Murchison, Charles (DNB00)

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MURCHISON, CHARLES (1830–1879), physician, born in Jamaica on 26 July 1830, was younger son of the Hon. Alexander Murchison, M.D., cousin of Sir Roderick Impey Murchison [q. v.]. When Murchison was three years old the family returned to Scotland and settled at Elgin, where he received his first education. At the age of fifteen he entered the university of Aberdeen as a student of arts, and two years later commenced the study of medicine in the university of Edinburgh. Here he distinguished himself in natural history, botany, and chemistry, and later in more distinctly professional subjects, obtaining a large number of medals and prizes. He especially excelled in surgery, and passed the examination of the College of Surgeons of Edinburgh when little over twenty years of age, in 1850, and in the same year became house surgeon to James Syme [q. v.] In 1851 he graduated M.D. with a dissertation on the 'Structure of Tumours' (Edinburgh, 1852, 8vo), based on his own experience, which obtained the honour of a gold medal. He then spent a short time as physician to the British embassy at Turin, and, returning to Edinburgh, was for a short time resident physician in the Royal Infirmary.

After further study at Dublin and Paris Murchison entered the Bengal army of the East India Company on 17 Jan. 1853. On reaching India he was almost immediately made professor of chemistry at the Medical College, Calcutta. Later on he served with the expedition to Burmah in 1854, and his experience there furnished the materials for two papers in the 'Edinburgh Medical Journal' for January and April 1855 on the 'Climate and Diseases of Burmah.' But in October 1855 Murchison left the service and settled in London as a physician, commencing the long series of his medical appointments by becoming physician to the Westminster General Dispensary. Shortly afterwards he was connected with St. Mary's Hospital as lecturer on botany and curator of the museum, of which he prepared in a remarkably short time an excellent catalogue. In 1856 he was appointed assistant physician to King's College Hospital, but had to resign, in conformity with the rules of the hospital, in 1860. Murchison had no difficulty in obtaining a like position (combined with that of lecturer on pathology) at the Middlesex Hospital in the same year, and, being promoted to the post of full physician in 1866, retained his connection with that hospital till 1871. He also acted as assistant physician to the London Fever Hospital from 1856; and was promoted to be physician in 1861, an appointment which gave a definite bias to his medical researches. On his retirement in 1870 a testimonial was presented to him by public subscription. In 1871, when the staff of St. Thomas's Hospital was enlarged, consequent on the opening of its new buildings, Murchison accepted the posts of physician and lecturer on medicine, which he held till his death, with increase of reputation to himself and his school. In the autumn of 1873 he traced the origin of an epidemic of typhoid fever to polluted milk supply, and the residents in West London presented him with a testimonial. In 1866 he was elected fellow of the Royal Society. He became member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1855, was elected fellow in 1859, and gave the Croonian lectures in 1873. In 1870 he received the honorary degree of LL.D from the university of Edinburgh. In 1875 he was examiner in medicine to the university of London. His only court appointment was that of physician to the Duke and Duchess of Connaught. As a clinical teacher Murchison acquired a high reputation; his method was chiefly catechetical, and was impressive through his earnest and forcible manner. In exposition he was clear and positive, stating the subject in broad outlines, and inclining to be rather dogmatic, so that the attentive student carried away valuable and precise rules for practice. He was a man of high character and resolute integrity. With an unpretentious manner he possessed great kindness of heart and warm family affections.

Murchison's consulting practice was based at first on his special knowledge of fevers, but extended to other branches of medicine, and before his death was very considerable. His opinion was highly valued for his accuracy and prompt decision. In the forenoon of 23 April 1879, while seeing patients in his consulting room, he died suddenly of heart disease affecting the aortic valves. He had suffered from the ailment for nine years, but had resolutely declined the advice of medical friends to retire from practice. He was buried in Norwood cemetery. Murchison married in July 1859 Clara Elizabeth, third daughter of Robert Bickersteth, surgeon, of Liverpool, and had nine children; his wife, two sons and four daughters survived him. To his memory was founded a Murchison scholarship in medicine, to be awarded in alternate years in London by the Royal College of Physicians, and in Edinburgh by the university. A marble portrait bust was also placed in St. Thomas's Hospital. The great characteristic of his literary work was its solidity and accuracy of detail. He had the genius of thoroughness, and at the same time a happy fluency which enabled him to complete large masses of work with rapidity and precision. His own views were very positive, and he was a keen controversialist on some important questions, especially the relation of bacteria to disease. The side which he warmly defended has not been the winning side, and his views are fundamentally opposed to those now accepted; but the value of the materials which he contributed to the discussion is still great.

Murchison's most important contribution to medical science was 'A Treatise on the Continued Fevers of Great Britain,' London, 1862; 2nd ed. 1873; 3rd ed. (by Cayley), 1884. A German translation by W. Zuelzer appeared at Brunswick in 1867, 8vo, and a French translation of one part by Lutaud at Paris in 1878. This work became at once a standard authority. He treated the same subject in the 'Annual Reports of the London Fever Hospital,' 1861-9, and in medical journals. Another subject to which he gave special attention was that of diseases of the liver. After translating Frerichs's work on that subject for the New Sydenham Society in 1861, he published in 1868 'Clinical Lectures on Diseases of the Liver, Jaundice, and Abdominal Dropsy,' London, 8vo, and in 1874 took as the subject of his Croonian lectures at the College of Physicians 'Functional Derangements of the Liver,' London, 1874, 8vo; republished with 'Clinical Lectures on Diseases of the Liver,' 2nd ed. 1877; 3rd ed. (by Brunton) 1885. A French translation by Jules Cyr appeared at Paris in 1878. His regard for the memory of his friend, Dr. Hugh Falconer [q. v.], induced him to take great pains in bringing out the latter's 'Palæontological Memoirs' in 1868; geology was a favourite pursuit with Murchison.

Murchison took an active part in scientific societies, more especially the Pathological Society, of which he became a member in 1855; was secretary 1865-8; treasurer 1869-76, and president 1877-81. To the 'Transactions' of the society he contributed in all 143 papers and reports, some of them of considerable importance. He was also a member of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical, the Clinical, and the Epidemiological Societies, and contributed, though less frequently, to their transactions. Murchison also contributed to the 'Edinburgh Medical Journal,' the 'British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review,' Beale's 'Archives of Medicine,' 'St. Thomas's Hospital Reports,' the 'British Medical Journal,' and other medical papers. The total number of his published works, memoirs, lectures, &c., was, according to a list in his own handwriting, 311.

[Lancet, 3 May 1879; British Medical Journal, 26 April 1879; Med. Times and Gazette, 10 May 1879; personal knowledge and private information.]

J. F. P.