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Significant Scots
Robert Watt


WATT, ROBERT, M.D., the author of the BIBLIOTHECA BRITANNICA, and of several medical treatises, was born in May, 1774. His father, John Watt, possessed a small farm, called Muirhead, in the parish of Stewarton, Ayrshire, which had belonged to the family for several generations, but which was sold shortly after his death, in 1810. Robert was the youngest of three sons; and, with his elder brothers, was employed, during his boyhood, in attending school, and in assisting his father in the management of the farm. His early life, it would seem, was subject to considerable hardships, and afforded few opportunities for cultivating his mind. In a letter of his now before us, written a short time before his death, we find the following notanda of his early years, prepared at the request of a friend. After recording his recollections of an English school, to which he was sent at the age of five or six, and where he learned to read, write, and count, the narrative proceeds:— "About the age of thirteen, I became a ploughboy to a farmer in a neighbouring parish. After this, I was sometimes at home, and sometimes in the service of other people, till the age of seventeen. Before this age, I had begun to acquire a taste for reading, and spent a good deal of my time in that way. The books I read were such as I found about my father’s house; among which I remember the "Pilgrim’s Progress," "The Lives of Scotch Worthies," &c. A spirit for extending my knowledge of the country, and other things, had manifested itself early, in various forms. When very young, my great ambition was to be a chapman; and it was long before the sneers of my friends could drive me from this favourite project. It was the same spirit, and a wish of doing something for myself, that made me go into the service of other farmers. I saw more than I did at home, and I got money which I could call my own. My father’s circumstances were very limited; but they were equal, with his own industry, to the bringing up of his family, and putting them to trades. This was his great wish. I remember he preferred a trade greatly to being farmer’s servants.

"With a view to extend my knowledge of the country, I went with a party into Galloway, to build stone dykes. On getting there, however, the job which we had expected was abandoned, on account of some difference taking place between the proprietor of the land and the cultivator; and we went to the neighbourhood of Dumfries, where our employer had a contract for making part of the line of road from Sanquhar to Dumfries. During my short stay in Galloway, which was at Loch Fergus, in the vicinity of Kirkcudbright, I lodged in a house where I had an opportunity of reading some books, and saw occasionally a newspaper. This enlarged my views, increased the desire to see and learn more, and made me regret exceedingly my short stay in the place.

"On our arrival at Dumfries, we were boarded on the farm of Ellisland, in the possession of Robert Burns. The old house which he and his family had recently occupied became our temporary abode. This was only for a few days. I was lodged, for the rest of the summer, in a sort of old castle, called the Isle, from its having been at one time surrounded by the Nith. While at Ellisland, I formed the project of going up to England. This was to be accomplished by engaging as a drover of some of the droves of cattle that continually pass that way from Ireland and Scotland. My companions, however, disapproved of the project, and I gave it up.

"During the summer I spent in Dumfries-shire, I had frequent opportunities of seeing Burns but cannot recollect of having formed any opinion of him, except a confused idea that he was an extraordinary character. While here, I read Burns’s Poems; and, from an acquaintance with some of his relations, I occasionally got from his library a reading of other works of the same kind. With these I used to retire into some of the concealed places on the banks of the Nith, and pass my leisure hours in reading, and occasionally tried my hand in writing rhymes myself. My business at this time consisted chiefly in driving stones, from a distance of two or three miles, to build bridges and sewers. This occupation gave me a further opportunity of perusing books, and although, from the desultory nature of my reading, I made no proficiency in any one thing, I acquired a sort of smattering knowledge of many, and a desire to learn more. From this period, indeed, I date the commencement of my literary pursuits.

"On my return home, the first use I made of the money I had saved was to purchase a copy of Bailey’s Dictionary, and a copy of Burn’s English grammar. With these I began to instruct myself in the principles of the English language, in the best way I could.

