Cullen, William

, one of the most eminent physicians of the last century, was born Dec, 11, 1712, of respectable though indigent parents in Lanarkshire. Hav^ ing served a short apprenticeship to a surgeon and apothecary in Glasgow, he obtained the place of a surgeon in one of the merchant’s vessels from London to the West Indies. Not liking his employment, he returned to his own county, where he practised a short time in the parish of Shotts, among the farmers and country people, and then removed to Hamilton, intending to practise there as a physician. While he resided near Shotts, Archibald duke of Argyle made a visit to a gentleman in that neighbourhood. His grace was engaged in some chemical researches which required elucidation by experiments, for which he then wanted the proper apparatus. The gentleman, recollecting young Cullen, mentioned him as the person who could most probably supply his wants. He was consequently invited to dinner, and presented to the duke, with whom he commenced an acquaintance, to which he was probably indebted for all his future fortune. The name of Cullen having thus become known, his reputation as a practitioner was soon established in the neighbourhood. The duke of Hamilton likewise happened then to be for a short time in that part of the country, and having | been suddenly taken ill, was induced by the character which he had heard of Cullen to send for his assistance, and was not only benefited by his skill, but amply gratified xvith his conversation. He accordingly obtained for him a place in the university of Glasgow, where his talents soon became more conspicuous. It was not, however, solely to the favour of these two great men that Cullen owed his literary fame. He was recommended to the notice of men of science in a way still more honourable to himself. The disease of the duke of Hamilton having resisted the effect of the first applications, Dr. Clarke was sent for from Edinburgh; and he was so much pleased with every thing that Cullen had done, that he became his eulogist upon every occasion. Cullen never forgot this; and when Clarke died, gave a public oration in his praise in the university of Edinburgh; which, it is believed, was the first of the kind in that kingdom.

During his residence in the country, several important incidents occurred, that ought not to be passed over in silence. It was during this time that a connexion in business was formed in a very humble line between two men, who became afterwards eminently conspicuous in much more exalted stations. William, (afterwards Doctor) Hunter, the famous lecturer on anatomy in London, was a native of the same part of the country; and these two young men, stimulated by the impulse of genius to prosecute their medical studies with ardour, but thwarted by the narrowness of their fortune, entered into a copartnership business as surgeons and apothecaries in the country. The chief end of their contract being to furnish the parties with the means of prosecuting their medical studies, which they could not separately so well enjoy, it was stipulated, that one of them alternately should be allowed to study in what college he inclined, during the winter, while the other should carry on the business in the country for their common advantage. In consequence of this agreement, Culleu was first allowed to study in the university of Edinburgh for one winter; but when it came to Hunter’s turn next winter, he, preferring London to Edinburgh, went thither. There his singular neatness in dissecting, and uncommon dexterity in making anatomical preparations, his assiduity in study, his mildness of manner, and pliability of temper, soon recommended him to the notice of Dr. Douglass, who then read lectures upon anatomy and | midwifery there; who engaged Hunter as an assistant, and whose chair he afterwards filled with so much honour to himself and satisfaction to the public. Thus was dissolved,' in a premature manner, a partnership perhaps of as singular a kind as is to be found in the annals of literature; nor was Cuilen a man of that disposition to let any engagement with him prove a bar to his partner’s advancement in lite. The articles were freely given up by him; and Cuilen and Hunter ever after kept up a very cordial and friendly correspondence; though, it is believed, they never from that time had a personal interview.

During the time that Cuilen practised as a country surgeon and apothecary, he formed another connexion of a more permanent kind, which, happily for him, was not dissolved till a very late period of his life. Very early in life he took a strong attachment to an amiable woman, a Miss Johnston, daughter to a clergyman in that neighbourhood, nearly of his own age, who was prevailed on to marry him, at a time when he had nothing else to recommend him, except his person and dispositions. She was beautiful, had great good sense, equanimity of temper, an amiable disposition, and elegance of manners, and brought with her a little money, which, however small in modern calculation, was important in those days to one in his situation in life. After giving to him a numerous family, and participating with him the changes of fortune which he experienced, she peacefully departed this life in summer 1786.

