Papers of William Cullen M.D. (1710-1790)

Scope and Content

The collection of material around William Cullen M.D. cover the period from his admission to the use of Edinburgh University Library, 1735, at Da.2.1, p.60, to 1785-1787 and notes of lectures on the practice of physic at Dc.10.10. The material also includes: correspondence at Dc.4.101 Cullen; correspondence at E90.128 in the form of a postal prescription dated March 1780; lectures on the practice of medicine, at Dk.3.54-62; chemistry lectures, 1757, at E95.04; physiological and therapeutical observations, 1766-1767, at Dc.7.55; an abstract of Cullen's lectures on agriculture, from around 1768, at Dc.3.70; clinical lectures, 1772-1773, at Dk.3.49; notes of lectures from 1773, at Dc.5.109-112; lectures on chemistry and pharmacy, at MS 3143; lectures from 1775, at Dc.1.49; and, commentaries on his First lines of the practice of physic, 1783-1784, at Gen. 1860-1861.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Cullen was born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, on 15 April 1710. He studied at Glasgow University and in 1729 went to London and became a surgeon on a merchant ship sailing to the West Indies. On returning to London he assisted in an apothecary in Henrietta Street and continued with his studies. In the early 1730s, Cullen returned to Scotland to provide for his family after the death of his father and eldest brother. After two years of practicing in Auchinlee near Hamilton, he began studying again this time at the Edinburgh Medical School under Alexander Monro primus (1697-1767) between the years 1734 and 1736. In 1736 he began practicing as a surgeon in Hamilton and was chief magistrate in the town too, between 1739 and 1740. In 1740, Cullen obtained the degree of M.D. at Glasgow and from 1744 he moved to the city and became occupied with founding a medical school there, and lectured on medicine and other subjects. One of his students was Joseph Black (1728-1799). In 1751, Cullen became Professor of Medicine at Glasgow University, and then in 1755 he was elected joint and then sole Professor of Chemistry at Edinburgh University. In 1757 he began to give clinical lectures at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary with great success, and in 1766 he was elected Professor of the Theory (or Institutes) of Physic. From 1768 he and his rival, Dr. John Gregory (1724-1773), lectured in the Theory and the Practice of Physic in alternate years, but on the death of Gregory in 1773 Cullen succeeded him and lectured both, and became the mainstay of the Medical School for many years.

In the 1740s, Cullen made some discoveries on the evolution of heat in chemical combination and the cooling of solutions which were published in 1755, Essay on the cold produced by evaporating fluids. Other discoveries helped Black to reach his conclusions in relation to latent heat. Cullen took an active part in preparing a new edition of the Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia (1774), and other principal works included Synopsis nosologiae methodicae (1769), First lines of the practice of physic (1776-1784), and The substance of nine lectures on vegetation and agriculture delivered privately in 1768 (1796)

William Cullen resigned his Chair on 30 December 1789, and he died on 5 February 1790. He was buried at Kirknewton near his estate of Ormiston Hill.

Access Information

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

Acquisition Information

Letter at Dc.4.101-103 purchased July 1963, Accession no. E63.4/1. Lectures at Dk.3.54-62 presented by Allen Thomson, 1866. Commentaries at Gen.1860-1861 purchased from Mrs. Barnes, November 1970, Accession no. E70.53. Notes at Dc.10.10 received from the Hope Bequest.


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Leslie, Stephen, and Lee, Sidney (eds.). Dictionary of national biography. Vol.5. Craik-Drake. London: Smith, Elder & 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 various references to Cullen related material in the Laing Collection (check the Indexes for more details): letters or signature in La.II.158; La.II.239, La.II.492, La.II.647/176, La.II.647/98, La.III.375/49; and his being mentioned in letters of others, Dc.4.41/69, Dc.4.101-103, Dk.7.52/78, Gen. 873/1/93-96, Gen. 874/V/17-18. Letter draft at Gen. 873/111/61. Letter to Cullen at JA3452. There is also an account of Cullen in Benjamin Rush's journal, 1766-1768, in Mic.M.28 ff.55-69, 74. In addition, the UK National Register of Archives (NRA), updated by the Historical Manuscripts Commission, notes: correspondence and papers, 1737-1790, Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, Ref. Cullen NRA 16015 Coll of Physicians; correspondence, lectures and notes, Glasgow University Library, Special Collections Department, NRA 20977 Glasgow Univ L; medical papers, ca. 1763-1772, Royal College of Physicians of London; medical MSS, Exeter Cathedral Archives; lecture notes, Oxford University, Bodleian Library, Special Collections and Western Manuscripts, Ref. MSS Eng misc d 298-306; lecture notes, 1760-1775, Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, Ref. MSS 1918-71; lecture notes, 1760, Northwestern University Medical School Library; lecture notes, 1762-1763, Manchester University, John Rylands Library, NRA 9194 Manchester scientif; lecture notes, 1763-1764, Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, Ref. MS 5487; 1767-68: lecture notes, 1767-1768, University of Kansas, Clendening History of Medicine Library; lecture notes, 1762-1772, National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division, Ref. MSS 2078-83, 3472, 3535-37, 3543, 3759; lecture notes, 1772-1773, National Library of Wales, Department of Manuscripts and Records, Ref. JE Griffith MSS 19064 NRA 40906 Griffith; lecture notes, National Library of Medicine.