admission of women to the study of medicine came up in Edinburgh and divided the ancient city once more into two hostile camps, Simpson's sympathies appear to have gone with the sex to which he was already a benefactor. He recognised that there was a place, if a small one, within the ranks of the profession for women ; and when the question came to the vote he cast his in their favour. The proposal, however, was rejected, and has only quite recently become law in the University.

Numerous honours were heaped upon him during the last five-and-twenty years of his life. In 1847 he filled the office of President of the Edinburgh College of Physicians, and in 1852 held the corresponding post in the Medico-Chirurgical Society. In the following year the Imperial Academy of Medicine of France—a body which lacks an analogue in this country—conferred upon him the title of Foreign Associate. This was a jealously guarded honour awarded only to the most highly distinguished men of the day, and it was conferred upon Simpson in an altogether unprecedented manner which doubled its value. According to custom a commission of members prepared a list of renowned men whom they advised the Academy to elect; in the list no British name appeared although Owen, Faraday, and Bright were entered as "reserves." On the day of election the members accepted all the candidates named in the original list until the last was reached. When the president asked for the vote for this individual a sensational and truly Gallic scene was enacted. Almost to a man the members rose, and loud and long proclaimed Simpson's name. Excited speeches were made, and amidst great enthusiasm he was elected to the one remaining vacancy by an overwhelming majority. It had remained for Simpson to prove, as the President courteously pointed out at the time, that there existed a greater honour than that of being elected by the Academy—viz., that of being chosen in spite of the will of the Academy itself.

This was by no means the only honour awarded to him by France. In 1856 the French Academy of Sciences voted him the Monthyon Prize of two thousand francs for " the most important benefits done to humanity." Other foreign societies added their compliments, and he was elected Foreign Associate of the Belgian Royal Academy of Medicine, of the Parisian Surgical and Biological Societies, and of the Medical Societies of Norway, Stockholm, Copenhagen, New York, Massachusetts, Leipsic, and other places.

In 1866 his own country made an acknowledgment of his eminent attainments when the Queen offered him a baronetcy on the advice of Lord John Russell. Twice before he had refused a title, but this time he wrote to his brother that he feared he must accept although it appeared so absurd to take a title. This honour was the first of its kind ever conferred upon a doctor, or even upon a professor, in Scotland. It was entirely unsought, and scarcely welcomed by its recipient for its own sake; he regarded it not merely as a personal honour but also as a tardy recognition of the services of the Edinburgh school in the cause of medicine. He enjoyed the congratulations which showered upon him, and felt glad when the citizens flocked to Queen Street to express their feelings, much to Lady Simpson's delight. The medical papers unanimously approved of the honour, the Lancet remarking that apart from his connection with chloroform, Simpson was distinguished as an obstetric practitioner, as a physiologist, as an operator, and as a pathologist of great research and originality.

Domestic bereavement quenched the rejoicings over the baronetcy, and condolences displaced congratulations. He fell ill for a time himself, and in a condition of unusual mental depression spoke of the baronetcy as appearing even more of a bauble in sickness than in health. In less than a fortnight after the offer of the title his eldest son David died after a short illness. He had been educated for the medical profession, and was a youth of considerable promise and of an earnest temperament; his death fell as a severe blow, and Simpson even contemplated abandoning the baronetcy which had not yet been formally conferred. The words of his friends, however, and the thought that his dead son had particularly insisted on its acceptance, persuaded him.

A coat of arms had to be drafted for the new Baronet, and this was a pleasant interest for one of his tastes. The family history was searchingly entered into, and the arms of his father's family were differenced on the most correct lines with those of the Jervays from whom his mother had sprung. In the matter of a crest he was able to be boldly original, and adopted the rod of sculapius over the motto Victo dolorey and thus handed down to his family the memory of his great victory over pain. In June of the same year, 1866, the University of Oxford conferred upon him one of the few honours which reached him from England in awarding him the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law. The University of Dublin made him an honorary Doctor of Medicine, and he was created an honorary Fellow of the King's and Queen's College of Physicians of Ireland.

By the death of the veteran Sir David Brewster, in February, 1868, the office of Principal of Edinburgh University fell vacant. This post is a survival from the earliest days. The College out of which the University grew was established in 1583 by the Town Council under a charter granted by James VI. Only one regent or tutor was necessary at first to teach the "bairns," as the students were termed in the contract entered into between Rollock, the first regent, and the city fathers. Rollock was promised that as the college increased u in policy and learning he should be advanced to the highest post created. By his own efforts the number of students increased so greatly that within-the first few years several other regents were appmftifed, and the Council, remembering their promise, dignified him with the title of Principal or First Master in 1586. This office was held during the succeeding two centuries by a series of more or less worthy men, prominent among whom were Leighton, afterwards Archbishop of Glasgow, and William Carstares, better known as a statesman and for his connection with the Rye House Plot in 1684. During Carstares's tenure the tutors were turned into professors, and the college became more strictly speak-inga university, although from the first it had assumed without any right by charter the function of degree-granting. Although the utility of the post quite vanished when the college became a university, and the principal had no place in the constitution of a university, nevertheless the principalship was not abolished. The Universities Act of 1858 recognised the office, but only as that of an ornamental head, acting as president of the assembly of professors constituting the Senatus Academicus. The salary is a thousand pounds a year with an official residence, not within the precincts or the University. The former head master of the college, known by and knowing every student, became a sinecurist of whose existence it is no exaggeration to say many of the students are, through no fault of their own, unaware. Brewster had been a distinguished occupant of the post—distinguished not as a principal, for he received the appointment only at the age of 193 o seventy-eight, but as a scientist. To die public he was best known as the author of the " Life of Sir Isaac Newton," and as the inventor of the kaleidoscope. It is said that Brewster never spoke as much as five lines at the meetings of the Senatus Academicus without having previously written them down; and it is probable that this lack of spontaneous utterance from the Chairman gave the tone to the assembly. The rival professors doubtless nursed their animosities for some less dignified meeting-place, differing there only on the most correct academic lines.

It is not surprising that Simpson at first refused to be a candidate for the vacant post. He would undoubtedly have made an unrivalled figure-head for his Jlma Mater i he was the leading figure in Scotland already and u did the hospitalities" of Edinburgh to distinguished visitors of all classes. But he would probably have been obliged to resign his professorship and have thus been cut off from his sphere of greatest usefulness; and although he would have grasped with ease the details of university aflairs it is open to question whether he would have suitably filled the post of president over men to many of whom he was in professional opposition. The most that the suggestion that he should be a candidate conveyed was a well-meant compliment, but it would have been a greater compliment on his part if he had really ended his life as the ornamental head of the University he had already done so much to adorn. He would certainly have turned his position to good account, and perhaps might have earned the gratitude of all succeeding students by improving their position in the University and bettering their relationship with their teachers—a much needed reform at that time. But he was a man for more active occupation, and it was^ more fitting that he should persevere to the end in the work of his life. Simpson expressed his opinion that the most suitable man for the post was the one already named by Brewster and desired by a majority of the Senatus; but that man, Professor Christison, then over seventy years of age, generously said that Sir Alexander Grant, an active candidate, would better fill the post. A strong section of Edinburgh folks persisted in pushing Simpson, and in deference to their wishes he consented to enter the lists. It cannot be said that he displayed any of the eager energy which had marked his candidature for the midwifery chair; but his friends made up for his comparative apathy. They were met by a strong opposition, not instigated by his rivals for the post, but offered by insignificant persons who cherished ill-will against him and spread untrue statements with the object of damaging his character. Greatly owing to the reports spread in this manner he was not elected. Sir Alexander Grant became the new Principal. The fact that he could not gain the post was communicated to him in a letter which reached him one morning before prayers. He conducted the worship as usual after reading the letter, and when the family had afterwards all assembled at the breakfast table he intimated the fact to them and dismissed the subject from his mind with the quiet remark, "I have lost the Principalship."

An interesting episode pertaining to this period was narrated by the Free Church minister of Newhaven. "The election," he wrote to Dr. Duns, " took place on a Monday, and it was on the Sabbath preceding, between sermons, that one of my people, a fisherman, called on me stating that his wife was apparently dying, but that she and all her friends were longing most intensely for a consultation with Sir James. I did not know well what to do, for I knew that his mind was likely to be very much harassed, and I shrank from adding to his troubles. But in the urgency of the case I wrote him a note simply stating that one of the best women in the town was at the point of death and longed for his help, leaving the matter without another word to himself. The result was that he came down immediately, spent three hours beside his patient, performed, I am told, miracles of skill, and did not leave her till the crisis was over. She would, I am assured, have died that evening, but she was one of the sincerest mourners at his funeral, and she still lives to bless his memory. After all was over he went into a friend's house and threw himself down on a sofa in a state of utter exhaustion. This was the way in which, without hope of fee or reward, 196 and while others were waiting for him able to give him both, Sir James spent the evening preceding the election. Some will say it was no great matter after all. Why, for that part of it, neither was the cup of cold water which the dying Sir Philip Sidney passed from his own lips to those of a wounded soldier in greater agony than himself. But the incident is recalled whenever his name is mentioned as adding to the glory of the knight sans peur et sans reproche, and the incident I have mentioned in the Newhaven fisherman's house surely gives to Sir James a place beside him in the glorious order of chivalrous generosity."

