Currie, James (DNB00)

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CURRIE, JAMES, M.D. (1756–1805), physician, only son of James Currie, minister of the church of Kirkpatrick Fleming, Dumfriesshire, was born in that parish on 31 May 1756. His first education was at the parish school and at that of Middlebie, to which place his father removed, and at these schools he read much Latin and began Greek. After his mother's death in 1769 he was sent to the grammar school of Dumfries. In 1771 he visited Glasgow with his father, and had already thought of studying medicine, but conversation which he had heard about America fired his mind with the desire to emigrate. His father consented, and he sailed for Virginia, where he landed on 21 Sept. 1771, and settled in a mercantile situation on the James river. He suffered from the endemic fever, and found his prospects less favourable than he had hoped. His father died in 1774, leaving several daughters but ill provided for. Currie at once wrote to his aunt, resigning his share of the parental estate in favour of his sisters, and in spite of fever and of hardships worked steadily on at Cabin Point, Virginia. The troubles which preceded the war of independence added another discomfort to his life, and he published in ‘Pinckney's Gazette’ a vindication of the Scottish residents in the colony from the charges brought against them by the Americans. This was his first printed work. He next went to live with a relative of his own name, a physician, at Richmond, Virginia, and determined to give up commerce and take to medicine. In the spring of 1776, having obtained leave from the convention, he sailed for Greenock, intending to graduate at Edinburgh and return to practise in America. After three days an armed vessel seized the ship in the name of the revolted colony, and, confiscating their goods, turned Currie and his fellow-passengers to wander on the shore. He returned to Cabin Point, and was twice drafted to serve in the colonial army, only escaping by a heavy payment. He again obtained a passage, his vessel was again seized, and he had to make a journey of a hundred and fifty miles in an open boat to appeal against the seizure. Fever and dysentery, a hurricane, and an accident were added to his misfortunes, but at last the vessel got away after six weeks and reached St. Eustachius. On the voyage he read the Bible, Swift, Addison, and Pope, and the tragedy of ‘Douglas,’ and wrote literary exercises. He endeavoured to repair his fortunes by purchasing goods for the English admiral on the West Indian station. But the admiral took advantage of a fall in the market and declined to pay for the goods he had ordered. Disappointed, almost ruined, and exhausted, Currie had another fever, which was followed by paralysis. He recovered, went on to Antigua, and after a time sailed for England. Many storms delayed the vessel, and she was twice nearly wrecked, but at last reached Deptford on 2 May 1777.

