1902 Encyclopedia > William Cullen

William Cullen
Scottish doctor and chemist

WILLIAM CULLEN (1710-1790), an eminent physician and medical teacher, was born at Hamilton, Lanark-shire, on 15th April 1710. His father, who was a writer by profession, was factor to the duke of Hamilton, and was owner of a small estate in the parish of Bothwell. William received his early education at the grammar school of Hamilton, and he appears to have subsequently attended some classes at the university of Glasgow. He commenced his medical career as apprentice to Mr John Paisley, surgeon in Glasgow, who was a man of learning and possessed a valuable medical library, and under whom Cullen prosecuted his studies with great ardour. After completing his apprenticeship at Glasgow Cullen became surgeon to a merchant vessel trading between London and the West Indies. On his return to Scotland in 1732 he settled as a practitioner in the parish of Shotts, Lanark-shire, where he resided for about two years. He thereafter proceeded to Edinburgh to pursue his studies at the university, which was then rapidly rising into fame as a medical school. Here he spent two winter sessions, and was one of the founders of what is now known as the Royal Medical Society, a students' association which meets weekly for the discussion of subjects of medical and scientific interest. Leaving Edinburgh in 1736, Cullen commenced practice in Hamilton, where he rapidly acquired a high reputation, and was employed by many of the families of distinction in the locality, including that of the duke of Hamilton. About this time he became acquainted with the celebrated Dr William Hunter, who resided with him as his pupil for nearly three years. Hunter was about to enter into partnership with Cullen, when, an opening occuring, he removed to London to engage in those anatomical and obstetric pursuits with which his name will ever stand associated. Cullen took the degree of M.D. at the university of Glasgow in 1740; and, resolving to confine his attention to the practice of physic, took into partnership Thomas Hamilton, surgeon, who undertook the surgical part of the work. While at Hamilton Cullen was twice elected a magistrate of the town, and in this capacity he displayed great ability, and was of great service to the community. In 1741 he married Miss Johnston, daughter of a clergyman in the neighbourhood, a lady of beauty and accomplishment, by whom he had a large family. He continued to practise in Hamilton till 1744, when he was induced to settle in Glasgow. During his residence at Hamilton, besides the arduous duties of medical practice, Cullen found time to devote to the study of the natural sciences, and especially of chemistry, for which he seems to have had special predilections. , On coming to Glasgow he appears to have begun to lecture in connection with the university, the medical school of which was as yet imperfectly organized. Besides the subjects of theory and practice of medicine, Cullen lectured systematically on botany, materia medica, and chemistry. His great abilities, enthusiasm, and power of conveying instruction on the most difficult subjects made him a successful and highly popular teacher, and his classes increased largely in numbers. At the same time he diligently pursued the practice of his profession. Chemistry was the subject which at this time seems to have engaged the greatest share of Cullen's attention, and there can be no doubt that to him was due the credit of placing that science on a more philosophical basis than it had hitherto occupied, while at the same time he laboured to render it specially subservient to agriculture and other useful arts. He was himself a diligent investigator and experimenter, and he did much to encourage original research among his pupils, one of whom was Dr Joseph Black, who became the most celebrated chemist of his time. In 1751, a vacancy having occurred in the professorship of medicine, Cullen, through the influence of the duke of Argyll, was appointed by the king to the chair, but he still continued to lecture on chemistry. In 1756 he was elected by the town council of Edinburgh joint professor of chemistry in the university of that city, along with Dr Plummer, on whose death in the following year the sole appointment was conferred on Cullen. This chair he held for ten years—his classes always increasing in numbers. He also practised his profession as a physician with eminent success. About this time he delivered, along with some of his colleagues, lectures on clinical medicine in the Eoyal Infirmary, which he continued to do till near the close of his career. This was a work for which Cullen's experience, habits of observation, and scientific training peculiarly fitted him, and in which his popularity as a teacher, no less than his power as a practical physician, became more than ever conspicuous. During the winter session of 1760-61 the professor of materia medica, Dr Alston, died, and the students presented a petition to Cullen to undertake the work of finishing the course of lectures on that subject,—a request with which he readily complied. He delivered an entirely new course of lectures, in which the subject was treated in such a masterly and scientific as well as interesting and practical manner as to gain the high commendations of his students and of the medical profession generally, by whom copies of his pupils' notes were in great request. An incorrect edition of the lectures was ten years afterwards published in London without Dr Cullen's knowledge, and widely circulated throughout Europe.

