Papers of Professor Sir Robert Christison (1797-1882)

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 237 Coll-237
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      3 boxes, 2 notebooks (parts of).
  • Location
      Dc.3.108; Dc.3.110; Dk.4.56-57

Scope and Content

Abstracts from his lectures on materia medica, 1834-35, at Dc.3.108; extracts from his lectures on clinical medicine, at Dc.3.110; notes and lectures on materia medica and dietetics, c.1832-1874, at Dk.4.56; lectures on medical jurisprudence delivered at EU, c.1830, at Dk.4.57. The subjects covered by the lectures and notes include: metals, iron, lead, mercury, fever, introduction to vegetable materia medica, ipecacuan, ranunculaceae, solanaceae and atropaceae, opium, alkalis of earths, acids, pharmacopoeias, actions of medicines, and mineral waters. There is also material on rape, signs of pregnancy, procuring abortion, death from external injuries, infanticide, concealment of pregnancy, medical reports and evidence, poisons, arsenic, narcotics, asphyxia, hanging, drowning, burning, death from cold, lightning, and starvation.

Administrative / Biographical History

Robert Christison was born in Edinburgh on 18 July 1797. He was educated at the Royal High School and then at Edinburgh University where he followed the Arts course. Christison chose a medical career however and graduated from Edinburgh in 1819, having submitted a thesis for the degree of M.D., entitled Dissertatio medica inauguralis, de febre continua, quae nuper in hac urbe epidemica fuit ... on fever. This was completed while he was a resident medical assistant in the Royal Infirmary, 1817 to 1820. A brief period of study in London followed, at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, and then he went to Paris where he studied analytical chemistry and laid the foundations for his future reputation as a toxicologist. On his return to Edinburgh in 1821, he became involved right away in the contest for the Chair of Medical Jurisprudence at Edinburgh University. Christison was appointed to the Professorship in 1822, still in his early twenties. He then set about giving a scientific basis to medical jurisprudence, particularly toxicology. Christison learned German in order to look at his field in that language, and soon became known as a logical and accurate lecturer and medical witness. In his capacity as medical adviser to the Crown in Scotland, from 1829 to 1866, he acted as medical witness in nearly every prominent case in Scotland, including the trial of Burke and Hare (who had murdered to meet the growing demands of anatomists for bodies) and the trial of Madeleine Smith (a murder trial famous for its not-proven verdict). Christison drew up instructions for the examination of dead bodies for legal purposes and these became the accepted guide at the time. He also ascertained accurately the distinctions between signs of injuries inflicted before and after death, and investigated the detection and treatment of oxalic acid, arsenic, lead, opium and hemlock poisoning. In 1827 he was appointed physician to the Infirmary, and then in 1832 he resigned his Chair of Medical Jurisprudence and was appointed to the Chair of Materia Medica and Therapeutics which he held until 1877. This he had held along with the Chair of Clinical Medicine until 1855. In addition to his work on poisons, Christison investigated Bright's disease, and fevers, and he published a large number of papers on chemistry, medical jurisprudence, materia medica, medicine, and botany. Included among his publications were A treatise on poisons, in relation to medical jurisprudence, physiology, and the practice of physic (1829), On granular degeneration of the kidneys, and its connection with dropsy, inflammations, and other diseases (1839), and A dispensatory, or commentary on the pharmacopoeias of Great Britain: comprising the natural history, description, chemistry, pharmacy, actions, uses, and doses of the articles of the materia medica (1842). He experimented with the Calabar bean from West Africa and its principal active ingredient, eserine, which is still one of the most important drugs in pharmacology. In 1848, Christison was appointed Physician in Ordinary to the Queen in Scotland, and in 1871 he became a Baronet. He was elected twice as President of the Royal College of Physicians, 1839, and 1848, and was also President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1868-1873. Professor Sir Robert Christison died on 23 January 1882.

Access Information

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


The biographical history was compiled using the following material: (1) Stephen, Leslie, and Lee, Sidney (eds.). The dictionary of national biography. Vol.4. Chamber-Craigie. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1908. (2) University of Edinburgh Journal. Vol.30. No.4. December 1982. p.286. Edinburgh: The University of Edinburgh Graduates Association, 1982. (3) University of Edinburgh Journal. Vol.31. No.1. June 1983. pp.52-54. Edinburgh: The University of Edinburgh Graduates Association, 1983.

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 various references to other Christison related material (check the Indexes for more details): letters and extracts from letters; notes of lectures on Materia Medica at De.1-.7-8; testimonial; and notices etc. In addition, the UK National Register of Archives notes: letters and lectures at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh; correspondence at the National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division; correspondence at St.Andrews University Library; letters at Oxford University's Bodleian Library, Special Collections and Western Manuscripts; and, miscellaneous letters at the British Library, Manuscript Collection.

Corporate Names