Notes from Lectures of William Cullen

Scope and Content

Notes from Cullen's lectures on the practice of medicine and the institutions of medicine given at the time he held the Chair of Medicine jointly with John Gregory.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Cullen (1710-1790) was born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire the son of William Cullen, a lawyer and factor to the Duke of Hamilton, and Elizabeth Roberton of the Robertons of Earnock. After beginning his education at the local grammar school he entered Glasgow University at the age of 17, but at this stage was not studying medicine but would more likely have been following a more general education. He soon opted to study medicine and was apprenticed to John Paisley, a surgeon apothecary in Glasgow. Apprenticeship at this time was the only method of pursuing a medical education in Glasgow at this time.

In 1729 Cullen moved to London and gained an appointment as ship's surgeon on a vessel due to set sail for the West Indies. On his return he spent two years in London as an assistant to the apothecary, Mr Murray, before heading back to Scotland in 1732. He established himself in general practice in Shotts, Lanarkshire but wishing to pursue his medical education further, studied at Edinburgh University from 1734 to 1736 and here was involved in the foundation of the Royal Medical Society.

In 1736 he returned to his home town of Hamilton and began general medical practice again. He remained in Hamilton for seven years, and continued his studies for the duration, gaining his M.D. from Glasgow University in 1740. During this time he also developed a close friendship and partnership with William Hunter (1718-1783) who work alongside and studied under Cullen between 1737 and 1740. They remained lifelong friends.

Cullen returned to Glasgow in 1744 where he continued in general practice but also began lecturing on the medical subjects of physiology, botany, materia medica, and chemistry. His arrangements with the then Professor of Medicine to allow him to give these lectures is acknowledged by many as making Cullen the real founder of the Glasgow school of medicine as the Professor of Medicine did not formerly give lectures. He was noted for giving lectures in English rather than Latin and in 1751 officially became Professor of Medicine at the University of Glasgow, but continued to lecture in other subjects, most notably chemistry. Another of his notable students was Joseph Black (1728-1799), later to become Cullen's successor as Professor of Chemistry.

In 1755 Cullen moved to Edinburgh to become joint Professor of Chemistry and Medicine alongside Andrew Plummer (1697-1756), and soon became sole professor when the latter died six months later. In 1757 he began giving clinical lectures at the Edinburgh Infirmary and in 1760 also commenced a series of materia medica lectures. John Rutherford resigned his Chair of Medicine in 1766 and despite popular feeling amongst the students that Cullen should succeed him the post went to John Gregory, with Cullen instead filling the Chair of Physiology which was vacated a few months later. In time Cullen was made joint Professor of Medicine alongside Gregory and they gave alternate lecture session between 1769 and 1773, when Gregory died and Cullen took on sole responsibility. He held this post until his resignation in 1789.

During this time Cullen steadily created a large consulting practice, with much of his work done via correspondence. At this time he was one of the most respected men in the field, not just in Edinburgh and the UK but across Europe too. He published widely throughout his career with notable works on the institutions of medicine and nosology as well as the publication of his materia medica lectures.

Cullen had married Anna Johnstone in 1741 and together had no less than eleven children, including Scottish judge Robert Cullen (1742-1810) and physician Henry Cullen (ca. 1758-1790). He died on 5 February 1790 in Kirknewton, West Lothian.


W.F. Bynum 'Cullen, William (1710-1790)' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press, 2004. R.W. Johnstone 'William Cullen' Medical History 1959 3(1) pp.33-46. D.E. Shuttleton 'The Medical Consultation Letters of Dr William Cullen: the launch of a digital edition' The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 2015 45(3) pp.1889.