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Matthew Baillie

BAILLIE, MATTHEW, M.D. a distinguished modern physician and anatomist, was the son of the Rev. James Baillie, D.D. Professor of Divinity in the University of Glasgow. He was born October 27, 1761, in the manse of Shotts, of which parish his father was then minister. The father of Dr Matthew Baillie was supposed to be descended from the family of Baillie of Jerviswood, so noted in the history of Scottish freedom; his mother was a sister of the two celebrated anatomists, Dr William and Mr John Hunter; and one of his two sisters was Miss Joanna Baillie, the late well known and amiable authoress of "Plays on the Passions." After receiving the rudiments of his education under his father’s immediate superintendence, he began his academical course in 1773, in the University of Glasgow, where he distinguished himself so highly as to be transferred, in 1778, upon Snell’s foundation, to Baliol College, Oxford. Here, when he had attained the proper standing, he took his degrees in arts and physic. In 1780, while still keeping his terms at Oxford, he commenced his anatomical studies at London, under the care of his uncles. He had the great advantage of residing with Dr William Hunter, and, when he became sufficiently advanced in his studies, of being employed to make the necessary preparations for the lectures, to conduct the demonstrations, and to superintend the operations of the students. On the death of Dr Hunter, March 1783, he was found qualified to become the successor of that great man, in conjunction with Mr Cruickshank, who had previously been employed as Dr Hunter’s assistant. His uncle appointed him by will to have the use of his splendid collection of anatomical preparations, so long as he should continue an anatomical lecturer, after which it was to be transferred to Glasgow College. Dr Baillie began to lecture in 1784, and soon acquired the highest reputation as an anatomical teacher. He was himself indefatigable in the business of forming preparations, adding, it is said, no fewer than eleven hundred articles to his uncle’s museum. He possessed the valuable talent of making an abstruse and difficult subject plain; his prelections were remarkable for that lucid order and clearness of expression which proceed from a perfect conception of the subject; and he never permitted any vanity of display to turn him from his great object of conveying information in the simplest and most intelligible way, and so as to become useful to his pupils. The distinctness of his elocution was also much admired, notwithstanding that he never could altogether shake off the accent of his native country. In 1795, Dr Baillie embodied the knowledge he possessed through his own observations and those of his uncle, in a small but most valuable work, entitled, "The Morbid Anatomy of some of the most important parts of the Human Body," which was immediately translated into French and German, and extended his name to every land where medical science was cultivated. The publication of this little treatise was, indeed, an era in the history of medical knowledge in this country. It combined all the information formerly scattered through the writings of Bonetus, Lieutaud, and Montagni, besides the immense store of observations made by the ingenious author. The knowledge of the changes produced on the human frame by disease had previously been very imperfect; but it was now so completely elucidated that, with the assistance of this little volume, any person previously acquainted with morbid symptoms, but unacquainted with the disease, could, upon an examination after death, understand the whole malady. Perhaps no production of the period, ever had so much influence on the study of medicine, or contributed so much to correct unfounded speculations upon the nature of disease, to excite a spirit of observation, and to lead the attention of the student to fact and experience. Along with all its excellencies, it was delightful to observe the extreme modesty and total absence of pretension, with which the author, in the fulness of his immense knowledge, ushered it into the world.

In 1787, Dr Baillie had been elected physician to St George’s Hospital, a situation which afforded him many of those opportunities of observation upon which the success of his work on Morbid Anatomy was founded. In 1789, having taken his degree of M.D. at Oxford, he was admitted a candidate at the College of Physicians, and in the following year had the full privileges of fellowship conferred upon him. About the same time, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, to which he had contributed two essays. He served the office of censor in the Royal College of Physicians, in 1792 and 1797, and that of commissioner under the act of parliament for the inspection and licensing of mad-houses, in 1794 and 1795.

