Science in the Scottish Enlightenment
Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

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Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

4 The leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment

At this point, before we move on to look in greater detail at the work of a couple of characteristic and influential Scottish scientists, it will be useful to stand back and take a survey of the leading members of the scientific and medical community.

One of its most eminent members, Adam Smith, pioneered the discipline of economics, which is not customarily included within science today. But to exclude him from our survey would be to misrepresent the unfenced, boundary-free territory across which eighteenth-century intellectuals ranged. Smith was professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University and associated regularly with the leading lights of the European philosophic community. He published the famous Wealth of Nations in 1776. Smith's concerns, however, were by no means purely economic. Along with less-well-remembered scholars, he was engaged in one of the fundamental enquiries of the Scottish movement as a whole, namely the enquiry into the nature of humankind and human society.

In the field of medicine, the Monro dynasty commands attention. Alexander Monro primus, trained at Leiden, was appointed by the Town Council in 1720 to be professor of anatomy. His grandson, Alexander Monro tertius, held the post in the 1840s, by which time Edinburgh medicine had developed the full range of institutions – university lectures, a teaching hospital, learned journals and societies.

It should not be too readily assumed, however, that prestigious and well-supported medical institutions invariably led to improvements in patients' health. Historians of medicine have yet to resolve the question of whether eighteenth-century hospitals enhanced patient's chances of recovery or were, rather, ‘gateways to death’ caused chiefly by infections. The effectiveness of the most brilliant surgical skills – in amputating limbs, or removing urinary stones, for instance – was considerably diminished by shock and post-operative infections. Nor should it be assumed that medicine was solely a metropolitan affair, conducted by a handful of well-to-do physicians, surgeons and their students. Medical handbooks found their way into the households of citizens of moderate means.

The most famous of these handbooks is William Buchan's Domestic Medicine, published in 1769 and running to 22 editions by 1822. Buchan was an Edinburgh-trained doctor, and his book embodied the rational, common-sense principles of the Enlightenment. In the absence of antibiotics, medicine was incapable of making spectacular breakthroughs in healing the sick, but books like Buchan's – with its sober calls for moderate living, for publicly-funded inoculation schemes, for an end to superstitious practices in child-birth and child-rearing (he recommended, for example, that fathers should play an active part in rearing their children and ‘ought to assist in every thing that respects either the improvement of the body or the mind’ (1769, p. 7)) – did introduce the new medical thinking into the life of the community and led to modest improvements in its health.

Medicine was linked with the physical sciences, notably in the person of William Cullen, who lectured on medicine at Glasgow University before moving to Edinburgh in 1756. There, he combined research and teaching in both medicine and chemistry. He taught on the wards of the new Edinburgh Infirmary, was president of the Edinburgh College of Physicians, as well as holding the chair of chemistry at the university. He was a popular, pivotal figure in Scottish science and had a great influence on the young chemist Joseph Black (see Section 3).


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