Abercromby, David (DNB00)

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ABERCROMBY, DAVID (d. 1701–2?), was a Scottish physician of the seventeenth century. Half a century after his death, his ‘Nova Medicinæ Praxis’ (1685) was reprinted at Paris (1740); and during his lifetime his ‘Tuta ac efficax Luis Venereæ, sæpe absque Mercurio ac semper absque Salivatione mercuriali, curandæ Methodus’ (1684, 8vo), was translated into French (Paris, 1690), as by ‘celebre médicin d'Angleterre;’ and into Dutch (Amsterdam, 1691) by no less than J. B. Lusart. It was also translated into German (Dresden, 1702, 8vo). His books also gave him a place of honour in Haller's ‘Bibliotheca Medicinæ Pract.’ (4 vols. 4to, iii. 619, 1779). His other professional works are: ‘De Variatione et Varietate Pulsus Observationes’ (London and Paris, 1685); and ‘Ars explorandi Medicas Facultates Plantarum ex solo Sapore’ (London, 1685–8, 12mo). His ‘Opuscula’ were collected in 1687.

But it is as a metaphysician rather than as a physician that he lives, and ought to live. His ‘Discourse of Wit’ (1686)—wrongly assigned by some writers to Patrick Abercromby—has somehow fallen out of sight, but none the less is it a more than ordinarily noticeable book. It antedates the (so-called) ‘Scottish School of Philosophy’ a century nearly; for in it Dr. Thomas Reid's philosophy of common sense—since glorified by Sir William Hamilton—is distinctly taught. Of kin with it is the following: ‘Academia Scientiarum, or the Academy of Sciences; being a Short and Easie Introduction to the Knowledge of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, with the names of those famous authors that have written on any particular Science. In English and Latine’ (1687, 12mo). This is arranged alphabetically from Algebra to Rectiline Trigonometry, and is far ahead of its age. Equally weighty and characteristic is another treatise, ‘A Moral Discourse of the Power of Interest; by David Abercromby, M.D. and Fellow of the Colledge of Physicians in Amsterdam’ (London, 1690, 12mo). This is dedicated worthily to Boyle. ‘Almighty interest’—perhaps the prototype of the American ‘almighty dollar’—is here asserted to be ‘the undoubted cause of all the Transactions of the Politick World.’ The ‘Discourse’ is packed with capital stories and racy and sometimes severely sarcastic sayings.

Biographically, a little book of his, hitherto entirely neglected, is the most interesting of all. Its title-page runs thus: ‘Protestancy to be Embrac'd; or a New and Infallible Method to Reduce Romanists from Popery to Protestancy. A Treatise of great Use to all His Majestie's Subjects, and necessary to prevent Errors and Popery. By David Abercromby, [M.]D., Lately Converted, after he had Profess'd near nineteen years Jesuitism and Popery. London, printed for the author by Thomas Hodgkin, 1682,’ 12mo. It was republished in 1686 as ‘Protestancy proved Safer than Popery’ (12mo).

There is a good deal of personal autobiographical matter in the introduction, by which we learn that he was born into a Roman catholic (Scottish) family, and educated as such, ‘because that all his nearest relations were, and ever were, for the most part, zealous Romanists’ (p. 13). ‘I was bred up,’ he says, ‘in my greener years at Doway, and in a short time became so good a proficient in the mysteries of popery, that I enter'd the order of Jesuits in France at my first instance: I lived amongst them full eighteen years and more, and I may say, without vanity, in some repute of a scholar, being judg'd after a solemn examen capable to teach divinity and philosophy in the most renowned universities of Europe, which is the Jesuits way of graduating their own men in divinity. I taught in France grammar, in Lorrain mathematics and philosophy, and being graduate in physick, I practis'd it not unhappily; and intend to practice it hereafter, with certain hopes, God willing, of the same good success’ (pp. 2–5).

Continuing on his spiritual and intellectual difficulties and doubts, he adds: ‘Being thus perplex'd in mind, and, as Hercules in bivio, uncertain what way to make choice of, I came to Scotland, where, because of some repute I had got abroad of a scholar, I was put instantly to work by the Jesuits against M. Menzies, a professor of divinity in Aberdeen. I wrote then in a short time a treatise of some bulk against his way of defending the protestant religion, but neither to my own satisfaction, though several others, seeing things but under one light, seem'd to be persuaded by my arguments; nor to the satisfaction of most Romanists, who thought and said my doctrine in some material points was not unlike or the same with that of Protestants’ (pp. 10–11). He remained in Scotland about two years, and ‘after an accurate parallel of Protestancy and Popery, and a scrupulous scrutiny of the most material grounds they both stood on,’ he renounced the latter, and ‘came to London as to a safe sanctuary’ where he might ‘serve God in all freedom and security’ (p. 11). He protests: ‘They [his Roman catholic friends and relatives] cannot say that any other motive but that of saving my soul in the securest way caus'd me to withdraw from them and side with Protestants. They know I was in a condition amongst them to want for nothing, being supplyed with all necessaries sufficiently; but now I must rely on God's providence and my own industry’ (p. 14). There is rare acuteness and force in his argumentation.

The last occurrence of his name is in the following work: ‘Fur Academicus sive Academia Ornamentis Spoliata a Furibus, qui in Parnasso coram Apolline sistuntur, ubi Criminis sui accusantur et convincuntur Auctore Davide Abercrombio Scoto, M.D. Editio secunda, Amstelod. 1701’ (12mo). This consists of scholastic and medical discussions. It would appear that Abercromby passed over to reside and practise as a physician in Holland (Amsterdam). The date of his death is unknown. He was living, says Haller, ‘early in the eighteenth century.’ It will be observed that in ‘Fur Academicus’ he is designated ‘Scotus’ (Scoto). He is believed to have belonged to the Abercrombys of Seaton or Seatoun. Curiously enough, so recently as 1833, Mr. James Maidment, of Edinburgh, printed privately for the first time ‘A Short Account of Scots Divines’ by him.

[Abercromby's books, as cited; Catalogues of Scotch Writers (published in 1833 by Mr. James Maidment), p. 62.]

A. B. G.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.1
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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40 ii 30 Abercromby, David: omit Curiously enough and for so read So
34  for by him read in which his name occurs