Pringle, John (DNB00)

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PRINGLE, Sir JOHN (1707–1782), physician, born 10 April 1707, was youngest son of Sir John Pringle, second baronet, of Stitchel, Roxburghshire, by his wife Magdalen, sister of Sir Gilbert Elliott, bart., of Stobs. Robert Pringle [q. v.] and Sir Walter Pringle [q. v.] were his uncles. He was sent at an early age to the university of St. Andrews, to be educated under his uncle, Francis Pringle, professor of Greek, and in October 1727 entered the university of Edinburgh. Being at that time intended for a commercial life, he remained only a year at Edinburgh, and was then sent to Amsterdam to gain a knowledge of business. While living there he paid a visit to Leyden, and heard a lecture on medicine by the celebrated Boerhaave, which so impressed him that he determined to devote himself to medicine. He accordingly entered on that study at Leyden, having among his teachers Boerhaave and Albinus. While a student he made the valuable friendship of Van Swieten, afterwards the eminent professor of medicine at Vienna. He graduated M.D. on 20 July 1730, with an inaugural dissertation ‘De Marcore Senili’ (Leyden, 4to), and completed his medical studies at Paris. On returning to Scotland, Pringle settled down as a physician in Edinburgh. A few years later, in March 1734, he was appointed joint professor of pneumatics [metaphysics] and moral philosophy, and regularly lectured on these subjects, taking the opportunity, it is said, strongly to recommend the study of Bacon.

This appointment did not prevent Pringle from continuing to practise medicine, and in 1742 he received a commission as physician to the Earl of Stair, commander of the British forces on the continent, being also appointed physician to the military hospital in Flanders. He did not resign his Edinburgh professorship, but was allowed to perform the duties by deputy. Pringle went through the German campaign, and was present at the battle of Dettingen (27 June 1743). The retirement of his patron, the Earl of Stair, did not retard his promotion, for in 1744 he was made, by the Duke of Cumberland, physician-general to the forces in Flanders [see Dalrymple, John, second Earl of Stair]. On receiving this appointment he finally resigned his professorship at Edinburgh. In 1745 he was recalled to attend the forces sent against the Jacobites; and, accompanying the Duke of Cumberland to Scotland, was present at Culloden. In the two years following he was with the British army on the continent, and returned in the autumn of 1748, on the conclusion of peace.

Pringle now settled in London, with a view to practice, but continued to hold the post of physician to the army, and attended the camps in England for three seasons. On 5 July 1758 he was admitted licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians, and on 25 June 1763 was chosen a fellow speciali gratia (as not being a graduate of Oxford or Cambridge). Numerous honours were bestowed upon him by the royal family. In 1749 he was made physician-in-ordinary to the Duke of Cumberland, in 1761 to the queen, and in 1774 received the highest court appointment as physician to the king, who in 1766 conferred upon him a baronetcy. Pringle married, on 14 April 1752, Charlotte, second daughter of Dr. William Oliver [q. v.] of Bath, but his wife died a few years later, without issue.

While practising with great success in London, Pringle attained a position of great influence, especially in scientific circles. Having been made fellow of the Royal Society, and having several times served on the council, he was, on 30 Nov. 1772, elected president. In this capacity he did much towards maintaining the prosperity of the society by encouraging scientific research in various departments. The annual award of the Copley medal for scientific research gave him the opportunity of commenting on the value of the investigations honoured with that prize in a series of six discourses, which were afterwards published. Among their subjects are themes as various as Priestley's researches on different kinds of gases, Nevil Maskelyne's observations on the force of gravity in the mountain Schehallion, and Captain Cook's account of the means by which he kept his crews free from scurvy. Although the last only was cognate to Pringle's own field of work, he discussed all of them with great learning and much discrimination. Pringle's scientific eminence was recognised by his being chosen, in 1778, in succession to Linnæus, one of the eight foreign members of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and by numerous similar distinctions conferred by other scientific bodies in Europe. He was intimate with most eminent scientific men of his time, such as Priestley, Maskelyne, and Franklin, and with some literary celebrities. Sir Alexander Boswell of Auchinleck and his son, the biographer of Johnson, were his friends by hereditary connection, and his good offices were employed in reconciling the differences between father and son. Dr. Johnson, however, could never be prevailed upon to meet Pringle. The objection was probably not personal nor political (though Pringle was a staunch whig), but due to a want of sympathy in theological views. Pringle was a great student of divinity (and even, through Boswell, sought Johnson's advice as to his reading in this subject), but ultimately he became a ‘rational Christian’ or unitarian, a form of belief very distasteful to Johnson.

