Dick, Alexander (DNB00)

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DICK, Sir ALEXANDER (1703–1785), physician, born in October 1703, was the third son of Sir William Cunyngham of Caprington, bart., by Janet, only child and heiress of Sir James Dick of Prestonfield near Edinburgh. Not sharing in the large fortunes inherited by his elder brother William, Alexander determined to qualify himself for a profession. He began the study of medicine at the university of Edinburgh, and afterwards proceeded to Leyden, where he became a pupil of Boerhaave, and proceeded M.D. 31 Aug. 1725. His inaugural dissertation, ‘De Epilepsia,’ was published. A similar degree was conferred on him two years later by the university of St. Andrews. In 1727 he began practising as a physician in Edinburgh, and on 7 Nov. of the same year he was enrolled a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Ten years later he travelled on the continent with his friend Allan Ramsay the painter, son of the well-known Scottish poet. During his travels Cunyngham, as he was still called, added largely to his scientific acquirements, and on his return home he settled in Pembrokeshire, where he earned great reputation as a successful practitioner. Meanwhile he maintained a constant correspondence with Allan Ramsay the poet and other friends in Scotland.

In 1746, by the death of his brother William, he succeeded to the baronetcy of Dick, and took up his residence in the family mansion of Prestonfield, which lies at the foot of Arthur's Seat, near Edinburgh. Abandoning his profession as a lucrative pursuit, he still cultivated it for scientific purposes, and in 1756 was elected president of the College of Physicians of Edinburgh, an office which he continued to hold for seven successive years. He voluntarily relinquished the chair in 1763 on the ground ‘that it was due to the merits of other gentlemen that there should be some rotation.’ He continued to devote some portion of his time to the service of the college, and contributed liberally to the building of the new hall. His portrait was afterwards placed in the college library as a mark of respect. Dick helped to obtain a charter for the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and promoted the establishment of a medical school in the Royal Infirmary. When Dr. Mounsey of St. Petersburg first brought the seeds of the true rhubarb into Great Britain, Dick, who probably knew the properties of the plant from his old master's nephew, A. K. Boerhaave, bestowed great care on its cultivation and pharmaceutical preparation. The Society of Arts presented him in 1774 with a gold medal ‘for the best specimen of rhubarb.’ Dick corresponded with Dr. Johnson, who paid a visit to Prestonfield during his celebrated journey to Scotland. Dick married first, in 1736, Sarah, daughter of Alexander Dick, merchant, in Edinburgh, a relative on his mother's side; secondly, in 1762, Mary, daughter of David Butler, esq., of Pembrokeshire. He died at the age of eighty-two, on 10 Nov. 1785. A memoir of Dick, published soon after his death in the ‘Edinburgh Medical Commentaries,’ was reprinted for private distribution, in 1849, by Sir Robert Keith Dick-Cunyngham, his third son. An account of his ‘Journey from London to Paris in 1736’ was also printed privately.

[Gent. Mag. 1853, xxxix. 22; Irving's Book of Scotsmen; Edinburgh Medical Commentaries, 1785.]

R. H.