In the year 1716, Cuilen, who had now taken the degree of doctor in physic, was appointed a lecturer in chemistry in the university of Glasgow; and in the month of October began his lectures in that science. His singular talents for arrangement, his distinctness of enunciation, his vivacity of manner, and his knowledge of the science he taught, rendered his lectures interesting to the students to a degree that had been till then unknown at that university. He became, therefore, in some measure, adored by the students. The former professors were eclipsed by the brilliancy of his reputation: and he had to experience all those little rubs that envy and disappointed ambition naturally threw in his way. Regardless, however, of these, he pressed forward with ardour in his literary career; and, supported by the favour of the public, he consoled himself lor the contumely he met with from a few individuals. His practice as a physician increased from day to day; and a | vacancy having occurred in the year 1751, he was then appointed by the king professor of medicine in that university. This new appointment served only to call forth his powers, and to bring to light talents that it was not formerly known he possessed; so that his fame continued to increase.

As, at that period, the patrons of the university of Edinburgh were desirous of engaging the most eminent medical men to support the rising fame of the college, their attention was soon directed towards Cullen who, on the de;ith of Dr. Plmnmer, professor of chemistry, was, in 1756, unanimously invited to accept the vacant chair. 7 his invitation he accepted: and having resigned all his employments in Glasgow, he began his academical career in Edinburgh in the month of October of that year; and therf he resided till his deatta If the admission of Cullen into the university of Glasgow gave great spirit to the exertions of the students, this was still, if possible, more strongly felt in Edinburgh. Chemistry, which had been till that time of small account in that university, and was attended to by very few of the students, instantly became a favourite study; and the lectures upon that science were more frequented than any others in the university, anijtomy alone excepted. The students, in general, spoke of Cullen with the rapturous ardour that is natural to youth when they are highly pleased. These eulogiums appeared extravagant to moderate men, and could not fail to prove disgusting to his colleagues. A party was formed among the students for opposing this new favourite of the public; and these students, by misrepresenting the doctrines of Cullen to others, who could net have an opportunity of hearing these doctrines themselves, made even some of the most intelligent men in the university think it their duty publicly to oppose these imaginary tenets. The ferment was thus augmented; and it was some time before the professors discovered the arts by which they had been imposed upon, and universal harmony was then restored.

During this time of public ferment, Cullen went steadily forward, without taking any part himself in these disputes. He never gave ear to any talcs respecting his colleagues, nor took any notice of the doctrines they taught. That some of their unguarded strictures might at times come to his knowledge, is not impossible; but if they did, they seemed to make no impression on his mind. These | attempts of a party of students to lower the character of Cullen on his first outset in the university of Edinburgh having proved fruitless, his fame as a professor, and his reputation as a physician, became more and more respected every day. Nor could it well be otherwise: Culien’s professional knowledge was always great, and his manner of lecturing singularly clear and intelligible, lively and entertaining; and to his patients, his conduct in general as a physician was so pleasing, his address so affable and engaging, and his manner so open, so kind, and so little regulated by pecuniary considerations, that it was impossible for those who had occasion to call once for his medical assistance, ever to be satisfied on any future occasion without it. He became the friend and companion of every family he visited; and his future acquaintance could not be dispensed with.

Dr. Cullen also was justly admired in his conduct to his scholars, which was so attentive, and the interest he took in the private concerns of all those students who applied to him for advice, was so cordial and so warm, that it was impossible for any one who had a heart susceptible of generous feelings, not to be enraptured with attentions so uncommon and kind. The general conduct of Cullen to his students was this. With all such as he observed to be attentive and diligent, he formed an early acquaintance, by inviting them by twos, by threes, or by fours at a time, to sup with him, conversing with them on these occasions with the most engaging ease, and freely entering with them on the subject of their studies, their amusements, their difficulties, their hopes, and future prospects. In this way, he usually invited the whole of his numerous class, till he made himself acquainted with their abilities, their private character, and their objects of pursuit. Those among them whom he found most assiduous, best disposed, or the most friendless, he invited the most frequently, till an intimacy was gradually formed, which proved highly beneficial to them. Their doubts, with regard to their objects of study, he listened to with attention, and solved with the most obliging condescension. His library, which consisted of an excellent assortment of the best books, especially on medical subjects, was at all times open for their accommodation; and his advice, in every case of difficulty to them, they always had it in their power most readily to obtain. They seemed to be his | family; and few persons of distinguished merit have left the university of Edinburgh in his time, with whom he did not keep up a correspondence till they were fairly established in business. By these means, he came to have a roost accurate knowledge of the state of every country, with respect to practitioners in the medical line: the only use he made of which knowledge, was to direct students in their choice of places, where they might have an opportunity of engaging in business with a reasonable prospect of success. Many, very many able men has he thus placed in situations of business which they never could have thought of themselves; and some of them even now are reaping the fruits of this beneficent foresight on his part.

