Blane, Gilbert (DNB00)

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BLANE, Sir GILBERT (1749–1834), physician, was the fourth son of Mr. Gilbert Blane of Blanefield, Ayrshire, where he was born on 29 Aug. (O.S.) 1749. At the age of fourteen he was sent to the university of Edinburgh, being at first intended for the church, but was ultimately led to study medicine. After spending five years in the faculty of arts, and five more in that of medicine at Edinburgh, he took the degree of M.D. in the university of Glasgow on 28 Aug. 1778. During his studentship he was elected one of the presidents of the (Students') Medical Society of Edinburgh. On leaving Edinburgh Blane came to London furnished with introductions from his teacher, Dr. Cullen, to Dr. William Hunter, who recommended him as private physician to Lord Holdernesse, and afterwards in the same capacity to Admiral Rodney, who was then sailing on his notable expedition to the West Indies in 1779. Blane won Rodney's good opinion by his professional skill and also by his personal bravery, which was shown in conveying the admiral's orders under fire in a dangerous emergency to the officers at the guns. Rodney at once placed him in the important position of physician to the fleet, which he occupied till the close of the war, returning to England with Admiral Francis William Drake in the spring of 1783. He was present at six general engagements, and wrote an account, which was published, of the great victory over the French fleet commanded by the Comte de Grasse on 12 April 1782. He also furnished materials for Mundy's ‘Life of Rodney,’ and took part in a controversy which subsequently arose respecting that great admiral's originality in introducing into naval warfare the manœuvre of ‘breaking the line.’ These, with many other circumstances, show the intimate friendship which existed between Blane and his commander. The officers of the West India fleet also marked their appreciation of Blane's services by unanimously recommending him to the admiralty for a special recompense, which he received in the form of a pension from the crown. In 1781, when Rodney was compelled by the state of his health to come home for a time, Blane accompanied him, and took the opportunity of being admitted as licentiate of the College of Physicians on 3 Dec. 1781, but returned to the West India station early in 1782.

The services which Blane rendered while in medical charge of the West India fleet, and the reforms which, firmly supported by Rodney, he was able to introduce, were indeed of the most signal importance, not only to the efficiency of that fleet, but as inaugurating a new era in the sanitary condition of the navy. Before his time scurvy prevailed to a lamentable extent among seamen, so that important naval operations often failed from this cause alone. Fevers and other diseases arising from infection and the unhealthy state of ships also caused great mortality. Blane, in a memorial presented to the admiralty on 13 Oct. 1781, showed that one man in seven died from disease on the West India station in one year. He suggested certain precautions, especially relating to the supply of wine, fresh fruit, and other provisions, adapted to prevent scurvy, and also advocated the enforcement of stricter discipline in sanitary matters on board ship. In a second memorial (16 July 1782) he points out the great improvement effected by the carrying out of these suggestions, the annual mortality being reduced to one in twenty. The health of the fleet during the latter part of Rodney's command was indeed remarkably good, and greatly contributed to its successes, as was generously acknowledged by the commander himself in the following words:—‘To his (Dr. Blane's) knowledge and attention it was owing that the English fleet was, notwithstanding their excessive fatigue and constant service, in a condition always to attack and defeat the public enemy. In my own ship, the Formidable, out of 900 men, not one was buried in six months.’

In 1780 Blane brought out a small book ‘On the most effectual means for preserving the Health of Seamen, particularly in the Royal Navy.’ Later on, in 1793, his recommendation of lemon-juice as a preventive of the scurvy to Admiral Sir Alan Gardner, one of the lords of the admiralty, produced such good results as led to the issuing in 1795 of regulations for the universal use of this article in the navy. Though Blane was by no means the discoverer of this remedy, which had been known for more than a century, and had been strongly recommended by Dr. Lind and others, he was the means of introducing those regulations which have entirely banished scurvy from the queen's ships.

Shortly after Blane's return to England a vacancy occurred for a physician at St. Thomas's Hospital, and as he was now resolved to practise in London, he became a candidate. The influence of Lord Rodney, who after his brilliant victories was one of the most popular men in England, was warmly exerted on his behalf. In a letter to one of the governors Rodney bore the generous testimony to Blane's merits which has already been quoted. After a sharp contest Blane was elected, on 19 Sept. 1783, by 98 votes to 84. He held this office for twelve years, resigning it in 1795.

In 1785 Blane was appointed physician extraordinary to the Prince of Wales, on the recommendation of the Duke of Clarence, with whom he had become acquainted in his naval career; and afterwards became physician to the prince's household and his physician in ordinary. In 1785 also he produced the first edition of his work on the diseases of seamen, which passed through several editions and attained the position of a medical classic.

His court and hospital appointments, with other connections, appear to have procured Blane a large practice, but he was more especially known for his services in public affairs, naval, military, and civil.

In 1795 he was appointed one of the commissioners for sick and wounded seamen, a body which was virtually the medical board for the navy, and held this position till the reduction of the naval and military establishments after the peace of Amiens in 1802, when his services were rewarded with a doubling of his former pension.