In 1799, Dr Baillie relinquished the business of an anatomical lecturer, and in 1800 resigned his duties as physician to St George’s Hospital. Partly by the influence of his fame as an anatomist, and partly through the disinterested recommendations of several members of his own profession, he found himself gradually tempted into the less agreeable business of a general physician. He was always resorted to, when more than ordinary scientific precision was required. About the year 1801, when he had attained the mature age of forty, he had become completely absorbed in practice. As a physician, he possessed, in an eminent degree, a facility in distinguishing diseases,—one of the most important qualifications in the practice of medicine; as a want of accuracy in discriminating symptomatic from primary affections leads to the most serious errors; which it may be said that, when a disease is once distinctly characterised, and the peculiarities of the case defined, the cure is half performed. Habits of attentive observation had enabled Dr Baillie to know, with great accuracy, the precise extent of the powers of medicine; indeed, there was no class of cases more likely to fall under his observation than those in which they had been abused; younger practitioners being apt to carry a particular system of treatment beyond its proper limits; Dr Baillie’s readiness, therefore, in seeing this abuse, rendered his opinions, in many cases, of great value. Yet he was always scrupulously anxious, through the natural benignity of his disposition, to use his knowledge with a delicate regard to the interests of those juniors whose procedure he was called upon to amend. He managed, indeed, this part of his practice with so much delicacy that he was held in the utmost affection and esteem by the younger branches of the profession.

Dr Baillie was remarkable for forming his judgment of any case before him from his own observations exclusively; carefully guarding himself against any prepossessions from the opinions suggested by others. When he visited a patient, he observed him accurately, he listened to him attentively, he put a few pointed questions—and his opinion was formed. Beneath a most natural and unassuming manner, which was the same on all occasions, was concealed an almost intuitive power of perceiving the state of his patient. His mind was always quietly, but eagerly directed, to an investigation of the symptoms; and he had so distinct and systematic a mode of putting questions, that the answers of his patients often presented a connected view of the whole case. On such occasions, he avoided technical and learned phrases; he affected none of that sentimental tenderness, which is sometimes assumed by a physician with a view to recommend himself to his patient; but he expressed what he had to say in the simplest and plainest terms; with some pleasantry, if the occasion admitted of it, and with gravity and gentleness, if they were required; and he left his patient, either encouraged or tranquilized, persuaded that the opinion he had received was sound and honest, whether it was unfavourable or not, and that his physician merited his confidence. In delivering or writing his opinions, he was equally remarkable for unaffected simplicity. His language was sometimes so plain, that his patients have been able to repeat to their other medical attendants, every word which he had uttered. In consultation, he gave his opinion concisely, and with a few grounds; those grounds being chiefly facts, rather than arguments, so that little room was left for dispute. If any difference or difficulty arose, his example pointed out the way of removing it, by an appeal to other facts, and by a neglect of speculative reasoning.

In every relation and situation of private life, Dr Baillie was equally to be admired; and it must be added, that the same liberal and just ideas which, on all occasions, guided his conduct as an individual, ruled him in his many public duties: he never countenanced any measures which had the appearance of oppression or hostility towards the members of his profession. Men seldom act, collectively, with the same honour and integrity as they would do individually; and a member of a public body requires an unusual share of moral courage, who opposes those measures of his associates, which he may not himself approve of; but if there was one qualification more than another, which gave Dr Baillie the public confidence he enjoyed, and raised him to the zenith of professional distinction, it was his inflexible integrity.