Nor was it in this way only that he befriended the students at the university of Edinburgh. Possessing a benevolence of mind that made him ever think first of the wants of others, and recollecting the difficulties that he himself struggled with in his younger days, he was at all times singularly attentive to their pecuniary concerns. From his general acquaintance among the students, and the friendly habits he was in with many of them, he found no difficulty in discovering those among them who were rather in low circumstances, without being obliged to hurt their delicacy in any degree. To such persons, when their habits of study admitted of it, he was peculiarly attentive. They were more frequently invited to his house than others; they were treated with more than usual kindness and familiarity; they were conducted to his library, and encouraged by the most delicate address to borrow from it freely whatever books he thought they had occasion for: and as persons in these circumstances were usually more shy in this respect than others, books were sometimes pressed upon them with a sort of constraint, by the doctor insisting to have their opinion of such or such passages they had not read, and desiring them to carry the book home for that purpose. He in short behaved to them rather as if he courted their company, and stood in need of their acquaintance, than they of his. He thus raised them in the opinion of their acquaintance to a much higher degree of estimation than they could otherwise have obtained, which, to people whose minds were depressed by penury, and whose sense of honour was sharpened by the consciousness of an inferiority of a certain kind, was singularly | engaging. Thus were they inspired with a secret sense of dignity, which elevated their minds, and excited an uncommon ardour of pursuit, instead of that melancholy inactivity which is so natural in such circumstances, and which too often leads to despair. Nor was he less delicate in the manner of supplying their wants, than attentive to discover them. He often found out some polite excuse for refusing to take payment for a first course of lectures, and never was at a loss for one to an after-course, and by other delicate expedients he befriended those young men whose circumstances were not equal to their merit and industry. It was also a constant rule with him never to take fees as a physician from any student at the university; yet when called in, he attended them with the same assiduity as if they had been persons of the first rank, who paid him most liberally. This gradually induced others to adopt a similar practice; so that it became a general rule for medical professors to decline taking any fees when their assistance was necessary to a student. For this useful reform, with many others, the students of the university of Edinburgh are solely indebted to the liberality of Dr. Cullen.*


The following anecdote relative to this subject is not unamusing: A medical student who lodged in the same house with Dr. Anderson the agriculturist, in 1760, and who attended at that time a course of lectures given by one of the medical professors, but who never had attended Cullen’s class, happened to be seized with the smallpox, which necessarily detained him from the class, and prevented him for the time from receiving any benefit from these lectures. At the beginning of the disorder, the young man, who was bulky, and in a full habit of body, was sick, and very uneasy. He naturally called in his own professor as a physician; but in a short time the sickness abated, and the small-pox, of the most favourable kind, made their appearance, after which no idea of danger could be apprehended. In this state of things, the whole family were very much surprised to find that the patient called in the assistance of Dr. Cullen; but he said he had reasons for this conduct, that he knew they would approve of when he should state them, though he declined to do it then. By and by, he became quite well; so that there could be no pretext for the physicians visiting him any longer. In this situation, he watched his opportunity; and when the physicians were both present, he thanked Dr. Cullen for the assistance he had given, and offered him money: but this, as he had foreseen, Cullen positively declined. After gently intreating him to take it, and not being able to prevail, he turned to his own professor, and in like manner offered him money. But this, for shame, he could not possibly accept, though it was not known that this gentleman had ever before refused a fee when uttered to him.

The first lectures which Cullen delivered in Edinburgh were on chemistry; and for many years he also gave clinical lectures on the cases which occurred in the Royal Infirmary. In the month of February 1763, Dr. Alston died, | after having begun his usual course of lectures on the materia, medica; and the magistrates of Edinburgh, us patrons oi thrit professorship in the university, appointed Dr. Cullen to that chair, requesting that he would finish the course of lectures that had been begun for that season. This he agreed to do; and though he was under a necessity of going on with the course in a few days after he was nominated, he did not once think of reading the lectures of his predecessor, but resolved to deliver a new course, entirely his own. The popularity of Cullen at this time may be guessed at by the increase of new students who came to attend his course in addition to the eight or ten who had entered to Dr. Alston. The new students exceeded one hundred. An imperfect copy of these lectures, thus fabricated in haste, having been published, the doctor thought it necessary to give a more correct edition of them in the latter part of his life; but his faculties being then much impaired, his friends looked in vain for those striking beauties that characterised his literary exertions in the prime of life.

