Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cheyne, John

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1358071Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 10 — Cheyne, John1887William Alexander Greenhill

CHEYNE, JOHN, M.D. (1777–1836), medical writer, was born in 1777 at Leith, where his father was a general practitioner. Several other members of his family belonged to the medical profession [see Cheyne, George]. His primary education was not altogether successful. He was sent to the grammar school at Leith, to the high school at Edinburgh under Dr. Adam [see Adam, Alexander] (of whom he gives a very unpleasant and unfavourable description in his ‘Autobiography’), and to a private tutor; but he did not learn very much, and in his thirteenth year he began his medical studies b attending to his father’s poor patients. In June 1795 (by the assistance, as he says, of a celebrated ‘coach’ of that day, and with a very superficial knowledge of his profession) he took his medical degree at Edinburgh, and having also procured a surgeon's diploma he became attached as assistant surgeon, and afterwards as full surgeon, to a regiment of artillery. He served in various parts of England and Ireland for four years, and spent his time in frivolous dissipation. At last he became dissatisfied with his prospects and with the deficiencies of his professional acquirements, and in 1799 he left the army and returned to Scotland, where he had the charge of the ordnance hospital in Leith Fort, and also acted as assistant to his father. Here he remained for ten years, working steadily at his profession, and becoming for the first time a real medical student. He directed his attention principally to the diseases of children and to acute and epidemic diseases. In 1801–2 he published two ‘Essays on the Diseases of Children:’ (1) ‘On Cynanche Trachealis or Croup,’ and (2) ‘On the Bowel Complaints more immediately connected with the Biliary Secretion;’ in 1808 a third essay ‘On Hydrocephalus Acutus, or Dropsy in the Brain;’ and in 1809 a work on ‘The Pathology of the Membrane of the Larynx and Bronchia.’ Some of these volumes are illustrated with beautifully executed coloured plates by Sir Charles (then Mr. Charles) Bell [see Bell, Sir Charles], with whom he became intimately acquainted while he was living at Leith, and of whom he says in his ‘Autobiography’ that ‘as an example of diligence in study he could not be surpassed, and it was already manifest that he was a man of genius.’ During this period of his life he married. He had for several years resolved to attempt to establish himself as a physician in a large city, whenever he should think himself fit for the undertaking. Accordingly at the age of thirty-two, 1809, he left Scotland and settled in Dublin. There he remained for more than twenty years, and he eventually (1820) became physician-general to the forces in Ireland, an office (since abolished) which was conceived at that time to confer on the possessor the highest medical rank in Ireland. His progress was, however, at first very slow, and during a period of about six months, from November 1810 to May 1811, his fees amounted to no more than three guineas. Part of his time during this period of enforced idleness was employed in preparing his ‘Cases of Apoplexy and Lethargy, with Observations upon the Comatose Diseases,’ which were published in London in 1812. In 1811 he was appointed physician at the Meath Hospital, and shortly afterwards professor of the practice of physic at the College of Surgeons, which appointments he held for about four years, till he received from the lord-lieutenant that of physician to the House of Industry. It was while Cheyne held this post that the fever which ravaged Ireland for upwards of two years became epidemic in Dublin in 1817, and the House of Industry was converted into a depôt for fever patients, of whom upwards of seven hundred were accommodated in its wards. No more fitting person, therefore, than Cheyne could be found to publish, in conjunction with Dr. F. Barker, ‘An Account of the Rise, Progress, and Decline of the Fever lately Epidemical in Ireland,’ London, 1821, 2 vols. Cheyne's average professional income for about ten years at this period of his life was 5,000l. per annum, with the probability of still increasing; but in 1825 his health began to fail, and he became affected with a species of nervous fever, from which he never entirely recovered. As the active practice of his profession became more and more burdensome to him, he determined to relinquish it altogether. Accordingly in 1831 he left Dublin, to the great regret both of his patients and also of his professional brethren, and retired to an estate which he had purchased at Sherington, near Newport Pagnel in Buckinghamshire. Here he passed the remainder of his life, and died 31 Jan. 1836 of a general breaking up of his constitution, which had long been progressing secretly, and at last exhibited itself definitively in mortification of the lower extremities. Cheyne was a man of great excellence of character, and very highly esteemed by all who knew him; and though his exterior deportment bore the appearance of indifference to the pains and sorrows which were daily brought before him, yet he was in reality deeply grieved by them, and to an extent which latterly tended to injure his health. During the early part of his residence at Sherington he tried to utilise his great professional experience by giving medical assistance to the poor in his neighbourhood, and also by contributing some articles to Forbes's ‘Cyclopædia of Practical Medicine.’ One of the last subjects that engaged his attention was the futility of attempting to cure insanity (especially religious insanity) by moral discipline, before the bodily disorder with which it is connected has been relieved. His remarks were published after his death (Dublin, 1843) with the title, ‘Essays on Partial Derangement of the Mind in supposed Connexion with Religion,’ and show (what all who knew him intimately were well aware of) that he was a devout and sincere christian. To these essays is prefixed a short but very interesting ‘Autobiographical Sketch,’ which he wrote shortly before his death, with the hope that it ‘might suggest useful hints to the junior members of the medical profession, to whom it was addressed? Cheyne's wife and several children survived him.

[Autobiographical Sketch; Dublin Journal of Medical Science, vol. ix. 1888; Dublin Univ. Mag. 1843, October.]

W. A. G.