His advice was frequently sought by the government and other authorities on sanitary and medical matters. Thus in 1799 the Turkey Company, which then controlled the whole of the Levant trade, consulted him about the quarantine regulations for the prevention of the importation of plague from the Mediterranean, and he was called upon by the government to draw up, in conjunction with other eminent physicians, the rules which formed the basis of the Quarantine Act of 1799. When the army returned from Egypt, it was transported under regulations drawn up by Blane to guard against the danger of introducing the plague into this country. The Home Office consulted him on a variety of subjects: on the means of keeping contagious fevers out of prisons, on the mortality which arose from the same cause in ships which carried convicts to Botany Bay, &c. The board of control sought his aid in framing improved regulations for the medical service in India. Hardly any department of state failed to resort to Blane's advice on one occasion or another. But the most important emergency on which he was called upon to advise the government was in connection with the disastrous Walcheren expedition. It was felt that the critical situation of the army, owing chiefly to the ravages of disease, was eminently a question requiring medical knowledge and experience. The army medical board (consisting of the physician-general, the surgeon-general, and the inspector-general) had lost the confidence of the government, first through having failed to foresee the dangers arising from the unhealthiness of the seat of war, and then by their supineness in meeting the crisis, each member of the board excusing himself on various pretexts from proceeding to the scene of action (see report of evidence given before a committee of the whole House of Commons, 1810). Under these circumstances the War Office sent out Blane to report; and when it was decided, chiefly on medical grounds, to recall the expedition, he was charged with the arrangements for bringing home the sick and wounded.

This perhaps unprecedented instance of employing a naval medical officer in the work of the army department undoubtedly raised Blane's reputation, whether or no (which does not appear) it may have given rise to any jealousy. He was at once liberally rewarded and thanked, and received the honour of a baronetcy from the prince regent on 26 Dec. 1812.

On the accession of George IV Blane became one of his physicians in ordinary, and filled the same office in the next reign. Consultations on medico-political questions and compensatory honours flowed in upon Blane from foreign countries. The emperor of Russia, the king of Prussia, and the president of the United States sought his advice and acknowledged his services. In 1821 the medical officers of the navy presented him with a piece of plate. In 1829 he founded a prize medal for the best journal kept by the surgeons of the royal navy. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, a member of the Institute of France, and other learned bodies. In 1821 Blane's health began to fail, but not seriously till 1834. He died on 26 June 1834 at his house in Sackville Street. An unfinished portrait of him by Sir M. A. Shee is in the College of Physicians. He married, 11 July 1786, the only daughter of Mr. Abraham Gardiner, and had six sons and three daughters. He was succeeded in the title by his third son, Hugh Seymour Blane; the two elder died previously.

Blane was undoubtedly a man of great original force of character, and he became a very completely equipped physician. He united in an uncommon degree adequate scholarship and considerable dialectical skill with scientific acumen and great administrative capacity. He does not appear to have made any reputation as a hospital teacher, but his books are well written and full of original observations. Although there is no one subject in which he made any striking discovery, the general body of fact and argument in his writings constitutes an important contribution to medicine and to the science of health. His tract entitled ‘Medical Logic,’ intended to show the fallacies which beset medical inquiries, contains a good deal of common sense with some philosophical pedantry. Of his other dissertations the most important are: ‘On the Comparative Health of the British Navy from 1779 to 1814 (‘Medico-Chirurgical Transactions,’ vol. vi. 1815); ‘Observations respecting Intermittent Fevers, the cause of the sickness of the army in Walcheren, &c.’ (ib. vol. iii. 1812); ‘On the Comparative Prevalence and Mortality of different Diseases in London’ (ib. vol. iv. 1813). He wrote also: ‘Observations on the Diseases of Seamen,’ London, 8vo, 1st ed. 1785, 2nd ed. 1790, 3rd ed. 1803 (with a pharmacopœia for the naval service). ‘Elements of Medical Logick,’ London, 1819, 8vo, 2nd ed. 1821, 3rd ed. 1825. ‘Select Dissertations on Medical Science collected,’ London, 1822, 8vo, 2nd ed. 2 vols. 1833, including those quoted above with others, namely: ‘On Muscular Motion’ (the Croonian Lecture read before the Royal Society, 18 and 20 Nov. 1788); ‘On the True Value and Present State of Vaccination’ (also in ‘Med.-Chir. Trans.’ vol. x. 1819); ‘On the Mechanical Compression of the Head in Hydrocephalus;’ ‘On the Yellow Fever,’ &c., &c. ‘Statement of the Progressive Improvement in the Health of the Royal Navy at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, London, 1830, 8vo. ‘Warning to the Public on the Cholera of India,’ London, 1831, 8vo. ‘Reflections on the Present Crisis of Public Affairs,’ 1831, 8vo, &c.

[Authentic Memoirs of Physicians and Surgeons, 2nd ed. 1818, p. 135; London Medical Gazette, 1834, xiv. 459, 483; Gent. Mag. 1835, p. 93; Mundy's Life of Rodney, 2 vols. London, 1830; Munk's Coll. of Phys. (1878), ii. 325; Archives of St. Thomas's Hospital; Blane's Works.]

J. F. P.