Papers of William Cullen (1710-1790), lecturer in Chemistry and Professor of Medicine at the University of Glasgow

Scope and Content

Papers of William Cullen (1710-1790), lecturer in Chemistry and Professor of Medicine at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, including drafts of lectures, medical notes, and letters sent and received by him, used by John Thomson, MD, (1765-1846), in preparation of his 'An account of the life, lectures, and writings of William Cullen, MD' (first published 1832). The collection includes some of Thomson's own papers gathered during his preparation of this book.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Cullen (1710-1790) attended classes in Arts at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, at a young age before being apprenticed to a physician. In 1927, he took a post as a surgeon on a ship bound for the West Indies before returning to London, England, to become an assistant to an apothecary. Qualified in both surgery and medicine, he practised near Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, between 1931 and 1944, except for two sessions at Edinburgh Medical School, and gained a MD from the University of Glasgow in 1740. From 1737 to 1740, his pupil and partner in the practice was William Hunter (1918-1783) who went on to gift his collection of coins, art works and museum pieces to the University of Glasgow, founding the Hunterian Museum.

In 1744, he was appointed Lecturer in Materia Medica at the University of Glasgow, and succeeded in having Chemistry established as a separate lectureship in 1746. He became Professor of Medicine in 1751, transferring to the University of Edinburgh and occupying successively the Chairs of Chemistry (1755), Institutes of Medicine (1766) and Practice of Physic (1773). He was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1777.

At Glasgow, some of his discoveries on heat, and on the cooling of solutions, were developed by his pupil and close friend Joseph Black (1728-1799) in his work on latent heat. Of Cullen's works, the two most important were the Nosology (1769) and the First Lines of Practice of Physic (1786). He recognised the difference between primary and secondary fevers, and attacked the concept of 'humours' as the cause of disease. He clearly separated the symptoms from the diseases themselves, and recognised the inadequacy of contemporary treatment to attack the root of infections, distinguishing also between the effects of remedies and the natural healing powers of the body itself.

He was the first medical teacher at Glasgow University to lecture in English, was devoted to his students and pupils, and was also generous with his money. When he died in 1790, only five weeks after retiring, he had virtually nothing in his estate.

Source: Primrose, Carol, St Mungo's Bairns: Some notable Glasgow students down the ages (Glasgow University Library, 1990)

John Thomson was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland in 1765. He was apprenticed at the age of 11 to his silk-weaving father for 7 years. At the end of his term of service his father destined him for the ministry of the anti-burgher seceders. John, however, desiring to study medicine, persuaded his father to apprentice him in 1785 to Dr White of Paisley, with whom he remained for three years. He entered the University of Glasgow in the winter session of 1788-89, and in the following year migrated to Edinburgh. He was appointed assistant apothecary at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, in September 1790, and in the following September he became house-surgeon to the institution under the designation of surgeon's clerk, having already from the previous June filled the office of an assistant physician's clerk. He became a member of the Medical Society at the beginning of the winter session in 1790-91, and in the following year he was elected one of its presidents. On 31 July 1792 Thomson resigned his appointment at the infirmary on account of ill-health, and proceeded to London, where he studied awhile at John Hunter's school of medicine in Leicester Square.

In London Thomson made many valuable friendships, and on his return to Edinburgh early in 1793 he became a fellow of the College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. Until the autumn of 1798 he attended the Royal Infirmary as a surgeon and during this period he was much engaged the study of chemistry. He conducted a chemical class during the winter of 1799-1800 which met at Thomson's private house and consisted chiefly of gentlemen connected with the parliament house. In 1800 he was nominated one of the six surgeons to the Royal Infirmary under an amended scheme for the better management of the charity, and he almost immediately entered upon the teaching of surgery. He also gave a course of lectures on the nature and treatment of those injuries and diseases which come under the care of the military surgeon, and he visited London in the autumn of 1803 to be appointed a hospital mate in the army in order to qualify himself technically to take charge of a military hospital should it be found necessary to establish one in Edinburgh in case of an invasion.

The College of Surgeons of Edinburgh established a professorship of surgery in 1805, and, in spite of extraordinary opposition, mainly on political grounds, Thomson was appointed to the post. In 1806, at the suggestion of Earl Spencer, the home secretary, the King appointed him professor of military surgery in the University of Edinburgh. In 1808 he obtained the degree of MD from the university and King's College of Aberdeen. In 1810 he resigned his post at the Royal Infirmary in consequence of the refusal of the managers to investigate some criticisms on his surgery by John Bell (1763-1820). He continued to lecture, however, and in the summer of 1814 he visited the various medical schools in Europe to examine into the different methods followed in the hospitals of France, Italy, Austria, Saxony Prussia, Hanover, and Holland. He was admitted a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1815, since he was now acting as a consulting physician as well as a consulting surgeon. In the ensuing summer he again returned to the continent to watch the treatment of the men wounded at Waterloo, and in September 1815 he was mainly instrumental in founding the Edinburgh New Town dispensary. He delivered a course of lectures on diseases of the eye in the summer of 1819, thereby paving the way for the establishment of the first eye infirmary in Edinburgh in 1824. He was much engaged during 1822-26 in the study of general pathology, and in 1821 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the chair of the practice of physic in the university. In 1828-29 and again in 1829-30 he delivered a course of lectures on the practice of physic, both courses being given in conjunction with his son, William Thomson (1802-1852). In 1831 he addressed to Lord Melbourne, then secretary of state for the home department, a memorial representing the advantages likely to flow from the establishment of a separate chair of general pathology. A commission was issued in his favour, and he was appointed professor of general pathology in the university, giving his first course of lectures upon this subject in the winter session of 1832-33.

Repeated attacks of illness compelled him to discontinue his visits to patients after the summer of 1835, but he still continued to see those who chose to call upon him. He resigned his professorship in 1841. He died in Edinburgh, on 11 Oct 1846.

Thomson edited The Works of William Cullen, MD (Edinburgh, 1827, 2 vols), and wrote an account of his life, of which volume 1 was published in 1832, and was reissued, with a second volume and biographical notices of John and William Thomson, in 1859.

Source: Dictionary of National Biography (1995)'


The arrangement of this material reflects the original order in which it was received

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Gift : Professor John Millar Thomson : 1920 : ACCN 2255

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Held by the family of John Thomson

Related Material

GB 585 Cullen: Papers and correspondence of William Cullen (Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh)