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Significant Scots
James Currie

CURRIE, JAMES, M.D. an eminent physician of Liverpool, was born, May 31, 1756, in the parish of Kirkpatrick-Fleming, Dumfriesshire. His father was the minister of that parish, but obtained, soon after the birth of his son, the living of Middlebie. His mother was Jane Boyd, a woman of superior understanding, but who unfortunately died of consumption shortly after their removal to Middlebie. Young Currie was the only son in a family of seven children. Having been at an early age deprived of his mother, his aunt, Miss Duncan, kindly undertook the management of the family. To the anxious care which Miss Duncan took of his early education, Currie owed many of those virtues which adorned his after life. He commenced his education at the parochial school of Middlebie, and at the age of thirteen was removed to Dumfries, and placed in the seminary of the learned Dr Chapman, where he remained for upwards of two years. He was originally intended for the profession of medicine, but having accompanied his father in a visit to Glasgow, he was so much delighted with the bustle and commercial activity displayed in that city, that he obtained his father’s consent to betake himself to a mercantile life; and accordingly he entered the service of a company of American merchants. This, as frequently happens, where the wishes of an inexperienced young man are too readily yielded to, proved a very unfortunate change. He sailed for Virginia just at the commencement of those disputes with the American colonies which terminated in their independence, and the commercial embarrassment and losses which were occasioned by the consequent interruption of trade have been offered as an apology for the harsh and ungenerous manner in which Currie was treated by his employers. To add to his distress, he fell sick of a dangerous illness, and before he was completely restored to health, he had the misfortune to lose his father, who left his family in very narrow circumstances. Young Currie, with that generosity and sanguine disregard of the difficulties of his situation, which formed so remarkable a feature in his character, immediately on learning of the death of his father, and of the scanty provision made for his sisters, divided among them the small portion which fell to his share. And, disgusted with the hardships he had encountered in the commencement of his mercantile education, he determined to renounce the pursuits of commerce. For a time he seems to have turned his attention to politics; writing several papers on the then all-engrossing subject of the quarrel between Great Britain and America. At length, however, he saw the necessity of making choice of some profession; and, led by the advice of his near relation Dr Currie of Richmond, New Carolina, with whom he was then living, he determined to resume his original intention of studying medicine. In pursuance of this plan, he proceeded to Britain, returning home by the West Indies; being prevented by the war from taking a more direct route. After encountering many difficulties, he reached London in 1776, having been absent from his native country for five years. From London he proceeded to Edinburgh, where he prosecuted his studies with unremitting assiduity until the year 1780. He early became conspicuous among his fellow-students by his talents. As a member of the medical society he greatly distinguished himself, and the papers which he read before that body, not only give evidence of his superior abilities, but afford an interesting proof that, even at that early period, he had given his attention to those subjects in his profession which he afterwards so fully and ably illustrated. Although the rapid progress he was making in his studies, and the high station he held among his contemporaries, rendered a continuance at college very desirable, still he was too deeply impressed with the necessity of attaining independence and of freeing his sisters and aunt of the burden of his support, not to make every exertion to push himself into employment. Accordingly, having procured an introduction to general Sir William Erskine, he obtained from that officer an ensigncy in his regiment, with the situation of surgeon’s mate attached to it. He does not appear, however, to have availed himself of these appointments; for learning that a medical staff was about to be formed in Jamaica, he hurried to Glasgow, where he obtained a degree as a physician; his attendance at college having been insufficient to enable him to graduate at the university of Edinburgh. Having got his degree, and having furnished himself with numerous introductions, he proceeded to London, in the hope of obtaining an appointment in the West India establishment. But, on reaching the capital, he found that all the appointments were already filled up. Although disappointed in obtaining an official situation, he still determined to sail to Jamaica, with the intention of establishing himself there in private practice; or, failing that, to proceed to Richmond, and join his kinsman Dr Currie. He was induced, however, by the persuasion of his friends in London, to abandon this plan, even after his passage to Jamaica had been taken out. They strongly urged him to establish himself in one of the large provincial towns of England; for, from the high estimate which they had formed of his abilities and professional acquirements, they were convinced that he would speedily raise himself to eminence in his profession. In accordance with this view, he proceeded to Liverpool in October, 1780. He was induced to select that town in consequence of a vacancy having occurred there by the removal of Dr Dobson to Bath. But, even without such an opening, it is evident, that to a young physician of talent and enterprise, a wealthy and rapidly increasing commercial town like Liverpool holds out peculiar advantages, and great facilities for getting into practice, where the continual fluctuation of society presents an open field for professional abilities, widely different from that of more stationary communities. Hence, as had been anticipated, Dr Currie’s talents and gentlemanly manners brought him rapidly into practice; although on his first arrival he was an utter stranger in Liverpool, and only found access to society there, by the introductions he brought with him. His success was early confirmed by being elected one of the physicians to the Infirmary, and strengthened by his marriage in the year 1783, to Miss Lucy Wallace, the daughter of a respectable merchant of Liverpool.

Although busily engaged in the arduous duties of his profession, Dr Currie yet found time to cultivate literature. A similarity of tastes having led to an intimacy with the well known Mr Roscoe, Dr Currie and Mr Roscoe, along with Mr William Rathbone, formed a Literary Club, which deserves to be remembered as being the first of those numerous literary institutions by which Liverpool is now so creditably distinguished.

