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Edinburgh Medicine Timeline

Edinburgh Medicine Timeline

Stories and events from Edinburgh Medicine

William Cullen, top teacher 1760-90

William Cullen was an enormously influential teacher in the early days of Edinburgh Medical School, and was a major contributor to its international teaching reputation.

He was born in Hamilton and trained in medicine by apprenticeship in Glasgow. After working as a ship’s surgeon and then in London and Shotts he came to Edinburgh to study 1734-6, and was a founder member of the Royal Medical Society. However he obtained his MD from Glasgow in 1740 – undertaking a period of study in Edinburgh without graduating was common at that time. He then became a very successful physician in Hamilton and Glasgow, from where he was poached in 1755 to come to Edinburgh as Professor of Chemistry and Medicine in 1755. He began to give lectures on Medicine the following year.

Contemporary accounts of his teaching are admiring. This is from Samuel Bard (sometimes Baird; 1742-81, see footnote), a student in 1764:

We convene at his own house once or twice a week, where after lecturing for one hour, we spend another in an easy conversation upon the subject of the last evening’s lecture, & every one is encouraged to make his remarks or objections with the greatest freedom & ease.

Accounts of his medical practice are beautifully brought to life in the Cullen Project, which has digitally preserved and presented his case records from thousands of letters. Much consultation was carried out by correspondence, copying his replies with a copying device invented by James Watt so that you can read both sides of each case. These are wonderful accounts of his history-taking, and views on cause and prognosis. His diagnostic approach comes across as astonishingly acute and modern, but his treatment options were very limited.

Author: Neil Turner. Updated from a 2015 post to ‘eemec’.

Further info

  • William Cullen on Wikipedia
  • A Charismatic Lecturer – more detailed biography by Reginald Passmore (2001) who wrote further on Cullen and 18th century medicine.
  • The Cullen Project (website of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, which has a Cullen Room still today).
  • The illustration top right is by John Kay, one of his many outstanding engravings of leading Edinburgh characters from the era. Source: (Creative Commons licence).
  • Samuel Bard was one of Edinburgh’s very early North American graduates, who went on to found the second medical school in the USA in 1767 – King’s College, later known as Columbia, in New York. Edinburgh graduates had already founded the first in Philadelphia two years before. He was also physician to George Washington. Probably deserves one of these pages to himself, but for now read:

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