Collection of Charles Alston

Scope and Content

Lectures on materia medica, 1736-c1740

Administrative / Biographical History

Alston, was born on 24 October 1685 at Eddlewood, in the parish of Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland. He entered Glasgow University in 1700, but the death of his father in 1703 left the family impoverished and compelled him to forgo graduating. The Duchess of Hamilton, however, recognizing his promise, arranged for him to receive some legal training under a writer to the signet, James Anderson, in Edinburgh, Scotland; after three years the duchess then employed him as her 'principal servant' in her household at Hamilton, Scotland.

By this time it had become apparent that medicine was Alston's preferred vocation, and with the duchess's encouragement he used his abundant leisure to study to that end. When the failure of the Jacobite rising in 1715 caused the superintendent of the physic garden at the palace of Holyrood, William Arthur, to flee to Italy, the duchess used her influence to obtain for her protégé the vacant post. This brought him the titles of king's botanist and regius professor of botany, a requirement to lecture at the garden, and a stipend of £50. Conscious that it was an appointment 'during the Sovereign's pleasure' only, the duchess instructed her executors to pay Alston £500 in the event of the stipend lapsing; as it turned out, he held the post for life.

What Alston still lacked were relevant qualifications. He returned to Glasgow to obtain a degree and then absented himself for the academic year 1718-19 to study under Hermann Boerhaave at Leiden. He became MD at Glasgow in December 1719 and was elected to fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in August 1721. He became secretary of the college, in 1725, an office he was to occupy for twenty-one years. At the instance of the new professor of anatomy at Edinburgh University, Alexander Monro, he was also induced to extend his teaching of botany and materia medica to that institution too, and thereafter he played a major part in bringing the Edinburgh medical school a reputation in Europe second only to Leiden's. When eventually its relevant professorship fell vacant in 1738, he was consequently the automatic choice to succeed.

At the time of his death, in Edinburgh on 22 November, Alston was preparing for publication his lecture course on materia medica. That task was subsequently carried through by his successor, John Hope.

[Source: Dictionary of National Biography]

ACH/3/1-12 are from the Duncan collection. Wording on bookplate:

This Collection of Manuscript Lectures, by the Founders of the Medical College at Edinburgh, viz. Dr Monro primus, Drs Rutherford, Alston, St Clair and Plummer, consisting of Seventy Volumes, was purchased by Dr Duncan sen. in the year 1772, from Mr John Murray, bookseller in London, England, for seven guineas.

Dr Duncan has given directions, that after his death, these Manuscript Lectures, together with One Hundred Volumes of Practical Observations on Medicine, in his own handwriting, and which he has employed as notes for Clinical Lectures, shall be presented to the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, to be deposited in their Library.

His intention is, that this Collection of Manuscripts, may convey to Posterity, a testimony of his own Industry, and of the Abilities of some of his Medical Preceptors, whose Characters, as long as Medicine continues to be cultivated as a Science, will do honour to the College of Physicians and University of Edinburgh. June 4 1812.



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