"At this time, my brother John, who had been in Glasgow for several years, following the business of a joiner and cabinet-maker, came home, with the design of beginning business for himself in the country. It was proposed that I should join him. This was very agreeable to me. I had, at that time, no views of anything higher; and it accorded well with the first bent of my wind, which was strongly inclined to mechanics. If of late all my spare hours had been devoted to reading, at an earlier period they had been equally devoted to mechanics. When very young, I had erected a turning lath in my father’s barn; had procured planes, chisels, and a variety of other implements, which I could use with no small degree of dexterity.

"For some time my mind was wholly occupied with my new trade. I acquired considerable knowledge and facility in constructing most of the different implements used in husbandry, and could also do a little as a cabinet-maker. But I soon began to feel less and less interest in my new employment. My business came to be a repetition of the same thing, and lost all its charms of novelty and invention. The taste for reading, which I had brought from the south, though it had suffered some abatement, had not left me. I was occasionally poring over my dictionary and grammar, and other volumes that came in my way.

"At this time, a circumstance occurred which gave my mind an entirely new bent. My brother, while at Glasgow, had formed a very close intimacy with a student there. This young gentleman, during the vacation, came out to see my brother, and pass a few days in the country. From him I received marvellous accounts of what mighty things were to be learned, what wonders to be seen—about a university; and I imbibed an unquenchable desire to follow his course."

Here his own account of himself closes, and what we have to add must of course be deficient in that interest which attaches itself to all personal memoirs that are written with frankness and sincerity. The newly-imbibed desire of an academical education, to which he alludes, was not transient in its character. To prepare himself for its accomplishment, he laid aside as much of his earnings as he could spare, and applied himself, in the intervals of manual occupation, to the Latin and Greek languages. It was not long ere he thus qualified himself for beginning his course at the university. In 1793, at the age of eighteen, he matriculated in the Glasgow college, under professor Richardson; and, from that period, went regularly through the successive classes in the university, up to the year 1797. During the summer recesses, he supported himself by teaching, at first as a private tutor; but latterly he took up a small public school in the village of Symington, in Ayrshire. It was his first determination to follow the clerical profession; but after he had attended two sessions at the Divinity Hall of Glasgow, he turned himself to the study of medicine; and, in order to have every advantage towards acquiring a proficiency in that branch of knowledge, he removed to Edinburgh, which has been so long celebrated as a medical school. Here he remained until he had gone through the usual studies of the science.

In 1799, he returned to Glasgow; and, after an examination by the faculty of Physicians and Surgeons there, he was found ‘a fit and capable person to exercise the arts of surgery and pharmacy.’ In the same year, he set up as surgeon in the town of Paisley; and soon began to attain great popularity in his profession, and to reap the reward of his talents and perseverance. In a short time he had engrossed so much practice, as to find it necessary to take in, as partner and assistant, Mr James Muir, who had been his fellow student at Edinburgh. This gentleman possessed considerable literary abilities, and was author of various pieces of a didactic character, which appeared in the periodicals of the day. On his death, which happened early in life, he left behind him, in manuscript, a volume of miscellaneous essays, and a poem, entitled "HOME," consisting of 354 Spenserian stanzas. He was, in particular, greatly attached to painting, and exhausted much of his time and money upon that art. Dr Watt, on the other hand, was chiefly attached to that department of human inquiry which comes under the denomination of experimental philosophy—particularly chemistry, to which science he, for a considerable time, devoted his leisure hours almost exclusively. Yet, with these differences of pursuits, they lived in good harmony during a partnership of nearly ten years, each following his own course, and both holding the most respectable station of their profession in the place where they resided.