In 1799, Dr Baillie commenced the publication of "A Series of Engravings, to illustrate some parts of Morbid Anatomy," in successive fasciculi, which were completed in 1802. The drawings for this splendid work were done by Mr Clift, the Conservator of the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields; and they were creditable at once to the taste and liberality of Dr Baillie, and to the state of art in that day. Dr Baillie afterwards published "An Anatomical description of the Gravid Uterus;" and throughout the whole course of his professional life, he contributed largely to the transactions and medical collections of the time. When he was at the height of his popularity, he enjoyed a higher income than any preceding physician, and which was only inferior to the sum received by one particular contemporary. In one of his busiest years, when he had scarcely time to take a single meal, it is said to have reached £10,000. He was admitted to have the greatest consultation business of his time; and it was known that he was applied to for medical advice from many distant quarters of the world. From his arduous, and to his mind, often irksome duties, he enjoyed no relaxation for many years, till at length he began to indulge in an annual retirement of a few months to the country. On one of the first of these occasions, he paid a visit to the land of his birth, which, during an absence of thirty years, spent in busy and distracting pursuits, he had never ceased to regard with the most tender feelings. The love of country was, indeed, a prominent feature in his character; and he was prepared on this occasion to realize many enjoyments which he had previously contemplated with enthusiasm, in the prospect of once more beholding the land and friends of his youth. The result was far different from his expectations. He found most of his early companions either scattered over the world, in search, as he himself had been, of fortune, or else forgotten in untimely graves; of those who survived, many were removed beyond his sympathies by that total alteration of feeling which a difference of worldly circumstances so invariably effects in the hearts of early friends, on the side of the depressed party as well as the elevated.

Dr Baillie was introduced to the favourable notice of the royal family, in consequence of his treatment of the duke of Gloucester. Being subsequently joined in consultation with the king’s physicians, upon his majesty’s own unhappy case, he came more prominently than ever into public view, as in some measure the principal director of the royal treatment. The political responsibility of this situation was so very weighty, that, if Dr Baillie had been a man of less firmness of nerve, he could scarcely have maintained himself under it. Such, however, was the public confidence in his inflexible integrity, that, amidst the hopes and fears which for a long time agitated the nation, on the subject of the king’s health, the opinion of Dr Baillie ever regulated that of the public. On the first vacancy, which occurred in 1810, he was appointed one of the physicians to the king, with the offer of a baronetcy, which, however, his good sense and unassuming disposition induced him to decline.

Dr Baillie at length sunk under the weight of his practice, notwithstanding that for several years he had taken every possible expedient to shift off his duties to the care of younger aspirants. At the last quarterly meeting of the College of physicians before his death, when there was a full assemblage of members, in the midst of the affairs for the consideration of which they were called together, Dr Baillie entered the room, emaciated, hectic, and with all the symptoms of approaching dissolution. Such was the effect of his sudden and unexpected appearance, that the public business was suspended, and every one present instantly and spontaneously rose, and remained standing until Dr Baillie had taken his seat; the incident though trivial evinces the effectionate reverence with which he was regarded. Besides the natural claim he had upon this body, from his unapproached anatomical and medical skill, and the extraordinary benignity and worth of his character, he had entitled himself to its peculiar gratitude by leaving to it the whole of his valuable collection of preparations, together with the sum of six hundred pounds to keep it in order. Dr Baillie died on the 23d of September, 1823.

Dr Baillie had married, 5th May, 1791, Miss Sophia Denman, second daughter of Dr Denman of London, a distinguished physician, and sister of Mr., subsequently Lord Denman and Lord Chief-Justice of England. By her he left one son, to whom he devoted his estate of Dantisbourne, in Gloucestershire, and one daughter. The sums of effects destined by his will, many of which were given to medical institutions and public charities, were sworn in the Prerogative Court at less than 80,000 pounds.

Dr Baillie is thus characterized in the Annual Obituary for 1824. "He seemed to have an innate goodness of heart, a secret sympathy with the virtuous, and to rejoice in their honourable and dignified conduct, as in a thing in which he had a personal interest, and as if he felt that his own character was raised by it, as well as human nature ennobled. He censured warmly what he disapproved, from a strong attachment to what is right, not to display his superiority to others, or to give vent to any asperity of temper; at the same time he was indulgent to failings; his kindness to others leading him on many occasions to overlook what was due to himself; and even in his last illness he paid gratuitous professional visits which were above his strength, and was in danger of suddenly exhausting himself by exertions for others. His liberal disposition was well known to all acquainted with public subscriptions; the great extent to which it showed itself in private benefactions is known only to those who were nearly connected with him, and perhaps was fully known only to himself."

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