In the autumn of the same year he went to Edinburgh University and began the study of medicine. He had little to live on, but worked hard, and was soon well known to the professors and remarkable at the students' societies. On 1 Sept. 1778, after a day's walk of thirty-two miles with a fellow-student, during which they had bathed twice, he bathed a third time, after sundown, in the Tweed (Medical Reports, 1797, p. 110). The water felt cold, and no reaction followed; he soon had a rheumatic fever, in which probably began the affection of the heart which afterwards interrupted his work and finally contributed to his death. Though he worked hard at medicine he did not neglect other studies, and read much metaphysics and wrote a review of Reid's work on the active powers of man (Analytical Review, 1 Nov. 1778). An appointment in the West Indies seeming within his reach if he had a degree, he went to Glasgow, where it could be obtained earlier, and there graduated in April 1780. Soon after he went to London, and when the hoped-for appointment was given to another, he took his passage for the West Indies, hoping for some other employment. The vessel was delayed; he was detained in London, saw something of men of letters there, and seems to have received encouragement from Burke. He began to wish to stay in England, and at last, having learnt that a physician was wanted in Liverpool, settled there in October 1780. The evils of climate, civil war, storms at sea, illness, and want of means which had hitherto crossed his course had made him neither morose nor sordid. He wrote to his aunt (12 Dec. 1780): ‘I would fondly believe, that if to propose no selfish views as the ends of my ambition entitle, in any degree, to the smiles of heaven, there is a claim which I may prefer.’ It was the lofty spirit indicated in this sentence and his freedom from any but high-minded aims that made Currie respected and prominent in Liverpool. He was elected physician to the dispensary, and soon after, with Roscoe, Rathbone, Professor Smyth, and others, established a literary society, of which he became president. At the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester he published in 1781 a paper on hypochondriasis. In January 1783 he married the daughter of Mr. William Wallace, an Irish merchant in Liverpool. In the next year he had pleurisy, with blood-spitting, and went for his health to Bristol. He consulted Dr. Darwin, who has published his case in the ‘Zoonomia’ (ii. 293). A long tour on horseback restored his health, and he returned to work at Liverpool, where in 1787 he became a warm advocate of the abolition of the slave trade, and joined Rathbone, Yates, and Roscoe in opposing the trade feeling of Liverpool for slavery. In 1790 he wrote, conjointly with Roscoe, a series of twenty essays called ‘The Recluse’ (Liverpool Weekly Herald, 1790). In 1792 he was elected F.R.S., and now, after twelve years of practice in Liverpool, was rich enough to buy a small estate in his native district. He published in June 1793 a letter to Mr. Pitt, under the signature of Jaspar Wilson, which went through several editions. Its object was to persuade the prime minister not to declare war with France, and the opinions expressed are somewhat nearer those of Dr. Price than of Burke, but are for the most part such as only the excited feeling of the times could have made readable. Vansittart (Lord Bexley) wrote a reply, and when it became known that Currie was Jaspar Wilson his practice suffered a little. He thenceforward avoided politics, but in 1797 published at Liverpool the medical work by which he is remembered, ‘Medical Reports on the Effects of Water, cold and warm, as a Remedy in Fever and Febrile Diseases, whether applied to the Surface of the Body or used as a Drink, with Observations on the Nature of Fever and on the Effects of Opium, Alcohol, and Inanition.’ A second edition was published in 1799, a third in two volumes in 1804, and a fourth in 1805. The object of the book is to establish three rules of practice: that the early stage of fever should be treated by pouring cold water over the body, that in later stages the temperature should be reduced by bathing with tepid water, and that in all stages of fever abundant potations of cold water are advantageous. These propositions are supported by a large number of carefully observed cases and by passages from old medical books. Currie's is the first series of English medical observations in which clinical thermometrical observations are systematically recorded. Since the time of Galen cold bathing had been from time to time tried as a remedy, but Currie was the first exact observer of its effects, and he deserves the further credit of turning attention to the importance of repeated thermometrical observations in fever. No method of cold affusion has ever been universally adopted in England, but this book led to the use of cold water applications by many practitioners, and undoubtedly saved life in severe cases of scarlet fever and in some forms of enteric fever. The publication of the ‘Medical Reports’ had been delayed for a year by another work, a life of Burns, undertaken for the benefit of the poet's family, and prefixed to an edition of his poems. Currie had but once spoken to Burns for a few moments in the streets of Dumfries in 1792, but he was well acquainted with the surroundings of the poet. The life is praised by Dugald Stewart (Letter, 6 Sept. 1800) as a ‘strong and faithful picture.’ It narrates the facts without much art, and succeeded in its object of raising money for the widow.

In 1804 Currie's health began to fail, and he went to Bath for a visit, but, finding a short time insufficient to restore him, decided to settle in Bath. Soon, however, he grew worse and went to Sidmouth, where he died of the results of long-continued valvular disease of the heart on 31 Aug. 1805. He is buried in the parish church, with an epitaph by Professor Smyth of Cambridge, which celebrates his memorable contribution to practical medicine in the couplet:

Art taught by thee shall o'er the burning frame
The healing freshness pour and bless thy name.

Williamson painted a portrait of Currie for Roscoe in 1791, which is engraved in his ‘Memoir’ by his son.

[Memoir of the Life, Writings, and Correspondence of James Currie, M.D., of Liverpool, edited by his son, William Wallace Currie, 2 vols., London, 1831. Vol. ii. contains a selection from Currie's letters. The Medical Times and Gazette of 10 Oct. 1885. Vol. for 1841 contains a discussion of Currie's relation to other writers on cold affusion. Jackson's History and Cure of Fever, Edinburgh, 1798; Exposition of the Practice of Affusing Cold Water on the Surface of the Body as a Remedy for Fever, Edinburgh, 1808.]

N. M.