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Significant Scots
George Fordyce

FORDYCE, GEORGE, a distinguished physician and lecturer on medicine, was born at Aberdeen, November. 18, 1736, and was the only and posthumous child of Mr George Fordyce, a brother of the other three distinguished persons of the same name recorded in the present work, and the proprietor of a small landed estate, called Broadford, in the neighbourhood of that city. His mother, not long after, marrying again, he was taken from her, when about two years old, and sent to Foveran, at which place he received his school education. He was removed thence to the university of Aberdeen, where he was made M. A., when only fourteen years of age.

In his childhood he had taken great delight in looking at vials of coloured liquids, which were placed at the windows of an apothecary’s shop. To this circumstance, and to his acquaintance with the learned Alexander Garden, M. D., many years a physician in South Carolina, and latterly in London, but then apprentice to a surgeon and apothecary in Aberdeen, he used to attribute the resolution he very early formed to study medicine. He was in consequence sent, when about fifteen years old, to his uncle, Dr John Fordyce, who, at that time, practised medicine at Uppingham, in Northamptonshire. With him, he remained several years, and then went to the university of Edinburgh, where, after a residence of about three years, he received the degree of M.D. in October, 1758. His inaugural dissertation was upon catarrh.

While at Edinburgh, Dr Cullen was so much pleased with his diligence and ingenuity, that, besides showing him many other marks of regard, he used frequently to give him private assistance in his studies. The pupil was ever after grateful for this kindness, and was accustomed to speak of his preceptor in terms of the highest respect, calling him often "his learned and revered master." About the end of 1758, he came to London, but went shortly after to Leyden, for the purpose, chiefly of studying anatomy under Albinus. He returned, in 1759, to London, where he soon determined to fix himself as a teacher and practitioner of medicine. When he made known this intention to his relations, they highly disapproved of it, as the whole of his patrimony had been expended upon his education. Inspired, however, with that confidence which frequently attends the conscious possession of great talents, he persisted in his purpose, and, before the end of 1759, commenced a course of lectures upon chemistry. This was attended by nine pupils. In 1764, he began to lecture also upon Materia Medica and the practice of physic. These three subjects he continued to teach nearly thirty years, giving, for the most part, three courses of lectures on each of them every year. A course lasted nearly four months; and, during it, a lecture of nearly an hour was delivered six times in the week. His time of teaching commenced about seven o’clock in the morning, and ended at ten; his lecture upon the three above mentioned subjects being given, one immediately after the other.

In 1765 he was admitted a licentiate of the College of Physicians. In 1770 he was chosen physician to St Thomas’s hospital, after a considerable contest with Sir William (then Dr) Watson; the number of votes in his favour being 109, in that of Dr Watson 106. In 1774 he became a member of the Literary Club; and in 1776 was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. In 1787 he was admitted a fellow of the College of Physicians. No circumstance can demonstrate more strongly the high opinion entertained of his abilities by the rest of the profession in London, than his reception into that body. He had been particularly active in the dispute, which had existed about twenty years before, between the fellows and licentiates, and had, for this reason, it was thought, forfeited all title to be admitted into the fellowship through favour. But the college in 1787, were preparing a new edition of their Pharmacopoeia; and there was confessedly no one of their own number well acquainted with pharmaceutical chemistry. They wisely, therefore, suppressed their resentment of his former conduct, and, by admitting him into their body, secured his assistance in a work which they were unable to perform well themselves.

In 1793 be assisted in forming a small society of physicians and surgeons, which afterwards published several volumes, under the title of "Medical and Chirurgical Transactions;" and continued to attend its meetings most punctually till within a month or two of his death. Having thus mentioned some of the principal events of his literary life, we shall next give a list of his various medical and philosophical works; and first, of those which were published by himself.