In 1778 Pringle's health was beginning to fail, and he felt compelled to resign the presidency of the Royal Society. In 1781 he removed to Edinburgh, intending to reside there permanently; but, finding the climate unsuited to his health, and society changed from what it had been in his younger days, he soon returned to London. Before leaving Edinburgh he presented a manuscript collection of his ‘Medical and Physical Observations,’ in ten volumes, folio, to the library of the College of Physicians in that city. On his return to London he resumed his old life, but died from a fit of apoplexy on 18 Jan. 1782. He was buried in St. James's Church, Piccadilly, and a monument to his memory by Nollekens was afterwards erected in Westminster Abbey, at the expense of his nephew and heir, Sir James Pringle of Stitchel. His portrait, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, is in the possession of the Royal Society. It is engraved in Pettigrew's ‘Medical Portrait Gallery’ (vol. ii.).

Pringle's great work in life was the reform of military medicine and sanitation. His experience in these matters was very large, and it was reinforced by systematic observation and scientific research. He was among the first to see the importance of putrefactive processes in the production of disease, and probably quite the first physician to apply his scientific principles practically in the prevention of such diseases as dysentery and hospital fever, which were the scourge of armies in his day. The sanitary measures which he insisted upon are now regarded as essential to the preservation of the health of troops in the field or in camp. His book, ‘Observations on the Diseases of the Army,’ published in 1752, rapidly acquired a European reputation, and has ever since been regarded as a medical classic. On these grounds he may fairly be regarded as the founder of modern military medicine, in distinction from surgery, and he has been recognised as such by the most eminent authorities on the subject both abroad and at home. His researches ‘On Septic and Antiseptic Substances’ have a still wider importance in relation to general medicine, tending in the same direction as recent discoveries which have obtained an overwhelming importance in modern medical science. They were first communicated to the Royal Society, which rewarded them with the Copley medal, and afterwards incorporated in his work on diseases of the army. Along with these should be mentioned his memoirs on the gaol fever, or typhus, which he showed to be the same as the hospital fever. This subject he first treated in a letter to Dr. Mead published in 1750, and afterwards in a communication to the Royal Society in 1753.

An important amelioration in the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers is also attributed to Pringle. It was probably at his suggestion that the Earl of Stair, when commanding the British forces in Germany, proposed to the French commander, the Duc de Noailles, that military hospitals on either side should be regarded as neutral, and mutually protected. This humane practice was observed throughout the campaign, and has now become the universal custom in European wars. Few physicians have rendered more definite and brilliant services to science and humanity.

He wrote: 1. ‘De Marcore Senili’ (inaugural diss.), Leyden, 1730, 4to. 2. ‘Observations on the Nature and Cure of Hospital and Jayl Fevers,’ London, 1750, 8vo. 3. ‘Observations on the Diseases of the Army,’ London, 1752, 8vo; 7th edit. 1782; last edit. 1810. 4. ‘Six Discourses delivered at the Royal Society, on occasion of the Annual Assignment of the Copley Medal; with Life of the Author by Andrew Kippis, D.D.,’ London, 1783, 8vo. Some or all of these discourses were published separately in 4to, 1773–8 (Lowndes). Among Pringle's contributions to the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ the most important are three papers on ‘Experiments upon Septic and Antiseptic Substances, with Remarks relating to their Use in the Theory of Medicine,’ 1750, vol. xlvii.; and an ‘Account of several Persons seized with the Gaol Fever, working at Newgate,’ 1753, vol. xlviii. He also published letters on the prophecies of Daniel, addressed to him by J. D. Michaelis, professor at Göttingen, as ‘J. D. Michaelis Epistolæ de LXX Hebdomadis Danielis, ad D. J. Pringle,’ London, 1773, 8vo.

‘A Rational Enquiry into the Nature of the Plague, by John Pringle,’ London, 1722, 12mo, is by a namesake, but no connection of Sir John Pringle.

[Life, by Kippis, 1783, mentioned above (the only original authority); Lives of British Physicians, 1830; Munk's Coll. Phys. 1878, ii. 252; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, passim (see index); Allardyce's Scotland and Scotsmen in the Eighteenth Century; Chambers's Biogr. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen; Burton's Hist. of Scotland. viii. 552.]

J. F. P.