Some years afterwards, on the death of Dr. White, the magistrates once more appointed Dr. Cullen to give lectures on the theory of physic in his stead. And it was on that occasion Dr. Cullen thought it expedient to resign the chemical chair in favour of Dr. Black, his former pupil, whose talents in that department of science were then well known, and who filled the chair till his death with great satisfaction to the public. Soon after, on the death of Dr. Rutherford, who for many years had given lectures with applause on the practice of physic, Dr. John Gregory having become a candidate for this place along with Dr. Cullen, a sort of compromise took place between them, by which they agreed each to give lectures, alternately, on the theory and on the practice of physic during their joint lives, the longest survivor being allowed to hold either of the classes he should incline. In consequence of this agreement, Dr. Cullen delivered the first course of lectures on the practice of physic, in winter 176G; and Dr. Gregorysucceeded him in that branch the following year. Never, perhaps, did a literary arrangement take place, tli*t could have proved more beneficial to the students than this. Both these men possessed great talents, though of a kind extremely dissimilar. Both of them had certain failings or defects, which the other was aware of, and counteracted. | Each of them knew and respected the talents of the other. They co-operated, therefore, in the happiest manner, to enlarge the understanding, and to forward the pursuits of their pupils. Unfortunately this arrangement was soon destroyed, by the unexpected death of Dr. Gregory, who was cut off in the flower of life by a sudden and unforeseen event After this time, Culleu continued to give lectures on the practice of physic till a few months before his death, which happened on the 5th of February, 1790, in the seventy-seventh year of his age.

Although much of the character of this learned and amiable man may be collected from the preceding narrative, yet the following circumstances are too remarkable to be omitted. In his lectures Dr. Cullen never attempted to read. They were delivered viva voce, without having been previously put into writing, or thrown into any particular arrangement*. The vigour of his mind was such, that nothing more was necessary than a few short notes before him, merely to prevent him from varying from the general order he had been accustomed to observe. This gave to his discourses an ease, a vivacity, a variety, and a force, that are rarely to be met with in academical discourses. His lectures, by consequence, upon the same subject, were never exactly the same. Their general tenor indeed was not much varied; but the particular illustrations were always new, well suited to the circumstances that attracted the general attention of the day, and were delivered in the particular way that accorded with the cast of mind the prelector found himself in at the time. To these circumstances must be ascribed that energetic artless elocution, which rendered his lectures so generally captivating to his hearers. Even those who could not follow him in those extensive views his penetrating mind glanced at, or who were not able to understand those apt allusions to collateral objects, he could only rapidly point at as he went along, could not help being warmed in some measure by the vivacity of his manner. But to those who could follow him in his rapid career, the ideas he suggested were so


This was the case, however, with some other of the eminent medical professors at that tune, particularly Dr. Monro and Dr. Blank, neither of whom read. Of all the Edinburgh professors in our time, Dr. Blair was the only man who could not trust his eye one moment from his written lecture; and if he had but to announce a short vacation, or recommend a book to the perusal of his scholars, each notice was penned, and read with great precision.

| nurnerous; the views he laid open were so extensive; and the objects to be attained were so important, that every active faculty of the mind was roused; and such an ardour of enthusiasm was excited in the prosecution of study, as appeared to he inexplicable to those who were merely unconcerned spectators. In consequence of this unshackled freedom in the composition and delivery of his lectures, every circumstance was in the nicest unison with the tone of voice, and expression of countenance, which the particular cast of mind he was in at the time inspired. Was he joyous, all the figures introduced for illustration were fitted to excite hilarity and good humour: was he grave, the objects brought under view were of a nature more solemn and grand; and was he peevish, there was a peculiarity of manner, in thought, in word, and in action, which produced a most striking and interesting effect. The languor of a nerveless uniformity was never experienced, nor did an abortive attempt to excite emotions that the speaker himself could not at the time feel, ever produce those discordant ideas which prove disgusting and unpleasing.

