‘Lectures Introductory to the Course of the Practice of Physic’

In Volume 1 of his The Works of William Cullen, John Thomson (et al.) prints some very interesting manuscript source material related to Cullen’s views on the history of medicine, the proper plan for studying it, and some general thoughts on the purpose and use of nosology (see pp. 364-464).

In the Preface to this volume, Thomson says this about the material in this section:

The Lectures introductory to the Course on the Practice of Physic, now published for the first time, have been printed from copies of them corrected in Dr. Cullen’s hand-writing. To these Lectures I have restored a portion of the History of Medicine, which Dr. Cullen had transferred to his preface to the First Lines (v-vi).

The latter statement is slightly puzzling at first, but all Thomson is indicating here is that he reprints a large chunk (where Cullen discusses the history of medicine) of Cullen’s preface to the 1784 edition of his First Lines in this section. But he does not leave this intact. Instead he splits it up into two parts: p. xi-xxxiv of the preface is printed on pp. 403-415 in the Works, while p. xxxiv to xlvi is printed on pp. 427-432. Incidentally the rest of the preface is also printed  in the Works, again split up, as the Preface to Cullen’s First Lines which begins on p. 467. More precisely, p. i-vi of the original preface is printed on pp. 467-469; at the end of the 2nd paragraph on p. 469, the preface continues but it now contains p. xlvi of the original preface. Thomson does not indicate this switch. And, in fact, Thomson does not indicate where he prints the original Preface in the ‘Lectures Introductory’ section, either. He is, instead, trying to create a seamless reading experience that makes sense of the source material.

What about the rest of the ‘Lectures Introductory’ section? Where does that come from? In a footnote (n. 48) in his chapter on ‘Philosophy and method in Cullen’s medical teaching’, Mike Barfoot says about this material: “It is not known precisely which copies Thomson drew upon. However, the final version in the Works, though based on lectures once spoken was probably written out by an amanuensis…” (130).

I am preparing — very slowly, as time is limited — a marked-up edition (an annotated PDF) of the Works (and the Life), in which I attempt to identify all of Thomson’s source material, i.e. everything he includes in ‘inverted commas’ as he calls them (quotation marks, in my idiolect).

And I have spent some time doing this for the ‘Lectures Introductory’ section already because it is the basis for a chapter I have been working on about Cullen’s understanding of the role of theory in medicine. And I have now, just about, identified all the source material.

So now we can identify precisely the manuscript material Thomson drew upon to create this section of the Works. It is something of a hodge-podge of a number of different sources stuck together, done in a way that Thomson thought made sense. I think the example I highlighted above gives some indication of this, with the caveat that, at least in that case, Thomson is working with printed source material. Everything becomes more complicated when handwritten source material is at issue.

A great deal of it, as Barfoot suspected, is written in the hand of a number of Cullen’s amanuenses over the years, but with Cullen’s handwritten corrections, as Thomson tells us (see above). In this sense, the material is more worked through and complete than Cullen’s lecture notes, if not quite on par with his published works. It provides a very reliable picture of what Cullen thought about these topics. And, in fact, a surprising amount of the material is even in Cullen’s hand, written in full.

It is very helpful to know the actual source material for this long, important section of the Works because it is clear that what Thomson has done here — and, indeed, in the Works as a whole, though perhaps this section is the most complex — is anything but a straightforward editing job and must be used with a good deal of caution.

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