Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cullen, William

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CULLEN, WILLIAM (1710–1790), physician, was born at Hamilton, Lanarkshire, on 15 April 1710, his father being factor to the Duke of Hamilton. He was early sent to Glasgow University, becoming also the pupil of a medical man named Paisley, whose good medical library and studious habits greatly aided the youth. At the close of 1729 Cullen went to London, and obtained a post as surgeon to a merchant ship commanded by a relative, with whom he went to the West Indies, and remained six months at Portobello. Returning to London, he for some time assisted an apothecary in Henrietta Street, and studied hard. His father and eldest brother having died, he was obliged to go back to Scotland in the winter of 1731–2 to make provision for his younger brothers and sisters, and began practice at Auchinlee, near Hamilton. After two years he was enabled by the receipt of a small legacy to take up a more advanced course of study, first securing tuition from a dissenting minister in Northumberland in literature and philosophy, and then spending two winter sessions (1734–6) at the Edinburgh Medical School under Monro primus. In 1736 he commenced practice as a surgeon in Hamilton, and soon gained the support of the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton, whose influence and promises retained him there till 1744, although he was much attracted to Glasgow. During 1739 and 1740 he was chief magistrate of Hamilton. From 1737 to 1740 William Hunter, elder brother of John Hunter, was Cullen's resident pupil, and continued through life his attached friend, referring to him as ‘a man to whom I owe most, and love most of all men in the world.’

Having graduated M.D. at Glasgow in 1740, Cullen took a partner for surgical work, and in 1741 married Miss Anna Johnstone, a lady of much conversational power and charming manners, who became the mother of seven sons and four daughters, and died in 1786. From 1744, when he removed to Glasgow, Cullen was much occupied in founding a medical school there, himself lecturing on medicine and several other subjects. Joseph Black [q. v.] was his intimate pupil for some years, and dedicated to him his celebrated treatise on fixed air. Cullen about this time made some discoveries on the evolution of heat in chemical combination and the cooling of solutions, which were not published till 1755 (‘Essay on the Cold produced by Evaporating Fluids,’ &c. in ‘Edinburgh Philosophical and Literary Essays,’ vol. ii. 1755; afterwards republished together with Black's ‘Experiments upon Magnesia Alba, Quicklime,’ &c. Edinburgh, 1777), while others remained in manuscript, and suggested to Black important points in relation to latent heat. The master was sufficiently discerning to appreciate Black, and magnanimous enough to abstain from appropriating his ideas or pursuing similar researches.

Early in 1751 Cullen succeeded Dr. Johnstone as professor of medicine in Glasgow University, by the influence of the Duke of Argyll. His private practice did not become lucrative, nor did the medical school grow rapidly; consequently Cullen was advised by influential friends to seek an appointment in Edinburgh. On 9 Nov. 1755 he was elected joint professor of chemistry at Edinburgh, entering on his work in the following January, and becoming sole professor in July on the death of his colleague Plummer. Black had refused to compete against Cullen, and the latter, on his appointment, offered Black all his fees if he would assist him. Ten years later Black succeeded Cullen.

Cullen's first chemical course was attended by only seventeen students, the second by fifty-nine, and his class afterwards rose to 145. In 1757 he began to give clinical lectures in the infirmary, a practice in which Dr. Rutherford alone had preceded him. His careful preparation, his graphic descriptions of disease, and his candour, simplicity of thought, and comprehensiveness of view, soon made his clinical lectures renowned, especially as he delivered them in English instead of Latin. He taught his students to observe the course of nature in diseases, to distinguish between essential and accidental symptoms, and to carefully discriminate between the action of remedies and the curative operations of nature. He lectured largely on diseases of the most common types as being most useful to students. His prescriptions were markedly simple, and he experimentally used and introduced many new drugs of great value, such as cream of tartar, henbane, James's powder, and tartar emetic.

Charles Alston [q. v.], the professor of materia medica at Edinburgh, dying early in the session of 1760–1, his pupils, during the delay in the appointment of his successor, persuaded Cullen to deliver a course of lectures on materia medica, continuing also his chemistry course. These lectures being afterwards published without his authority in 1771, he obtained an injunction against the publisher, but afterwards permitted the edition to be sold with some corrections, on condition of receiving a share of the profits Cullen subsequently rewrote the book, and published it in two quarto volumes.