1. Elements of Agriculture and Vegetation. He had given a course of lectures on these subjects to some young men of rank; soon after the close of which, one of his hearers, the late Mr Stuart Mackenzie, presented him with a copy of them, from notes he had taken while they were delivered. Dr Fordyce corrected the copy, and afterwards published it under the above mentioned title. 2. Elements of the practice of Physic. This was used by him as a text-book for a part of his course of lectures on that subject. 3. A Treatise on the Digestion of Food. It was originally read before the College of Physicians, as the Guelstonian Lecture. 4. Four Dissertations on Fever. A fifth, which completes the subject, was left by him in manuscript, and afterwards published. His other works appeared in the Philosophical Transactions, and the Medical and Chirurgical Transactions. In the former are eight papers by him, with the following titles: 1. Of the Light produced by Inflammation. 2. Examination of various Ores in the Museum of Dr W. Hunter. 3. A New Method of assaying Copper Ores. 4. An Account of some Experiments on the Loss of Weight in Bodies on being melted or heated. 5. An Account of an Experiment on Heat. 6. The Cronian Lecture on Muscular Motion. 7. On the Cause of the additional Weight which Metals acquire on being calcined. 8. Account of a New Pendulum, being the Bakerian Lecture.—His papers in the Medical and Chirurgical Transactions are: 1. Observations on the Small-pox, and Causes of Fever. 2. An Attempt to improve the Evidence of Medicine. 3. Some Observations upon the composition of Medicines. He was, besides, the inventor of the experiments in heated rooms, an account of which was given to the Royal Society by Sir Charles Bladgen; and was the author of many improvements in various arts connected with chemistry, on which he used frequently to be consulted by manufacturers.

Though he had projected various literary works in addition to those which have been mentioned, nothing was left by him in manuscript, except the Dissertation on Fever already spoken of, and two introductory lectures, one to his Course of Materia Medica, the other to that of the Practice of Physic. This will not appear extraordinary to those who knew what confidence he had in the accuracy of his memory. He gave all his lectures without notes, and perhaps never possessed any; he took no memorandum in writing of the engagements he formed, whether of business or pleasure, and was always most punctual in observing them; and when he composed his works for the public, even such as describe successions of events, found together, as far as we can perceive, by no necessary tie, his materials, such at least as were his own, were altogether drawn from stores in his memory, which had often been laid up there many years before. In consequence of this retentiveness of memory, and of great reading and a most inventive mind, he was, perhaps, more generally skilled in the sciences, which are either directly subservient to medicine, or remotely connected with it, than any other person of his time.

One fault in his character as an author, probably arose, either wholly or in part, from the very excellence which has been mentioned. This was his deficiency in the art of literary composition; the knowledge of which he might have insensibly acquired, to a much greater degree than was possessed by him, had he felt the necessity in his youth of frequently committing his thoughts to writing, for the purpose of preserving them. But, whether this be just or not, it must be confessed, that, notwithstanding his great learning, which embraced many subjects no way allied to medicine, he seldom wrote elegantly, often obscurely and inaccurately; and that he frequently erred with respect even to orthography. His language, however, in conversation, which confirms the preceding conjecture, was not less correct than that of most other persons of good education. As a lecturer, his delivery was slow and hesitating, and frequently interrupted by pauses not required by his subject. Sometimes, indeed, these continued so long, that persons unaccustomed to his manner, were apt to fear that he was embarrassed. But these disadvantages did not prevent his having a considerable number of pupils, actuated by the expectation of receiving from him more time and accurate instruction than they could elsewhere obtain.

His person is said to have been handsome in his youth; but his countenance, from its fullness, must have been always inexpressive of the great powers of his mind. His manners too were less refined, and his dress in general less studied, than what most persons in this country regard as proper for a physician. From these causes, and from his spending no more time with his patients than what was sufficient for his forming a just opinion of their ailments, he had for many years but little private employment in his profession; and never, even in the latter part of his life, when his reputation was at its height, enjoyed nearly so much as many of his contemporaries. It is worthy of mention, however, that the amount of his fees, during the year immediately preceding his decease, was greater, notwithstanding his advanced age and infirm health, than it had ever been before in the same space of time.

He had always been fond of the pleasures of society; and in his youth, to render the enjoyment of them compatible with his pursuits after knowledge, he used to sleep very little. He has often, indeed, been known to lecture for three hours in a morning without having undressed himself the preceding night. The vigour of his constitution enabled him to sustain, for a considerable time, without apparent injury, this debilitating mode of life. But at length he was attacked with gout, which afterwards became irregular, and for many years frequently affected him with excruciating pains in his stomach and bowels. In the latter part of his life also, his feet and ancles were almost constantly swollen; and, shortly before his death, he had symptoms of water in the chest. But these he disregarded, and uniformly attributed his situation, which for several weeks previous to his death he knew to be hopeless, to the presence of the first-mentioned disease. Death ultimately relieved him from his sufferings, May 25, 1802, when he was in the 64th year of his age. By his wife, who was the daughter of Charles Stuart, Esq., conservator of Scots privileges in the United Netherlands, and whom he had married in 1762, he left four children, two sons and two daughters.

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