The pulmonary affection under which Dr Currie began to suffer about this time, has been ascribed to the fatigue and the night journeys to which he was exposed in his attendance on the sick bed of his friend, Dr Bell of Manchester. His first attack was so violent as completely to incapacitate him for business; and finding no mitigation of the paroxysms of the hectic fever, except in travelling, he undertook a journey to Bristol; but unfortunately the good effects which the change might otherwise have produced, were neutralized by the distressing circumstance of his arriving just in time to witness the death of his sister; the second who had, within the year, fallen a victim to the same disease under which he was himself labouring. Deriving no benefit from his residence in Bristol, he removed to Matlock, in the hope that the drier air and the hot baths of that inland town, would prove more beneficial. Disappointed in this expectation, he resolved to try the effect of his native air; and in the hope of again seeing a third sister who was sinking under the disease so fatal to his family, he made a hurried journey to Scotland. As regarded his health, his expectations were wonderfully gratified; for when he reached Dumfriesshire he was so much recruited, that he was able to ride on horseback for an hour at a time; but he was too late to see his sister, who was conveyed to the grave on the very day of his arrival. Notwithstanding this distressing event, his native air and exercise on horseback, proved so beneficial, that, after remaining a few weeks at Moffat, he returned to Liverpool on horseback, varying his journey by visiting the lakes of Cumberland. In this journey he was able to ride forty miles on the day on which he reached Liverpool. A very interesting account of Dr Currie’s illness and recovery will be found in the second volume of Darwin’s Zoonomia.

The first work which, after his recovery, Dr Currie undertook, was a translation of his friend Dr Bell’s inaugural dissertation. This he did at the request of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, and it was published in the Society’s transactions. The translation was accompanied by several valuable notes, and a short biographical sketch of the author; in which Dr Currie appears to have given a very correct and impartial delineation of his friend’s character. The elegance of the style and execution of this work gained for Dr Currie very considerable reputation as an author.

On being elected member of the Medical Society of London, he communicated an essay, (published in the Society’s transactions,) on "Tetanus and Convulsive Disorders." In the year following, he presented to the Royal Society, a paper giving "An account of the remarkable effect of shipwreck on mariners, with experiments and observations on the influence of immersion in fresh and salt water, hot and cold, on the powers of the body," which appeared in the Philosophical Transaction of that year, and which may be regarded as introductory to a more mature production, which appeared in 1792, under the title of "Medical reports on the effects of water, cold and warm, as a remedy for fever and other diseases, whether applied to the surface of the body or used internally;" a work on which Dr Currie’s fame as a medical author principally rests. Immediately on its publication, it attracted the attention, not only of the profession, but of the public in general. But the practice which it recommended not having been found uniformly successful, and being repugnant to the preconceived notions on the subject, it fell gradually into disrepute. Still, however, cold ablutions in fever is unquestionably a remedy of great power, and has been found very salutary when used with judgment, particularly in the violent fevers of tropical climates. That the practice has hitherto been less successful than it should be, arises from its having been often resorted to by the patients themselves, and from its being prescribed by the ignorant, too late in the hot stage of the fever. The profession, therefore, is deeply indebted to Dr Currie for the introduction of this practice; which, in skilful hands, has proved most efficacious, and has been the means of saving many lives.

Dr Currie, on several occasions, indulged himself in writing on political topics; but by some remarkable fatality, although by no means a consistent adherent to one side, he invariably took the unpopular side of the question. While in America, he had defended the mother country against the colonies. He afterwards joined in the no popery enthusiasm, during the disgraceful riots raised by lord George Gordon, bringing himself into disrepute by the ill chosen time he took to indulge in a cry which was otherwise popular with the best classes of society. And the principles which he advocated in his "Letter, commercial and political, addressed to the Right Hon. William Pitt," under the assumed name of Jasper Wilson, raised him a host of enemies, by whom he was attacked in the most violent and scurrilous manner.

While on an excursion to Dumfriesshire, on account of his health, Dr Currie made the acquaintance of Robert Burns the Scottish poet; and, like all who had the good fortune to meet that extraordinary man, he became one of his enthusiastic admirers. On the death of Burns, when the friends of the poet were exerting themselves to raise his family from the state of abject poverty in which it had been left, they strongly urged Dr Currie to become his editor and biographer, to which he at length consented; and, in the year 1800, he published for the behoof of the poet’s familly, "The Works of Robert Burns, with an account of his life, and criticisms on his writings; to which are prefixed, some observations on the character and condition of the Scottish peasantry." It is by this work that Dr Currie has established his fame in the republic of letters. He has, at the same time, by the manner in which he has accomplished his task, conferred a lasting favour on all who can appreciate the language and beauties of our national poet.

Although Dr Currie had been restored to comparative good health after his first attack of illness in 1781, still from that period he continued to be subject to pulmonary threatenings; but it was not until the year 1804, that his constitution gave way, so as to force him to retire from his professional duties in Liverpool. In the hope that his native air might again restore him to health, he made a journey to Scotland; but deriving no benefit from the change, he returned to England, and spent the ensuing winter alternately at Clifton and Bath. For a time his health seemed to recruit, and he was even enabled to resume his professional avocations in the latter city; but on his complaints returning with increased violence, he, with that restlessness incident to consumption, removed to Sidmouth, where he died, 31st August, 1805, in the 50th year of his age.

Dr Currie was of a kind and affection disposition; and he was active and judicious in his benevolence. To his strenuous exertions Liverpool owes many of the charitable and literary institutions of which it can now boast.

Memoir of the Life, Writings and Correspondence of James Currie, M.D.
Edited by his son, William Wallace Currie in 2 volumes (pdf)
Volume 1 | Volume 2

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