Cullen's great success as a clinical lecturer made him and his friends strongly desire and canvass for his appointment to the chair of the practice of physic on Dr. Rutherford's resignation in February 1766; but Rutherford's marked preference for Dr. John Gregory as his successor prevailed. Cullen was much disappointed, and when Whytt, the professor of the ‘Institutes’ or theory of physic (mainly a physiological chair), died two months afterwards, he was with difficulty persuaded to become a candidate. He was elected, however, on 1 Nov. 1766, and an arrangement was made in 1768 by which Gregory and Cullen lectured in alternate years on the theory and the practice of medicine. On Gregory's death in 1773 Cullen succeeded him, and thenceforth was the mainstay of the Edinburgh Medical School for many years. He was president of the Edinburgh College of Physicians from 1773 to 1775, and took an active part in preparing the new edition of the ‘Edinburgh Pharmacopœia’ issued in 1774, and in arranging for the building of a new hall for the college, begun in 1775. In the latter year he relinquished his teaching of clinical medicine at the infirmary. In 1776 he was elected foreign associate of the Royal Society of Medicine at Paris, and in 1777 fellow of the Royal Society of London. In 1783 Cullen's persevering exertions secured the incorporation of the Philosophical Society as the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His later years were clouded by the attacks of John Brown, founder of the Brunonian system (1735–1788) [q. v.], and his followers, and by the death of his wife; and his mental faculties were considerably dimmed before he resigned his professorship on 30 Dec. 1789. He died on 5 Feb. 1790, and was buried at Kirknewton, in which parish was situated his estate of Ormiston Hill.

Cullen was not remarkable as an anatomist or physiologist, nor was he specially an observer of medical facts. He was distinguished for his clearness of perception and sound reasoning and judgment rather than for epoch-making originality. Yet he had qualities which for many years made his name supreme among British teachers of medicine. As a lecturer he had great powers of interesting his students and inspiring them with enthusiasm. Dr. Anderson, one of his pupils, highly commends his excellent arrangement, his memory of facts, and the ease, vivacity, variety, and force of his lectures, which were delivered extemporaneously. To uncommon patience he joined great regard for truth. His was essentially a philosophic mind, not endowed with great imagination, but well read, and extremely capable of gathering together what was already known, and carrying it a stage further by his reflections. Dr. Aikin (General Biography, iii. 255), another pupil of Cullen's, says that his students were ardently attached to him because ‘he was cordially attentive to all their interests, admitted them freely to his house, conversed with them on the most familiar terms, solved their doubts and difficulties, gave them the use of his library, and in every respect treated them with the affection of a friend and the regard of a parent.’ He frequently gave poor students gratuitous admission to his lectures, and appears to have been the first to introduce at Edinburgh the practice of not charging fees for medical attendance on students of the university.

Cullen's principal works are the ‘Nosology’ and the ‘First Lines of the Practice of Physic.’ The former is a synopsis and classification of diseases, with definitions. His division of diseases into four great classes—(1) pyrexiæ, or febrile diseases; (2) neuroses, or nervous diseases; (3) cachexiæ, or diseases resulting from bad habit of body; and (4) locales, or local diseases—was a great improvement, and much impressed his contemporaries and successors. Yet it brought together widely distinct diseases, and separated allied ones. The ‘First Lines’ was very popular. In it Cullen strongly opposed Boerhaave's eclectic system, which leaned much towards the views of the humoral pathologists, and favoured rather those of Hoffmann; and he had the merit of attaching great importance to the influence of the nervous system in producing and modifying diseases. He was early acquainted with the distinctness of nerves of sensation and nerves of motion. In a clinical lecture delivered in 1765–6 he says: ‘It is surprising that, when the nerves that go off together from the sensorium are the cause of both sensation and motion in a muscle, yet the one should be destroyed and the other remain entire; this affords a proof that these nerves are distinct, even in the sensorium.’ He rejected Hartley's doctrine of vibrations, and referred the operations of the nerves to the agency of a nervous fluid, meaning by this that there is ‘a condition of the nerves which fits them for the communication of motion’ (see Brown, John (1735–1788); and Cullen's Life, ii. 222 et seq. and note M. pp. 710–18). Brown, when a Latin grinder to medical students, was very kindly treated by Cullen, who for some time employed him as tutor to his children, and testified much affection towards him, notwithstanding Brown's irregular habits. It is said that Cullen had even promised to use his interest to gain Brown the next vacant medical chair, if he became qualified; but before he graduated Brown had quitted Cullen's service, and promulgated his own doctrines in the lectures afterwards published in the ‘Elementa Medicinæ,’ which Cullen felt bound to oppose in no measured terms. Adherents of the Brunonian system of stimulation and the doctrine of sthenic and asthenic diseases were rigorously plucked by Cullen and the orthodox teachers, and at last Brown was driven from Edinburgh in 1786, largely by his own intemperance and extravagances.