The period of Dr Watt’s residence in Paisley, was perhaps the busiest in his life. He enjoyed, during it, a better state of health than he ever did afterwards; and had, besides, all the ardour and enterprise of one newly entered into a sphere for which he had long panted. The number and variety of manuscripts which he has left, sufficiently attest the persevering activity of his mind during this period. The most important, perhaps, of these is one in quarto, entitled "An Abstract of Philosophical Conjectures; or an Attempt to Explain the Principal Phenomena of Light, Heat, and Cold, by a few simple and obvious Laws." This volume contains some curious and interesting experiments; but, of course, since the date of its composition (1805) many new lights have been thrown on the subjects it embraces, which, in a great measure, diminish its importance, and render its publication unadvisable. The only work which he ventured to publish while at Paisley, amid the many he composed and contemplated, was one, entitled "Cases of Diabetes, Consumption, &c.; with Observations on the History and Treatment of Disease in general." This appeared in 1803, and excited considerable interest at the time among the learned of the profession. The method which the author adopted in treating Diabetes, was venesection, blistering, and an abstemious diet; and the various cases which he records, were considered at the time as tending to establish the propriety of this mode of treatment. At the end of the volume observations are given upon different diseases, as asthma, English cholera, colic, &c.; and these are also illustrated by cases which came under his own observation.

Soon after the publication of this volume, he felt a desire to remove to another quarter, and commence for himself on a higher scale than he had hitherto done. There was no place, however, which he had particularly fixed upon; and, before coming to any decision on this point, he determined to make a tour through England, with the view of ascertaining whether that country might not afford an eligible spot. The journey would, at the same time, be favourable to his health, which was beginning to be impaired. In 1809, having furnished himself with letters of recommendation to many eminent in his profession throughout England, he went to London, by a circuitous route, embracing, on his way, most of the principal towns in the country. It does not appear, however, that he found any situation there agreeable to his wishes; for on his return home, after an absence of several months, he determined on settling at Glasgow: and, accordingly, in 1810, as soon as matters could properly be arranged, he removed to that city.

Previously to this, he had received from the university of Aberdeen the title of doctor in Medicine, and had been elected member of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. He had also become pretty well known in the neighbourhood as an eminent practitioner, and had every reason top calculate upon success, whatever rank of his profession he should assume. He, therefore, commenced upon the highest scale, took a large house in Queen Street, and confined his profession to that of physician and accoucheur. In the same winter, he began his lectures on the theory and practice of medicine; and thus at once placed himself in that station of life for which he was so eminently qualified.

His success in Glasgow was complete and immediate. As a physician, he suddenly acquired a most respectable and extensive practice; and as a lecturer, his popularity was equally gratifying. The continental war, which was then raging, occasioned a great demand for surgeons, and increased the number of students much above the ordinary average. Dr Watt’s lecture-room was numerously attended; and he spared no pains or expense that might conduce to the advantage of his pupils. His lectures were formed on the best models, and from the most extensive sources, and his manner of delivering them was easy and engaging. During the first course, he read them from his MSS.; but he afterwards abandoned that method for extemporaneous delivery, assisting his memory merely by brief memorandums of the chief heads of discourse. He used to say, that this method, by keeping his mind in a state of activity, fatigued him less than the dull rehearsal of what lay before him. With a view to the advantage of his students, he formed a library of medical books, which was very complete and valuable, containing, besides all the popular works of medicine, many scarce and high-priced volumes. Of this library he published a catalogue, in 1812; to which he appended, "An Address to Medical Students on the best Method of prosecuting their Studies."

The "Bibliotheca Britannica" may be said to have originated with the formation of this library. Besides the catalogue of it, which was printed in the usual form, having the works arranged under their respective authors in alphabetical order, he drew out an index of the various subjects which the volumes embraced, making references to the place which each held upon the shelf; and thus brought before his eye, at one view, all the books in his possession that treated on any particular point. The utility of this index to himself and his students, soon turned his mind to the consideration of one upon a more comprehensive scale, that would embrace all the medical works which had been printed in the British dominions. This he immediately set about drawing out, and devoted much of his time to it. After he had nearly completed his object, he extended the original plan by introducing works on law, and latterly works on divinity and miscellaneous subjects. This more than tripled his labours; but it proportionably made them more useful. The extent of the design, however, was not yet completed. Hitherto, all foreign publications had been excluded from it; and, although a prospectus of the work had been published, containing very copious explanations and specimens, which might be supposed to have determined its nature and bounds, he resolved--when it was on the eve of going to press--to make the work still further useful, by introducing the more popular and important of foreign authors and their productions; embracing, at the same time, the various continental editions of the classics. Thus was another mighty addition made to the original plan; and it is thus that many of the most splendid monuments of human intellect and industry originate in trifling or small beginnings.

