Cockburn, William (1669-1739) (DNB00)
|←Cockburn, William (d.1529)||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 11
Cockburn, William (1669-1739)
|Cockburn, William (1768-1835)→|
COCKBURN, WILLIAM, M.D. (1669-1739), physician, was second son of Sir William Cockburn, baronet, of Ryslaw and Cockburn. He proceeded M. A. at Edinburgh. His name occurs in the register of the university of Leyden as a student of medicine under date 29 May 1691, he being then in his twenty-third year. He probably took his M.D. degree at Leyden. On 2 April 1694 he became a licentiate of the College of Physicians in London (he never got promotion in the college hierarchy), and about the same time was appointed physician to the fleet. His first book, 'Economia Corporis Animalis,' was published the year after. It was a sort of scheme of general pathology, or first principles of physic. In 1696 he brought out a small work on the 'Nature and Cure of Distempers of Seafaring People, with Observations on the Diet of Seamen in H.M.'s Navy.' This was a record of his two years' experience as ship's doctor on the home station. Among other things, it points out that chills are due to the suppression of the perspiration, and it contains remarks on the cause of scurvy: the 'boatswain's favourites,' he points out, suffered much more from scurvy than the men set to do the hard work, a diet of salt beef and pork requiring active exercise to carry it on. He had no notion, however, of the importance of succulent vegetables in the victualling. Scurvy was not effectually banished from the fleet until Blane's rules of victualling in 1795, and Cockburn was inclined to despise the ignorance of those who, 'at the name of scurvy, fly to scurvy-grass, water-cresses, and horse-radishes, but to what advantage may be easily understood by our foregoing theory.' He was sensible enough to see that land-scurvy, which the dogmatists of the 'scorbutic constitution' discovered under many guises, ' is not so very frequent as it is commonly imagined, and that so-called cases of it are something-else.'
Through his connection with the fleet Cockburn was able to introduce his secret remedy for dysentery, which made his fortune. The account given (pamphlet on a 'Medicine against Looseness,' by La Touche, 1757) is that in July 1796 he was dining on board one of the ships in the company of Lord Berkeley of Stratton, when, after some compliments to him, it was remarked that 'there was nothing farther wanting but a better method of curing fluxes.' Cockburn replied that he thought he could be of use. The trial was made next day upon seventy patients on board the Sandwich, and proved brilliantly successful. The result was reported to the admiralty board by Sir Clowdisley Shovell, who was directed to purchase a quantity of the electuary for the use of the Mediterranean squadron. Cockburn supplied the fleet with his electuary for forty years, and it was probably in use also in the army on foreign service. William III conveyed his thanks to the inventor for a benefit of national importance, and Louis XIV in 1698 was in treaty, through his ambassador in London, for the purchase of the secret for use in the French fleet, when war broke out and put an end to the negotiations. Its fame brought him crowds of private patients suffering with fluxes of various kinds. In the long list of electuaries given in Cooley's 'Cyclopædia' there is none bearing Cockburn's name, and it does not appear that the composition of it was made public ; but it is almost certain that it was not a preparation of ipecacuanha, or the ordinary 'dysenteric root,' for we know that Cockburn, like many of his contemporaries, had lost faith in that remedy.
The date of his settling in London as a physician is not known exactly. He seems to have kept his connection with the navy for many years, and in 1731 he became physician to Greenwich Hospital. On the title-page of a pamphlet published after his death with the object of keeping up the sale of the secret remedy he is described as 'late of St. James a
Street.' When Swift came to London in September 1710, on his three years' visit chronicled in the ' Journal to Stella,' the first of his many recorded dinners was with Dr. Cockburn. The latter is often mentioned in the 'Journal,' once as ' honest Dr. Cockburn,' and another time as having ' generally such a parcel of Scots with him.' Although Swift was more in the company of Drs. Freind, Arbuthnot, and Garth, than of Cockburn, it was the latter whom he chose as his medical adviser. He was in large practice, some of it brought to him by the secret remedy for fluxes, and some of it doubtless by his other writings (in which the treatment was also vaguely given at first), I on the ' Lues venerea,' and on the ' Symptoms, Nature, and Cure of a Gonorrhoea.' The latter was well thought of, went through four editions, and was translated abroad. In the same class of writings was his 'Account of the Nature and Cure of Looseness,' 2nd ed. 1710. In 1699 he contributed a paper on the ' Operation of a Blister ' to the ' Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,' of which he became fellow. His other writings were pamphlets connected more or less directly with his secret remedy. One of these, 'The Present Uncertainty in the Knowledge of Medicines,' 1703, was a letter to the physicians in the commission for sick and wounded seamen, in which he remonstrates with them for their dogmatic narrowness of view. Another on ' The Danger of Improving Physick,' 1730, is a well-written rejoinder to the ' cabal ' of academical physicians, who opposed him on account of his secret remedy, and particularly to Dr. Freind, who had turned against him in his ' History of Physick ' (1725) after being on good terms with him for twenty years. 'The most learned physicians,' he says, 'are always most subject to obloquy, on account of their superior knowledge and discoveries.'
Cockburn was twice married : first, in 1698, to Mary de Baudisson, widow, who died on 6 July 1728, aged 64 ; and again on 5 April 1729 to Lady Mary Fielding, eldest daughter of Basil, fourth earl of Denbigh. According to the contemporary gossip, he found the latter, who was his patient, in tears at the prospect of having to leave London owing to her reduced circumstances ; whereupon the doctor said, 'Madam, if fifty thousand pounds and the heart of an old man will console you, they are at your service.' Cockburn is described as ' an old, very rich quack,' and the lady as ' very ugly.' He died ten years after (November 1739), aged 70, and was buried in the middle aisle of Westminster Abbey.
[Munk's Coll. of Phys., 2nd ed. 1878 ; authorities referred to in the text.]