Dr. Anderson describes Cullen as having a striking and not unpleasing aspect, although by no means elegant. His eye was remarkably vivacious and expressive; he was tall and thin, stooping very much in later life. In walking he had a contemplative look, scarcely regarding the objects around him. When in Edinburgh he rose before seven, and would often dictate to an amanuensis till nine. At ten he commenced his visits to his patients, proceeding in a sedan chair through the narrow closes and wynds. In addition to an extensive practice, his lectures occupied two hours a day during the session, sometimes four; yet, when encountered, he never seemed in a hurry or discomposed. He would play whist before supper with keen interest. His gifts showed a noble carelessness about money, which he kept in an unlocked drawer, and resorted to when he needed it. He eventually died without leaving any fortune. A marble bust of Cullen, by Gowans, was subscribed for by his pupils and placed in the Edinburgh New College. There are two portraits of him, one by Cochrane in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow, the other by Morton in the possession of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh. Cullen's eldest son, Robert [q. v.], became a Scottish judge under the title of Lord Cullen.

The following is a list of Cullen's principal works:

  1. ‘Synopsis Nosologiæ Methodicæ,’ Edinburgh, 1769, 8vo. This went through numerous Latin editions, but was not published in English until 1800. The best edition is that by Dr. John Thomson, 1814.
  2. ‘Institutions of Medicine, Part I. Physiology,’ Edinburgh, 1772; translated into French by Bosquillon, Paris, 1785.
  3. ‘Lectures on the Materia Medica,’ London, 1771, 4to, published without Cullen's consent; reprinted with his permission, 1773; rewritten by himself and published under the title ‘A treatise of Materia Medica,’ Edinburgh, 2 vols. 1789, 4to. A French translation by Bosquillon was published at Paris in the same year.
  4. ‘Letter to Lord Cathcart concerning the recovery of persons drowned and seemingly dead,’ Edinburgh, 1775, 8vo.
  5. ‘First Lines of the Practice of Physic,’ Edinburgh, 1776–1784, 4 vols. 8vo. Many editions have been published; an important one is that in 2 vols., edited and enlarged by Dr. J. C. Gregory, Edinburgh, 1829. French translations were published by Pinel, 1785, and by Bosquillon, 1785–7, with notes. There were also German (by C. E. Kapp, Leipzig, 1789), Latin (Göttingen, 1786), and Italian translations.
  6. ‘Clinical Lectures,’ delivered 1765–6, published by an auditor, London, 1797, 8vo.
  7. ‘The substance of Nine Lectures on Vegetation and Agriculture delivered privately in 1768,’ London, 1796, pp. 41, 4to, in Appendix to Outlines of 15th chapter of ‘Proposed General Report from the Board of Agriculture;’ with notes by G. Pearson, M.D., F.R.S.
  8. A general edition of the Works of Cullen, containing his Physiology, Nosology, and First Lines, with numerous extracts from his manuscript papers and his ‘Treatise on Materia Medica,’ was published, edited by Dr. John Thomson, 2 vols. Edinburgh, 1827.

    [The Bee, or Literary Weekly Intelligencer, by Dr. James Anderson, Edinburgh, 1791, i. 1–14, 45–56, 121–5, 161–6; Lives of British Physicians, Macmichael, London, 1830; An Account of the Life, Lectures, and Writings of W. Cullen, by Dr. John Thomson, Edinburgh, 1832, vol. i. only then published; reissued in 1859 with vol. ii., partly by Dr. J. Thomson and his son Dr. William Thomson, and completed by Dr. David Craigie, the whole diffuse and ponderous; Edinb. Rev. lv. 461–79 (reprinted in Sir W. Hamilton's Discussions, pp. 238–59); Pettigrew's Medical Portrait Gallery, 1840, vol. iv.; Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, ed. Thomson, 1868.]

    G. T. B.