In 1813, he published a "Treatise on the History, Nature, and Treatment of Chincough." He was led to investigate particularly this disease, by a severe visitation of it in his own family, in which four of his children were affected at the same time, the two eldest of whom died. The treatise contains not only the author’s own observation and experience, but also that of the best medical writers on the subject. To the volume is subjoined, "An Inquiry into the Relative Mortality of the principal Diseases of Children, and the Numbers who have died under Ten Years of Age, in Glasgow, during the last Thirty Years." In this Inquiry, the author was at infinite pains in comparing and digesting the registers of the various burying-grounds in the city and suburbs; and of these he gives numerous tables, so arranged, as to enable the reader to draw some very important conclusions regarding the diseases of children, and their respective mortalities.

In 1814, he issued, anonymously, a small volume, entitled "Rules of Life, with Reflections on the Manners and Dispositions of Mankind." The volume was published by Constable of Edinburgh, and consisted of a great number of apophthegms and short sentences, many of them original, and the others selected from the best English writers.

About this time, his health began rapidly to decline. From his youth he had been troubled with a stomachie disorder, which attacked him at times very severely, and kept him always under great restrictions in his diet and general regimen. The disease had gained ground with time, and perhaps was accelerated by the laborious life which he led. He, nevertheless, continued to struggle against it, maintained his usual good spirits, and went through the various arduous duties of his profession. His duties, indeed, had increased upon him. He had become a member of various literary and medical societies, of several of which he was president, and had been elected physician to the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, and president of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons. These two latter situations involved a great deal of trouble and attention. He held them both for two successive years; the former he was obliged to resign, on account of the state of his health, just at the period when a handsome compensation would have followed his holding it; the latter was resigned at the expiry of the usual term of its continuance.

Although he had long laboured under that painful disease which we have spoken of, and of which he eventually died, it was not until the year 1817, that he totally discontinued his professional pursuits. Nor would, perhaps, his active spirit have so soon submitted to this resignation, had not another employment engaged his attention. He had, by this time, brought his great work, the "Bibliotheca Britannica," to a very considerable state of forwardness; had become interested in it, and anxious for its completion. He probably saw that, from the state of his health, the duration of his life must be but limited, and was desirous, while yet some strength and vigour remained, to place the work in such a state, that even his death would not prevent its publication. He retired, therefore, with his family, to a small country-house about two miles from Glasgow, engaged several young men as amanuenses, [Among those so engaged were the late Mr William Motherwell, who distinguished himself by his beautiful ballads; and the late Mr Alexander Whitelaw, editor of "The Casquet," "Republic of Letters," &c.]and devoted himself exclusively to the compilation.

In this literary seclusion, Dr Watt was for some time able to make great progress in his undertaking; but, though freed from worldly interruptions, he had to combat with a disease which was every day becoming more formidable, and which at last obliged him to discontinue all personal labour. He still, however, continued to oversee and direct his amanuenses; and nothing could exceed the kind attention which he paid to their comforts, even when suffering under his fatal malady. In his own retirement, he practised every method which his knowledge or experience could suggest to stem the progress of the disease, but they were all unavailing. In the hope that travel and a sea voyage might benefit him, he went in one of the Leith smacks to London, made a considerable tour through England, and returned more exhausted and emaciated than before. From that period, until his death, he was scarcely out of bed, but underwent, with wonderful fortitude, an afflicting and uninterrupted illness of several months. He died upon the 12th of March, 1819, aged only forty-five, and was interred in the Glasgow High Church burying ground.

