Matthew Baillie, (1761-1823), was an anatomist and physician extraordinary to George III and nephew to the surgeons William Hunter (1718-1783) and John Hunter (1728-1893). Matthew had two sisters, Joanna Baillie, (1762-1851) poet and dramatist and Agnes Baillie (1760-1861). Their parents were Revd James Baillie and Dorothea Hunter Baillie. The family moved from the manse at Bothwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland in 1775 to Glasgow when Revd Baillie was appointed Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow. Revd Baillie died in 1778 and Dorothea's brother William Hunter supported the family.
Matthew moved to London in 1779 to lecture at William Hunter's medical school in Great Windmill Street. When William Hunter died in 1783, he left his medical museum and his collections of manuscripts, books and coins to Glasgow University, subject only to the life interest of his nephew, Matthew Baillie, who succeeded him in his school of anatomy. Matthew Baillie kept only certain personal things, among them the letter-book, which Hunter had acquired from the family of Queen Anne's physician, John Arbuthnot (1667-1735). To this William Hunter had added letters written to himself by famous or distinguished people.
In 1783 Joanna, Agnes and Dorothea moved to London to keep house for Matthew. Joanna built up a close relationship in London with her other uncle, John Hunter, his wife, the poet, Anne Home Hunter [whose poems are included in this collection] and their daughter Agnes, later Lady Campbell. After Matthew's marriage to Sophia Denman in 1791 Joanna, Agnes and Dorothea moved to Red Lion Hill and later, after the death of Dorothea in 1802, to Hampstead.
Joanna started publishing poems and plays in 1790 and gradually her reputation became known. She made friends with many leading literary and society figures of the day including Maria Edgeworth, Samuel Rogers, William Sotheby, William Wordsworth, and Lord Byron among many others. Joanna was particularly close to Sir Walter Scott [over sixty letters between them are included in this collection].
Joanna's long life, she died aged 88 in 1851 meant that she witnessed the death of many of her contemporaries, the death of her brother, Matthew in 1823 affected her strongly but she became close to younger generation especially her niece Elizabeth Margaret Baillie (1794-1876) companion of Walter Scott's daughter Sophia; and her nephew William Hunter Baillie (1797-1894). William, a barrister, moved in the same literary circles as his aunt and was interested in Hunter-Baillie family history.
Matthew Baillie was one of the leading London physicians of his day and a favoured friend at Court. He continued to add to the family collection letters, which he received, from his distinguished friends and patients. He also kept together the letters written to him by the Royal Princesses, all of which begin 'Dear Baillie.'
Matthew Baillie's wife was Sophia, daughter of Dr. Thomas Denman, (1733-1815) whose reminiscences of his early life as a ship's surgeon have been quarried for some historical novels. Denman had a fashionable obstetric practice, in which he was followed by his other son-in-law, the ill-fated Sir Richard Croft (1762-1818), who killed himself after the death of his patient Princess Charlotte, the heir to the Throne. Denman's son, Thomas Denman (1779-1854), a lawyer, advocated legal reform including the abolition of slavery, defended Queen Charlotte and became Lord Chief Justice.
Justice Denman interested himself in the family collection, helping Matthew Baillie's granddaughters to complete the work, begun by Matthew's wife Sophia, of identifying and arranging the letters. He also brought into it a miscellaneous collection of autographs gathered by his side of the family. Matthew Baillie had been a friend of Edward Jenner (1749-1823), discoverer of the small pox vaccine and of Jenner's biographer John Baron (1786-1851), and at the end of his life settled near them in Gloucestershire. Through Baron a small collection of papers of Jennerian interest was added to the Hunter-Baillie papers.