Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fordyce, George

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964931Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 19 — Fordyce, George1889Joseph Frank Payne

FORDYCE, GEORGE (1736–1802), physician, born at Aberdeen on 18 Nov. 1736, was the only and posthumous son of George Fordyce of Broadford, a small property near that city. His father was one of a family of twenty children, several of whom became well known, e.g. David, the professor of philosophy [q. v.]; James, the divine [q. v.]; Sir William, the physician [q. v.]; and John, also a physician. George Fordyce was sent to school at Fouran, and afterwards to the university of Aberdeen, where he became M.A. at the age, it is said, of fourteen. A year later he was sent to his uncle, Dr. John Fordyce of Uppingham, to prepare for the medical profession, and, after spending four years with him, entered as a medical student in the university of Edinburgh. Here he became a favourite pupil of Cullen, from whom he imbibed a fondness for chemistry and materia medica, as well as an insight into practical medicine. He graduated M.D. in October 1758 with a dissertation 'De Catarrho,' which shows considerable knowledge of chemistry and contains results which the author thought worth quoting in his public lectures thirty years later. Immediately afterwards he came to London, but in 1759 passed over to Leyden, where he studied anatomy under Albinus. Returning to London in the same year he resolved to settle there as a lecturer on medical science, a career which was at that time, owing to the absence of regular medical schools, a comparatively open oneBefore the end of the year he had commenced a course of lectures on chemistry, and in 1764 added courses on materia medica and the practice of physic. These subjects he continued to teach for nearly thirty years, lecturing on the three in succession from seven to ten on six mornings in the week the whole year through. Such arduous labour probably soon began to bear fruit, as we find that Fordyce married in 1762, and in after years his lectures were extremely popular, being attended successively by thousands of students, among them many who subsequently became distinguished. Several full copies of notes by his pupils still exist in manuscript.

Fordyce was admitted licentiate of the College of Physicians on 25 June 1765. Five years afterwards, a vacancy having occurred for a physician at St. Thomas's Hospital through the death of Akenside, Fordyce became a candidate, and, after a close contest with Dr. (afterwards Sir William) Watson, was elected on 11 July 1770 to that office, which he held till his death. In 1776 he was made F.R.S., and wrote several papers in the 'Philosophical Transactions.' In 1787 he was elected 'speciali gratia' fellow of the College of Physicians, the greater honour because at that time only graduates of English universities were generally eligible to the fellowship, and because Fordyce had been an active partisan of the licentiates in their quarrel with the college. Fordyce took an important part in the compilation of the new 'Pharmacopeia Londinensis,' which was issued in 1788. In 1793 he assisted in forming a Society for the Improvement of Medical and Chirurgical Knowledge, to the 'Transactions' of which he also contributed.

Fordyce was not at first successful in practice, owing, it is said, partly to disregard of appearances in manner and dress; but in later life he was fully occupied till his health began to give way. His habits had always been such as to try his constitution; and in early life, it is said, he often reconciled the claims of pleasure and business by lecturing for three hours in the morning without having gone to bed the night before. He had conceived the idea that man ought to eat only once in the day, and consequently took no meal but a dinner, though this, if anecdotes are trustworthy,was a very liberal one (Munk, Coll. of Phys. 1878, ii. 375). He died of disorders connected with gout on 25 May 1802, at his house in Essex Street, Strand. He was the father of two sons, who died young, and two daughters, who survived him. His portrait, by T. Phillips, is preserved at St. Thomas's Hospital, and was engraved by S. Phillips in 1796.

Fordyce was a man of much intellectual force and of great attainments in medicine. His friend Dr. Wells, no mean judge, thought him more generally skilled in the medical sciences than any other person of his time. He was also a good chemist and mineralogist. One of his chemical papers in the 'Philosophical Transactions' (No. 7 in list below) is important as confirming by an indirect method the views of Priestley and Lavoisier in opposition to the doctrine of Phlogiston. His medical lectures, judging from the manuscript notes, seem to have been lucidly arranged and remarkable for rather elaborate logical analysis. They are said by Dr. Wells to have been composed and delivered entirely without notes, and with a slow, hesitating manner. The 'Elements of Physic' was the text-book for these lectures; but it is on the 'Treatise on Digestion' and the 'Dissertations on Fever' that Fordyce's reputation rests. The former, which was first delivered as the Gulstonian lecture before the College of Physicians, is a work of great ability and conceived in a scientific spirit. Rejecting all purely mechanical and chemical theories, he treats digestion as a physiological process. A similar reaction against the scholastic medical systems of the last century is shown in the 'Dissertations on Fever,' in which the leading principle is that 'observation of the disease is entirely to be adhered to, without any reasoning why or how anything in it takes place.' Fordyce's observations on the temperature of the human body were numerous and historically important. He devised experiments, the results of which were communicated to the Royal Society by Sir C. Blagden, which showed that the body preserves a constant temperature even in heated rooms. He wrote:

  1. 'Elements of Agriculture and Vegetation,' Edinburgh, 1765, 8vo; 2nd edition, London; 3rd edition, ib., 1779 (lectures given to a class of gentlemen interested in agriculture).
  2. ' Elements of the Practice of Physic,' 2 vols., London; 2nd edition, 1768-70; 6th edition, ib., 1791.
  3. 'Treatise on the Digestion of Food,' London, 1791; 2nd edition, 1791.
  4. 'Dissertation on Simple Fever,' London, 1794; 2nd edition, ib., 1800; 'Second Dissertation on Tertian Intermittent Fever,' ib., 1795; 'Third Dissertation on Continued Fever,' 2 pts., 1798-9; 'Fourth Dissertation,' ib., 1802; 'Fifth Dissertation ' (edited after the author's death by Dr. Wells), ib., 1803.
  5. 'Syllabus of Lectures on Chemistry,' 12mo, s. d. The first four were translated into German.

In 'Philosophical Transactions:' (1) 'Of the Light produced by Inflammation,' vol. lxvi.; (2) 'Examination of Ores in Museum of Dr. W. Hunter,' vol. lxix.; (3) 'New Method of Assaying Copper Ores;' (4) 'On Loss of Weight in Bodies on being Melted or Heated,' vol. lxxv.; (5) 'Account of an Experiment on Heat,' vol. lxxvii.; (6) 'The Croonian Lecture on Muscular Motion;' (7) 'On the Cause of the Additional Weight which Bodies acquire on being Calcined,' vol. lxlxii.; (8) 'Account of a New Pendulum, being the Bakerian Lecture,' vol. Ixxxiv. In 'Transactions' of a society above mentioned: (1) 'Observations on the Small-pox and Causes of Fever;' (2) 'An Attempt to Improve the Evidence of Medicine;' (3) 'Some Observations upon the Composition of Medicines.'

[Gent. Mag. June 1802 (memoir by Dr. Wells, the original authority); Monthly Mag. July 1802; Archives of St. Thomas's Hospital.]

J. F. P.