Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Black, William (1749-1829)

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BLACK, WILLIAM (1749–1829), physician, was born in Ireland; studied medicine (according to Munk, Coll. Phys. iii. 367), at Leyden, and took his degree as M.D. there 20 March 1772 with an inaugural dissertation ‘De diagnosi, prognosi, et causis mortis in febribus.’ He received the license of the College of Physicians 2 Apri1 1787, and afterwards practised in London, residing in Piccadilly. He appears to have retired from practice before his death, which occurred at Hammersmith in December 1829.

Black did not attain any remarkable eminence in his profession, but wrote some books which are not without value as illustrating the application of the statistical method to medicine. He was one of the first writers, at least in England, who showed that statistics, which had been previously employed chiefly in political and commercial matters, might be of great service to the progress of medicine.

Being invited to deliver the ‘annual oration’ before the Medical Society of London, he expanded this lecture into an octavo volume, entitled ‘ A Comparative View of the Mortality of the Human Species at all Ages, and of Diseases and Casualiies, with Charts and Tables,’ published in 1788. Before half the first edition was sold he cancelled the remainder and brought out a second and corrected edition, as ‘An Arithmetical and Medical Analysis of the Diseases and Mortality of the Human Species,' 8vo, London, 1789. In this his design was to exhibit births, mortality, diseases, and casualties as being subject to aritlimetical proof, to construct in fact a ‘medical arithmetic,' a phrase evidently suggested by the ‘Political Arithmetic’ of Sir W. Petty. Although the efforts of Black have long been eclipsed by the brilliant results of Louis, Quetelet, and others in the same field, they had considerable importance in their day. The ‘Dissertation on Insanity’ is an expansion of a chapter in this book, and was based on observations fumished by an official of Bethlehem Hospital. His ‘Sketch of the History of Medicine’is a slight work, but was translated into French by Coray.

He wrote: 1. ‘A Historical Sketch of Medicine and Surgery from their Origin to the Present Time,with a Chronological Chart of Medical and Surgical Authors,' 8vc, London, 1782. In French, Paris, an vi. (1798). 2. ‘A Dissertation on Insanity, illustrated with tables from between two and three thousand cases in Bedlam,’ 8vo, London, 1810; second edition 1811. 3. ‘ Observations, Medical and Political, on the Smallpox, the Advantages and Disadvantages of General Inoculation, and on the Mortality of Mankind at every age,’ 8vo, London, 1781. 4. ‘Reasons for preventing the French, under the mask of liberty, from trampling on Europe,’ 8vo, 1792. 5. ‘Observations on Military and Political Affairs by General Monk,’ new edition, 8vo, 1796 (the last on authority of Biog. Dict. of Living Authors, 1816). His portrait, engraved by Stanier, was published by Sewell, 1790.

[Munk's Coll. Physicians, ii. 367; Biog Dict. of Living Authors (1816).]

J. F. P.