On the death of Dr Whytt, the professor of the institutes of medicine, in 1766, the patrons offered the chair to Dr Cullen, who accepted it, resigning that of chemistry, in which he was succeeded by Dr Black, who was then professor of chemistry in Glasgow. In the same year Dr John Gregory was appointed professor of practice of physic on the death of Dr P>,utherford. For this chair Cullen was likewise a candidate, and a strong effort was made to induce the patrons to confer the appointment on him, but without success. In 1769 an arrangement was, however, entered into between Drs Gregory and Cullen, by which they agreed to deliver alternate courses on the theory and practice of physic. This arrangement proved eminently satisfactory in the hands of these two distinguished men, but it was brought to a close by the sudden and premature death of Gregory in 1773. Cullen was then appointed sole professor of the practice of physic, and he continued in this office till a few months before his death, which took place on 5 th February 1790.

Cullen's fame rests on hie great power and influence as a teacher, and on his important contributions to theoretical and practical medicine.

As a lecturer Cullen appears to have stood unrivalled in his day. His clearness of statement and power of imparting interest to the most abstruse topics were the conspicuous features of his teaching, and in his various capacities as a scientific lecturer, a physiologist, and a practical physician, he was ever surrounded with large and increasing classes of intelligent pupils, to whom his eminently suggestive mode of instruction was specially attractive. The grasp and vigour of his mind were shown in the facility with which he mastered the many different branches of medical knowledge which he taught; while his scientific spirit equally appears in his refusal to accept what he describes as the " false facts " so prevalent in his day, and by the zeal with which he pursued original observation and experimental research both as a chemist and as a physician, with the view of arriving at truth. Cullen has been frequently represented as a purely speculative physician; but this view is far from just. It is to be borne in mind that in his time medicine was to a large extent mixed up with metaphysical speculation, that its ascertained facts were few, and that the science of physiology was then in its infancy. If, therefore, in opposing what he held to be false theories he was led to advance new views and speculations of his own, still no one who attentively reads the works of this great physician and teacher can fail to perceive that his constant aim was in the direction of disengaging his science from the hypothetical mazes in which it was involved, and placing it upon the solid basis of fact.

Previous to the days of Cullen, and during his early life, the medical philosophy or medical doctrines of Boerhaave were universally taught in the schools. Boerhaave attempted to combine into one system the vital philosophy of Hippocrates (the vis medicatrix naturae), the chemico-humoral principle of Paracelsus, the mechanical doctrines of Bellini, and a few of the other doctrines taught by former medical philosophers. He attributed, however, more to the chemical and mechanical forces than to the powers of life, and of course embraced a large portion of the doctrine of the humoral pathologists. Cullen, seeing that many of the facts then known were irreconcilable with Boerhaave's doctrines, became their warm opponent, especially taking offence at those doctrines which attributed almost every disease to a vitiation of the fluids of the body. Indeed, he might almost be said to have adopted as his, motto the celebrated aphorism of Hoffmann, " Universa pathologia longe rectius atque facilius ex vitio motuum microcosmicorum in solidis, quam ex variis affectionibua vitiosorum humorum, deduci atque explicari possit, adeoque omnis generis nervosi affectiouibus sint referenda?." Living at the time he did, when the doctrines of the humoral pathologists were carried to an extreme extent, and witnessing the ravages which disease made on the solid structures of the body, it was not surprising that he should oppose a doctrine which appeared to him to lead to a false practice and to fatal results, and adopt one which attributed more to the agency of the solids, and very little to that of the fluids of the body. The Cullenian system was certainly an immense improvement on those which preceded it, and has served as a valuable stepping-stone for the rational doctrines which now prevail, more especially those which relate to the influence of the nervous system, alike in healthy and morbid action. He was obliged to introduce the doctrine of a spasm in the extreme vessels in order to account, on his theory, for many of the phenomena, of disease ; still we cannot refuse to Lim the honour of having been an able and successful improver in medical science. His classification of diseases was remarkable for its simplicity and clearness. He divided diseases into four great classes—1st, Pyrexiae, or febrile disease, as typhus ' fever ; 2d, Neuroses, or nervous diseases, as epilepsy; 3d, Cachexias, or diseases resulting from bad habit of body, as scurvy ; and 4th, Locales, or local diseases, as cancer. His nosological arrangement has served to a considerable extent as the groundwork of modern nosologies, and was a great improvement, both in simplicity and clearness, on the involved productions of his predecessors.

Cullen's chief works are—First Lines of the Practice of Physic, Edin. 1774, i vols. 8vo : second edition, 1788 ; Institutions of Medicine, Edin. 1770, 12mo ; Synopsis Nosologic Methodicae, Edin. 1785, 2 vols. 8vo ; Treatise on the Materia Medica, Edin. 1789, 2 vols. 4to. The first volume of an account of Cullen's Life, Lectures, and Writings was published by Dr John Thomson in 1832, and was reissued with the second volume (completing the work) by Drs W. Thomson and D. Craigie in 1859.

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