Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wright, William (1735-1819)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
916164Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 63 — Wright, William (1735-1819)1900George Simonds Boulger

WRIGHT, WILLIAM (1735–1819), physician and botanist, was born at Crieff, Perthshire, in March 1735. He went to Crieff grammar school, and when seventeen was apprenticed to George Dennistoun, a surgeon at Falkirk. In 1756 he entered the university of Edinburgh, living with his uncle, and in 1757 he made a voyage to Greenland as surgeon on a whaler. In January 1758 he presented himself at Surgeons' Hall for examination, and was appointed second surgeon's mate on board the Intrepid. He began a careful study of scurvy, attributing it mainly to dirt, drink, and bad food. He was present on 4 April 1758 at Sir Edward Hawke's engagement at Rhé; shared at Gibraltar in the prize-money of the Raisonnable, which Captain Pratten of the Intrepid captured on 26 April; and witnessed Boscawen's victory over De la Clue off Lagos on 16 Aug. 1759. The Intrepid returning to refit, Wright offered himself for re-examination, and was rated as first mate to the Danaë under Captain Sir Henry Martin. In 1760 she was ordered to the West Indies under Rodney. Wright was transferred in succession to the hospitals at Port Royal and St. Pierre, to the Culloden and to the Levant, and was then paid off in September 1763.

Though he now qualified as surgeon and graduated M.D. in absentiâ at St. Andrews, in default of employment he started in December 1764 for Jamaica, intending to commence private practice. Finding, however, too many doctors there before him, he was glad to become assistant to Dr. Gray. Six months later Thomas Steel, his former fellow-student, invited him to become his partner at Hampden, Trelawny, one hundred and fifty miles from Kingston. They lived together and invested their savings in negroes. In 1771 they built a new house named Orange Hill; and in that year Wright began his herbarium of Jamaica plants, verifying during his residence in the island seven hundred and sixty species, and attaching to them their vernacular names and references to the works of Sloane and Browne. He sent live plants to Kew and dried ones to Sir Joseph Banks [q. v.], Jonathan Stokes, and others, maintaining an extensive scientific correspondence with medical men and botanists both in Europe and America. In 1774 Wright was appointed honorary surgeon-general of Jamaica, and in the following year he made known the occurrence in Jamaica of a native species of cinchona, and published in the ‘Transactions’ of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia his first paper, one on diabetes.

In August 1777 Wright embarked for England, but on the voyage caught a malignant fever from a seaman, and cured himself by douches of cold sea-water, a remedy which he had previously successfully employed in cases of tetanus. His priority in this cold-water treatment of fever was afterwards fully admitted by the London Medical Society. In London he stayed with Maxwell Garthshore [q. v.], the obstetrician, in St. Martin's Lane; studied, with William Aiton's assistance, at Kew; and enjoyed the weekly meetings with Banks, Daniel Charles Solander [q. v.], Fothergill, Pitcairn, and others, at the house of Sir John Pringle [q. v.] He eventually settled at his native place, where his brother James had at his request built him a house, in which they both lived, Wright adopting his nephew James and educating him for the medical profession. After a tour in the west of Scotland and a visit to Lord Buchan near Linlithgow, Wright went to Edinburgh and attended the lectures of Professors Black, Munro, and Cullen. He became an original member of the Philosophical Society (afterwards the Royal Society) of Edinburgh.

In 1779 Sir Joseph Banks procured for Wright the post of regimental surgeon to the Jamaica regiment. Wright on this became a licentiate of the Edinburgh College of Physicians, and embarked at Portsmouth with two companies of his regiment on the transport Morant, which sailed with fifty-four other unarmed vessels under the protection of the Ramilies, Thetis, and Southampton. The whole expedition fell into the hands of a French and Spanish fleet off Cape St. Vincent, during a fog, this being perhaps the greatest loss the mercantile navy of Britain had ever sustained. Wright, whose valuable hortus siccus was lost on this occasion, but who managed to secrete and destroy the colours of his regiment, was landed on parole at Cadiz on 3 Sept. by the French man-of-war the Bourgogne, and was marched to Arcos on the Guadalete in Andalusia. In a country where medicine was a century behindhand his skill soon gained him great repute, and he was even taken into convents to prescribe for sick nuns; but the corregidor of the inquisition, discovering that one of the British officers had a masonic apron, threatened general domiciliary visits, whereupon the Englishmen resolved to offer forcible resistance, and the Spanish authorities preferred to march them to the Guadiana and across the Portuguese frontier. Wright and some others dropped down the river in an open boat to Taro, where they freighted a sloop and reached Lisbon on 21 Dec. 1780, and then proceeded to Falmouth.

