Combe, Andrew (DNB00)

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COMBE, ANDREW, M.D. (1797–1847), physiologist and phrenologist, the fifteenth child and seventh son of an Edinburgh brewer, was born in Edinburgh on 27 Oct. 1797. Notwithstanding the Calvinistic rigour of his home, he grew up humorous and lively, though very shy. After some years' attendance at the Edinburgh High School and University, making little progress owing to the inferiority of his teachers, he became a surgeon's pupil in 1812, residing during most of the time with his elder brother George Combe [q. y], and obtaining his diploma at Surgeons' Hall on 2 Feb. 1817. Up to 1814, as he himself expressed it (Life, p. 42), he was so well drilled to humility by being called blockhead at home, that he never felt encouraged to take a higher view of his own capabilities; but his brother George gradually opened his mind to more ambitious thoughts. In October 1817 he went to Paris to complete his medical studies, working especially at anatomy, and carefully investigating the brain under Spurzheim's influence in 1818-19. After a visit to Switzerland, he returned to Edinburgh in 1819, intending to commence practice there. But he was attacked by symptoms of lung disease which compelled him to spend the next two winters in the south of France and Italy. In 1823 he began to practise in Edinburgh. He had already contributed thoughtful essays to the newly established Phrenological Society. The first of these that was published was 'On the Effects of Injuries of the Brain upon the Manifestations of the Mind,' read on 9 Jan. 1823 (Transactions of the Phrenological Society, 1824). It confuted the dictum of Rennell, the Christian advocate at Cambridge, that portions of the brain had been found entirely disorganised, when no single power of the patient's mind had been impaired to the day of death. In the same year he also answered Dr. Barclay's attack on phrenology in his 'Life and Organisation' (ib. p. 393). Combe's essay was so clearly written that a subsequent opponent of phrenology alluded to its 'satanic logic.' In 1823 he joined his brother and others in establishing the 'Phrenological Journal,' continuing a proprietor till 1837, and a contributor till the year before his death. A memorable discussion on phrenology, initiated by an essay by Andrew Combe, took place at the Royal Medical Society on 21 and 25 Nov. 1823, which on the last-named night lasted till nearly four the next morning. The essay was published in the 'Phrenological Journal,' i. 337; the discussion was suppressed owing to an injunction obtained by the society from the court of session. In 1825 Combe graduated M.D. at Edinburgh. His practice grew considerable, largely owing to his carefulness to enlist the reason and the sympathies of patients in aid of their cure; he avoided mystery, and he saved much alarm and prevented many evils by explanations and forecasts. In 1827 he was elected president of the Phrenological Society.

Combe had been consulted in many cases of insanity and nervous disease, and on 6 Feb. 1830 wrote an article in the 'Scotsman' commenting unfavourably on the verdict of the jury in the Davies case in 1829. The doctors who had declared Davies insane were proved by the event to be quite right. Encouraged by his success, Combe published in 1831 ' Observations on Mental Derangement,' which was very successful, but was not reprinted owing to want of time and health to re-edit it. His health forced him to spend the winter of 1831-2 abroad, but by great care he recovered sufficiently to begin writing his work on 'Physiology applied to Health and Education.' This was published in 1834 and at once became popular. The fourth impression of the twelfth edition appeared in 1843. At the time of his death 28,000 copies had been sold in this country besides numerous editions in the United States.

Combe's health only permitted him to resume practice to a limited extent in 1833-5. Early in 1836 he received the appointment of physician to King Leopold of Belgium, by Dr. (afterwards Sir James) Clark's [q. v.] recommendation, and removed to Brussels; but his health again failed, and he returned to Edinburgh in the same year. He soon completed and published his 'Physiology of Digestion' (1836), which reached a ninth edition in 1849. A very considerable practice now tasked his energies, and in 1838 he was appointed physician extraordinary to the queen in Scotland. In 1840 he published his last, and he considered his best book, 'The Physiological and Moral Management of Infancy.' The sixth edition appeared in 1847. During his later years the disease under which he had long suffered, pulmonary consumption, made serious advances, combated by unremittingly careful hygiene. Two winters in Madeira and a voyage to the United States failed to restore him, and he died while on a visit to a nephew at Gorgie, near Edinburgh, on 9 Aug. 1847. A long letter on ship-fever, written just before his death, appeared in the ' Times ' of 17 Sept. 1847, and was reprinted in the 'Journal of Public Health,' No. v. March 1848. Several of its suggestions were afterwards made imperative on owners of emigrant ships. Combe was never married. A list of Combe's very numerous contributions to the 'Phrenological Journal,' some of which were reprinted in a volume of selections in 1836, is given in his ' Life,' pp. 553-7. His contributions to the 'British and Foreign Medical Review' are enumerated, ib. p. 560. Many additional writings and letters are included in the 'Life.'

The popularity of Combe's writings depends on their simplicity, their practicality, and their tone of good sense. He has recorded that most of his writings were directly founded on or extracted from his correspondence in medical consultation, and thus related to actual cases under observation. Mingled with a few errors common to phrenologists was a great amount of sound physiology, both mental and general, and his principal works are still read with pleasure and profit. It is singular that the publishers to whom he applied would not risk publishing his books, and that Murray even declined the ' Physiology ' when the third edition was already being printed. Thus, fortunately for himself, Combe retained the copyright in all his books; and he had the discernment to know that he wrote best when 'not fettered by another person's design or time.' He frequently states that he had not a versatile mind, and that writing was a great labour to him. But he was animated by a sincere desire to improve both knowledge and practice in regard to health, and a strong belief that the laws of nature were the expression of divine wisdom, and ought to be studied by every human being.

In person Combe was six feet two inches in height, very slender, and he stooped much in later years. His face was remarkable for its keen and beaming eyes and earnest expression. A good portrait of him was painted by Macnee in 1836. He is described as a quick and penetrating judge of character, a model of temperance, benevolent, independent and impartial, but fond of mirth, especially with children.

[Life, by George Combe, 1850; Memoir by R. Cox, Phrenological Journal, xx. 373, reprinted with additions for private circulation; Scotsman, 21 Aug. 1847; Harriet Martineau in Once a Week, iv. (1861), 575.]

G. T. B.