Dr Watt’s personal appearance was prepossessing. He was tall in stature, and in early life, before his health declined, robust. His countenance displayed great intelligence. In private life, he was universally esteemed. His character was formed on the strictest principles of morality, with which was blended a general urbanity of manners, that won at once the good-will of whoever he addressed. His conversation was communicative and engaging, apart equally from dulness and tediousness, as from what is quite as intolerable, a continued study at effect. In his habits, he was extremely regular and persevering. There was nothing from which he shrunk, if usefulness recommended it, and exertion made it attainable. This is particularly exemplified in his undertaking and executing such a work as the "Bibliotheca Britannica," the bare conception of which would, to an ordinary or less active mind, have been appalling; but which, beset as he was by professional duties and a daily increasing malady, he undertook and accomplished. But laborious as the work is—beyond even what the most intelligent reader can imagine—it is not alone to industry and perseverance that Dr Watt has a claim upon our notice. He was ingenious and original-minded in all his schemes; and while his great ambition was that his labours might be useful, he was careful that they should not interfere with those of others. His various works, both published and unpublished, bear this distinction. The whole plan of the "Bibliotheca" is new; and few compilations, of similar magnitude and variety, ever presented, in a first edition, a more complete design and execution, it is divided into two parts; the first part containing an alphabetical list of authors, to the amount of above forty thousand, and under each a chronological list of his works, their various editions, sizes, price, &c., and also of the papers he may have contributed to the more celebrated journals of art and science. This division differs little in its construction from that of a common catalogue, only that it is universal in its character, and in many instances gives short biographical notices of the author, and critical opinions of his works. It also gives most ample lists of the various editions of the Greek and Roman classics, &c., and, under the names of the early printers, lists of the various books which they printed. In the second part, all the titles of works recorded in the first part, and also anonymous works, are arranged alphabetically under their principal subjects. This part forms a minute index to the first, and upon it the chief claim of the "Bibliotheca" to novelty and value rests; for it lays before the reader at a glance, a chronological list of all the works that have been published on any particular subject that he may wish to consult, with references to their respective authors, or with the publisher’s name, if anonymous. While, in short, the first part forms a full and comprehensive catalogue of authors and their works, the second forms an equally complete and extensive encyclopedia of all manner of subjects on which books have been written. The utility of such a work, to the student and author in particular, must be obvious; for, with the facility with which he can ascertain in a dictionary the meaning of a word, can he here ascertain all that has been written on any branch of human knowledge. Whatever may be its omissions and inaccuracies, (and these were unavoidable in a compilation so extensive,) the plan of the work, we apprehend, cannot be improved; and, amid the numerous and laborious methods that have been offered to the public, for arranging libraries and catalogues, we are ignorant of any system that could be adopted, with greater advantage, both as to conveniency and completeness of reference, without at the same time affecting the elegant disposal of the books upon the shelves, than the one upon which the "Bibliotheca Britannica" is founded.

Dr Watt married, while in Paisley, Miss Burns, the daughter of a farmer in his father’s neighbourhood, by whom he had nine children. At his death, the publication of the "Bibliotheca" devolved upon his two eldest sons, who devoted themselves to its completion with filial enthusiasm. They were both young men of the most promising abilities; and it is to be feared that their lives were shortened by the assiduity with which they applied themselves to the important charge that was so prematurely laid upon them. John, the elder of the two, died in 1821, at the early age of twenty; James, his brother, lived to see the work completed, but died in 1829, leaving behind him the deep regrets of all who knew and could appreciate his high character and brilliant talents.

The printing of the " Bibliotheca" was completed in 1824, in four large quarto volumes. The first division or portion of it was printed in Glasgow, and the second in Edinburgh. Messrs Archibald Constable and Company, of Edinburgh, purchased the whole for about £2,000, giving bills to that amount, but before any of the bills were honoured, the house failed, and thus the family of Dr Watt was prevented from receiving any benefit from a work to which so many sacrifices had been made, and upon which all their hopes depended.


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