Being detained in England under his parole until an exchange of prisoners was arranged, Wright visited a Scottish botanical friend named Baxter at Oldham, Hampshire, until the return of the remnant of his regiment from Spain. In April 1782 they sailed once more, being now known as the 99th foot; but arriving in the West Indies just after Rodney's victory over De Grasse, the regiment was sent home and disbanded, while Wright was permitted to remain to settle his private affairs and replace his lost hortus siccus. This he did very completely, adding several new species, and having in 1784 the assistance of the Swedish botanist Olaf Schwartz. He was appointed physician-general of Jamaica; but suffering from fever and ague, and having realised his property, he returned home in 1785, and, after spending most of 1786 in Perthshire, settled at Edinburgh. He was nominated to succeed John Hope (1725–1786) [q. v.] in the chair of botany, but refused to stand against Daniel Rutherford [q. v.], contenting himself with the formation of a library, a scientific correspondence with no fewer than two hundred and sixty acquaintances, and the training of a few other students in his house with his nephew James.

In 1792 Wright was summoned as a witness before the committee of the House of Commons on the slave trade; and in 1795, in spite of the opposition of Sir Lucas Pepys [q. v.], the head of the army medical board, and of the Royal College of Physicians, on the ground of his not being one of their licentiates, he was appointed physician to the expedition sent to the West Indies under Sir Ralph Abercromby [q. v.] He sailed in December in the William and John hospital ship, reaching Barbados on 21 Feb. 1796. Wright stayed two years in Barbados, during which time he drew up a report on the diseases common among troops in the West Indies and made a large collection of Windward Island plants. On his return to England in June 1798, after narrowly escaping capture by the French on the voyage, he was retained on full pay for four months, and was offered an honorary extra licentiateship of the College of Physicians, which latter he declined. He settled in Edinburgh, only practising gratuitously among his university friends and the poor, arranging his natural history collections, which were among the largest private museums in the kingdom, and taking an active part in the scientific societies of the city. Until 1811 he made an annual tour in the north-west highlands, often in the company of John Stuart (1743–1821) [q. v.], minister of Luss, Dumbartonshire, who was related to him by marriage, walking six or seven miles a day. He assisted his friend James Currie [q. v.] in forming, in conjunction with William Roscoe [q. v.], the herbarium of the Liverpool Botanical Garden. Himself a Neptunist in geology, he became in 1808 an original member and vice-president of the Wernerian Society; and when in 1809 the collections made by (Sir) William Jackson Hooker [q. v.] in Iceland were destroyed by a fire on board ship, he presented him with an herbarium and specimens of minerals collected in that island by his nephew James Wright, who had accompanied Sir John Stanley thither in 1789, a kindness acknowledged by Hooker in his ‘Recollections of a Tour in Iceland in 1809.’ In 1800 he was invited by Sir Ralph Abercromby to accompany him to Egypt as physician to the army, but declined.

Wright died unmarried in Edinburgh on 19 Sept. 1819, and was buried in Grey Friars churchyard. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1778, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1801, and associate of the Linnean Society in 1807. He published no separate volume of his own, but in 1800 printed a chronological collection of Edinburgh medical graduation theses, and contributed various medical papers to different publications, a selection from which, and from the notes in his herbarium, was reprinted in a ‘Memoir’ of him published in 1828. This volume also contains a vignette portrait engraved by William Home Lizars after a miniature by John Caldwell. An index by him to the Linnæan names of the plants mentioned in James Grainger's poems was printed in the 1836 edition. Dr. Roxburgh named a genus Wrightea in his honour, but, this proving to have been already named Wallichia, Robert Brown dedicated another to him as Wrightia. His dried plants occur in various herbaria, especially those of Patrick Neill (1776–1851) [q. v.], in possession of the Edinburgh Botanical Society and the Liverpool Botanical Garden.

[Memoir of Dr. William Wright, London, 1828, 8vo; Nichols's Literary Illustrations, iii. 781.]

G. S. B.