Papers of Professor William Pulteney Alison (1790-1859)

Scope and Content

The papers consist of correspondence including: at Gen. 129/2-4, letters to Professor Robert Jameson about a collection of birds sent probably from India, and in opposition to the proposal that natural history should be a compulsory subject in the medical curriculum at Edinburgh University; other correspondence to Jameson at Gen. 1999/1/33. In addition, at Dc.3.110 there are extracts from Alison's lectures on clinical medicine, 1837. There is also correspondence, 1843, at E89.80.

Administrative / Biographical History

The physician William Pulteney Alison was born in 1790 at Boroughmuirhead, Edinburgh. He was the elder son of the Rev. Archibald Alison (1757-1839) and the older brother of Sir Archibald Alison (1792-1867). He spent his early years in Kenley, Shropshire, where his father was a curate, but in 1800 the family moved to Edinburgh on the appointment of his father as minister of the episcopal chapel in Cowgate, Edinburgh. After private tutoring at home, he entered Edinburgh University, studying the arts and then medicine. He graduated with the degree of M.D. in 1811 with the dissertation De viribus naturae medicatricibus. After a tour of Europe in 1814, Alison returned to Edinburgh and in 1815 became a physician in the recently opened New Town Dispensary. There he acquired knowledge of the conditions of the city's poor, their sicknesses, the spread of diseases, and living conditions. He was particularly interested in fevers and his reports were published in the Edinburgh medical journal (1817-1819). For this work he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1817. In his reports, Alison had written on his treatment of smallpox by vaccination, a pioneer treatment at this time. In 1820 he was appointed Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at Edinburgh University in succession to Andrew Duncan junior (1773-1832), and on the death of his uncle, James Gregory (1753-1821), he was elected to succeed him as Professor of the Institutes of Medicine (Physiology and Pathology). Alison would hold the Chair for the next twenty years until his appointment as Professor of the Practice of Medicine in 1842. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, he was very active in the fight against typhus and cholera and he traced the increase in the prevalence of these diseases in the cities directly to poverty, attacking the Scottish Poor Law through his pamphlet Observations on the management of the poor in Scotland, and its effects of the health of the great towns (1840). His other publications include Outlines of physiology: with an appendix containing heads of lectures on pathology and therapeutics (1831), Outlines of pathology and practice of medicine (1844), and Observations on the reclamation of waste lands and their cultivation by croft husbandry: considered with a view to the productive employment of destitute labourers, paupers, and criminals (1850). Professor William Pulteney Alison resigned his Chair in 1856 and he died in Edinburgh on 22 January 1859.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Letter purchased November 1989, Accession no. E89.80.


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Burnett, John H. (et al.). The university portraits. Second series. pp.7-9. Edinburgh: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1986. (2) Stephen, Leslie. and Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of national biography. Vol. 1. Abbadie-Beadon. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1908.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.

Related Material

The local Indexes show references to other material related to Professor William Pulteney Alison (check the Indexes for more details): a certificate awarded to A. T. Watson, 1830, at Gen. 784/9/32; recommendation of his lectures; and, in the Laing Collection, at La.II.511, a letter about lodgings for students, circa 1833.

Corporate Names