It would seem as if Dr. Cullen had considered the proper business of a preceptor to be that of putting his pupils into a proper train of study, so as to enable them to prosecute those studies at a future period, and to carry them on much farther than the short time allowed for academical prelections would admit. He did not, therefore, so much strive to make those who attended his lectures deeply versed in the particular details of objects, as to give them a general view of the whole subject; to shew what had been already attained respecting it; to point out what remained yet to be discovered; and to put them into a train of study that should enable them at a future period to remove those difficulties that had hitherto obstructed our progress; and thus to advance of themselves to farther and farther degrees of perfection. If these were his views, nothing could be more happily adapted to them than the mode he invariably pursued. He first drew, with the striking touches of a master, a rapid and general outline of the subject, by which the whole figure was seen at once to start boldly from the canvas, distinct in all its parts, and unmixed with any other object. He then began anew to retrace the picture, to touch up the lesser parts, and to finish the whole in as perfect a manner as the state of wur | knowledge at the time would permit. Where materials were wanting, the picture there continued to remain imperfect. The wants were thus rendered obvious; and the means of supplying these were pointed out with the most careful discrimination. The student, whenever he looked back to the subject, perceived the defects; and his hopes being awakened, he felt an irresistible impulse to explore that hitherto untrodden path which had been pointed out to him, and fill up the chasm which still remained. Thus were the active faculties of the mind most powerfully excited; and instead of labouring himself to supply deficiencies that far exceeded the power of any one man to accomplish, he set thousands at work to fulfil the task, and put them into a train of going on with it.

It was to these talents, and to this mode of applying them, that Dr. Cullen owed his celebrity as a professor; and it was in this manner that he has perhaps done more towards the advancement of science than any other man of his time, though many individuals might perhaps be found who were more deeply versed in the particular departments he taught than he himself was. Chemistry, which was before his time a most disgusting pursuit, was by him rendered a study so pleasing, so easy, and so attractive, that it is now prosecuted by numbers as an Agreeable recreation, who but for the lights that were thrown upon it by Cullen and his pupils, would never have thought of engaging in it at all.

According to a man who knew him well, there were three things which eminently distinguished Culien as a professor. “The energy of his mind, by which he viewed every subject with ardour, and combined it immediately with the whole of his knowledge. The scientific arrangement which he gave to his subject, by which there was a hicidus ordo to the dullest scholar. He was the first person in this country who made chemistry cease to be a chaos. A wonderful art ftf interesting the students in every thing which he taught, and of raising an emulative enthusiasm among them.

For some years before Dr. Cullen’s death, his friends perceived a sensible decline of that ardour and energy of mind which so strongly characterised him at a former period. Strangers who had never seen him before, could not be sensible of this change; nor did any marked decline in him strike them; for his natural vivacity still was such | as might pass in general as the unabated vigour of one in prime of life. Yet then, though his vigour of body and mind were greater than others of his own age, it should never be forgot that the vigour of old age is but feeble, and the utmost energy of senility bears no resemblance to that gigantic ardour which characterises the man of genius in the prime of life. Cullen to the last was great; but how different from what he had been, those alone could tell who had an opportunity of knowing him in both situations, and who had at the same time not an opportunity of perceiving the change imperceptibly advance upon him, during the lapse of a continued intercourse.

Dr. Cuilen’s external appearance, though striking, and not unpleasing, was not elegant. His countenance was expressive, and his eye in particular remarkably lively, and at times wonderfully penetrating. In his person he was tall and thin, stooping very much. When he walked, he had a contemplative look, and did not seem much to regard the objects around him.

Dr. Cuilen’s writings are noticeable rather from their importance than number. We have mentioned that he never wrote his lectures. Copies of them, however, were taken in short-hand, and lent out to such students as wished to make transcripts. Finding on one occasion that his lectures on the materia medica were printing, he obtained an injunction against their being issued until he had corrected them; and they were permitted to appear in 1772. In 1789 he gave an enlarged and improved edition of them, in 2 vols. 4to. Fearing a similar fate to his “Lectures on the Practice of Medicine,” he published them in 1784, in 4 vols. 8vo, under the title of “First Lines.” But his most esteemed work is his “Synopsis Nosologiae Practicte,” in 2 vols. 8vo, which has passed through several editions; the fourth, published in 1785, contains his last corrections. The first volume contains the nosologies of Sauvages, Linnceus, Vogel, Sagar, and Macbride; the second his own, manifestly an improvement on those of his precursors. A small publication concerning the recovery of persons drowned, and seemingly dead, completes the works of this eminent professor. 1


Life by Dr. James Anderson, in vol. I. of the Bee.