Among the last of the honours offered to Simpson was the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh; a fitting tribute from the City in which and for which he had so nobly and untiringly laboured. It was proposed to present him with the burgess-ticket at the same time that it was publicly presented to another hero in a different sphere, Lord Napier of Magdala; but by his own desire the ceremony was postponed so far as he was concerned in order that full honour might be paid to Lord Napier. At the eventual presentation the Lord Provost made a short speech recapitulating the achievements for which they desired to honour him, and referring to his reputation as being great on the banks of the Thames and the Seine, as well as on the shores of the Firth of Forth; he likewise expressed the pride of his fellow-citizens that Sir James had remained amongst them and had not been drawn away like other men of genius before him by the attractions of the greater metropolis of the south. Simpson's reply took the form of an impromptu review of his career from the time he first entered the City as a wonderstruck boy. "I came," he proudly said, "to settle down and fight amongst you a hard and up-hill battle of life for bread and name and fame, and the feet that I stand here before you this day so for testifies that in the arduous struggle I have—won."

The accounts of the speeches delivered on this occasion which reached America raised the indignation of Dr. Bigelow, of Boston. Reference had been made to chloroform in a manner which appeared to slight Morton's work in introducing ether as an anaesthetic before chloroform was heard of. In Bigelow's estimation Simpson posed as a hero at the expense of Morton. Simpson had certainly been fer from liberal in his allusions to Morton and others in his article upon Anaesthesia in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and had written almost entirely about his own discovery. A controversy was excited, and on his deathbed Simpson wrote a letter to Bigelow to prove that he had duly considered the priority and the value of Morton's and Wells's work. In his concluding sentences he expressed regret at having taken up so much of his own and his correspondent's time in such a petty discussion, but blamed his illness which prevented him from writing with the force and brevity required.

"With many of our profession in America," he said, "I have the honour of being personally acquainted, and regard their friendship so very highly that I shall not regret this attempt—my last, perhaps—at professional writing as altogether useless on my part if it tend to fix my name and memory duly in their love and esteem."

The widespread national expression of the sense of loss and of sympathy which reached Edinburgh from the United States after Sir James's death testified to the regard in which he was held from one end to the other of that country. In Boston itself the Gynaecological Society, of which he had been the first honorary member, convened a special memorial meeting, which was solemn and impressive. He had not been mistaken in presuming with his last breath that he held the regard of his American confreres.

On the subject of education Simpson held what were considered advanced opinions, but which had already been expressed by Mr. Lowe. A few years before his death he delivered a lecture on Modern and Ancient Languages at Granton, in which he lamented the common neglect of modern languages in the education of the day. He had personally felt the want of a mastery over French and German, both in the course of his studies and during his travels; nor did he feel the want compensated for by his ability to write and talk in Latin. He strongly advocated the paying of more attention to the modern and less to the dead languages, and he urged that natural science should take its place in the ordinary curriculum of the great public schools. These views were used as an argument against his fitness for the post of Principal of the ancient University.

On three separate occasions it fell to Simpson's lot to deliver the annual address to the newly-fledged graduates, which is the duty of the professors of the medical faculty in rotation. This ceremony remains deeply impressed in the memory of Edinburgh men, simple and dull as it undoubtedly is. The homily delivered by the orator of the day contains excellent counsels appropriate to the occasion, but the young man eager to rise and confidently try his wings pays little attention to the words of wisdom ; unless it be to feel wonder that just as he is about to leave them, probably for ever, his Alma Mater and her priests have discovered an affectionate regard for him and his welfare. A few years later the struggling young practitioner may perhaps turn to the copy of this graduation address, forwarded to him by post with the author's compliments, and find in such an one as Simpson delivered much to strengthen and encourage him. In 1842 and 1855 he delivered addresses from which quotations have already been made; and in the third one, spoken in 1868, he made a forecast of the future of medical science, predicting inter alia that by concentration of electric or other lights we should yet be enabled to make many parts of the body sufficiently diaphanous for inspection by the practised eye of the physician. It was his habit to commit such lectures to memory and to deliver them without notes. He was a ready public speaker on any subject in which he was interested ; speeches made on the spur of the moment teemed with pleasantly-put facts and apt anecdotes from the vast storehouse of his memory. A speech from Sir James was one of the treats in which Edinburgh folks delighted.


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