Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gregory, James (1753-1821)

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GREGORY, JAMES (1753–1821), professor of medicine at Edinburgh University, son of John Gregory (1724-1773) [q.v.], was born at Aberdeen in January 1753. He was educated at Aberdeen and Edinburgh, and also studied for a short time at Christ Church, Oxford. He gained considerable classical knowledge, wrote Latin easily and well, and was always ready with apt Latin quotations, which often served him well in controversy. In the winter of 1773-4 he studied at St. George's Hospital. London. While he was still a student of medicine at Edinburgh Gregory's father died suddenly during the winter session of 1773, and he, by a great effort, completed his father's course of lectures. His success was such that while Cullen succeeded to the father's chair, the professorship of the institutes of medicine was kept open for the son. He took his M.D. in 1774, and spent the next two years in studying medicine on the continent.

In 1776, at the age of twenty-three, he was appointed professor, and in 1777 he began giving clinical lectures at the infirmary. In 1780-2 the publication of his ‘Conspectus’ established his position in medicine, and in 1790 he succeeded Cullen in the chair of the practice of medicine. From this time he was the chief of the Edinburgh Medical School, and had the leading consulting practice in Scotland until his death on 2 April 1821 ; he was buried on 7 April in the Canongate churchyard, Edinburgh. By his second wife, a Miss McLeod, whom he married in 1796, he had eleven children, of whom five sons and two daughters survived him. His sons Duncan and William (1803-1858) are noticed separately.

Gregory did little original work in medicine of permanent value. His ‘Conspectus’ was most valuable for its therapeutics, and was very widely read both in this country and on the continent. As a lecturer and teacher he won great influence by his ready command of language, his excellent memory for cases he had seen, his outspokenness and commanding energy, and the humour of his frequent illustrations. Sir R. Christison termed him the most captivating lecturer he ever heard. His teaching was very practical; he distrusted premature theorising. Diagnostic and prognostic symptoms and the action of remedies were his favourite subjects, but his advocacy of the lowering treatment of inflammatory diseases showed his influence to be retarding, though not retrograde. His discouragement of meddlesome medicine, when there was no real prospect of success, was a better feature. But it must be confessed that he was an advocate of temperance, of bodily exertion without fatigue, and of mental occupation without anxiety, who by no means followed his own prescription.

In his ‘Philosophical and Literary Essays,’ published in 1792, but largely written before 1789, Gregory states with considerable ability the argument against the necessitarians. Priestley, to whom he communicated the essays, declared that a reply would be as superfluous as the defence of a proposition in Euclid. Gregory's main argument is contained in the second volume, entitled ‘An Essay on the Difference between the relation of Motive and Action and that of Cause and Effect in Physics, on physical and mathematical principles.’ An unfinished and unpublished work of 512 pages by Gregory, entitled ‘An Answer to Messrs. Crombie, Priestley, and Co.,’ is in the Edinburgh University Library. His essay on ‘The Theory of the Moods of Verbs,’ in the second volume of the ‘Transactions’ of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1790, is another example of Gregory's versatility.

Gregory wasted his great powers on temporary and irritating controversies. He was keen-witted, sarcastic, and bitterly personal, though probably from pleasure in the exercise of his powers rather than from malice. His first important controversy, with Drs. Alexander and James Hamilton (1749-1835) [q. v.], led him to give the latter a severe beating with a stick. Gregory was fined 100l. and costs by the commissary court for defamation in this case. He afterwards attacked, with considerable justice, in his ‘Memorial to the Managers,’ the prevailing practice of allowing all the surgeons in Edinburgh to officiate at the infirmary in turn. In this he denies that he was either an empiric or a dogmatist, as he disbelieves in most of the facts and theories alleged by both schools. He admitted (p. 222) that he was irascible and obstinate, and would willingly see some of his medical enemies hanged. He held that each age had much more trouble to unlearn the bad than to learn the good bequeathed to it by preceding ages, but he preferred laughter to anger.

A committee of the Edinburgh College of Physicians, of which Gregory was at one time president, had recommended it to relax its regulations against the dispensing of medicines by members. Gregory opposed this violently. His pamphlets (mostly large books) on the subject are very bitter and personal. He was charged before the college with violation of his oath not to divulge its proceedings, and with having made false statements on his solemn declaration. After a long controversy, he was pronounced guilty by the college on 13 Sept. 1808. Having failed to take public measures to vindicate his character, he was suspended from the rights and privileges of the fellowship of the college on 13 May 1809. These controversies, and others arising out of them, are dealt with at length in the publications of John Bell [q. v.] and Dr. Andrew Duncan, senior [q. v.], mentioned below.

Lord Cockburn (Memorials, p. 105) describes Gregory as ‘a curious and excellent man, a great physician, a great lecturer, a great Latin scholar, and a great talker, vigorous and generous, large of stature, and with a strikingly powerful countenance.’ He says that Gregory's popularity was increased by his controversies. He was never selfish nor entirely wrong in them; and the public preferred the best laugher, though with the worst cause. Gregory, in fact, won general regard among all classes of people outside his profession. He was frequently very generous, especially to his pupils.

Gregory's principal writings are: 1. ‘De morbis cœli mutatione medendis,’ 1774. 2. ‘Conspectus medicinæ theoreticæ,’ 1780-2; many editions and translations into English were published. 3. ‘Philosophical and Literary Essays,’ 2 vols. 1792. 4. ‘Answer to Dr. James Hamilton, jun.,’ 152 pp., 1793. 5. ‘Memorial to the Managers of the Royal Infirmary’ (Edinburgh), 260 pp. 4to, 1800; 2nd ed. 483 pp. 1803. 6. ‘Additional Memorial to the Managers of the Royal Infirmary,’ pp. xxx, 513, 4to. 7. ‘Review of the Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh from 1753 to 1804,’ 32 pp. 1804. 8. ‘Censorian Letter to the President and Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh,’ 142 pp. 4to, 1805. 9. ‘Defence before the Royal College of Physicians, including a postscript protest and relative documents,’ 700 pages 8vo, 1808. 10. ‘Historical Memoirs of the Medical War in Edinburgh in the years 1805, 6, & 7.’ 11. ‘Epigrams and Poems,’ Edinburgh, 1810.

John Bell's ‘Answer for the Junior Members,’ &c., 1800, and his ‘Letters on Professional Character and Manners,’ 1810; the ‘Narrative of the Conduct of Dr. J. G. towards the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Drawn up and published by order of the College,’ 1809; and Dr. Andrew Duncan senior's ‘Letter to Dr. Gregory,’ 1811 give detailed accounts of Gregory's quarrel with the physicians.

[London Medical Repository, 1821, xv. 423-9; Life of Sir R. Christison, i. 338, 339; Cockburn's Memorials, p. 105; Life of Sir Astley Cooper, i. 160-4; Gregory's writings.]

G. T. B.