The ‘Great Affair’: Cullen & the Practical Chair

Cullen’s long and controversial struggle to obtain the most prestigious and valuable academic appointment at the University of Edinburgh medical school, the Chair in the Practice of Physic, came to be called, by one of his close pupils, the ‘Great Affair’.

Cullen seems to have long held a desire for the prestigious position. His son, Robert Cullen, told his friend Charles Blagden—a pupil of Cullen’s—shortly after his father had obtained the joint appointment for the Practical Chair that it would probably make the remainder of his father’s life much more pleasant, for it was something he had long sought.

There has been some confusion about the ‘Great Affair’, but new documentary evidence helps shed light on how Cullen was able to obtain the Chair. On the one hand, the matter seems fairly straightforward: Cullen became the sole occupant of the Chair of the Practice of Medicine upon the death of John Gregory in 1773. What more is there left to say? But, while true, this overlooks the fact that Cullen already obtained a joint appointment with John Gregory of the Chair of the Practice of Physic in 1769. That is the appointment we need to focus on for it is far from clear how Cullen obtained this coveted appointment, especially when we consider that Gregory himself was very unlikely to support Cullen in this—indeed, he was actively opposed. Why would he agree to such a thing?

The traditional explanation, as given by Thomson, is unconvincing. Thomson wrote that

Dr Gregory, after delivering three courses of lectures on the Practice of Physic…was at length induced to comply with the general wish of those interested in the prosperity of the University, that Dr Cullen should be permitted to lecture upon that subject. Accordingly, we find that, with Dr Gregory’s permission, Dr Cullen delivered a short course of lectures on the Practice of Physic, in the summer of 1768, and during the remainder of Dr Gregory’s life, Drs Cullen and Gregory continued to give alternate courses of the Theory and Practice of Physic (TLC 1:161).

Thomson therefore suggested that Gregory, on account of the pressures of the students and perhaps others, at last agreed to think of the general prosperity of the university and, against his own interests, gave Cullen permission to lecture on the Practice of Physic, in alternation with him.

Other commentators have offered slightly different explanations of this fairly remarkable decision by Gregory to share his prestigious position and responsibilities with his colleague, whom he did not much like. Craigie, for instance, in his review of Thomson’s biography, emphasised the sway of the students:

At length, however, so many efforts were made by the students to enjoy the advantage of Dr Cullen’s instructions as a teacher of the practical course, that in the beginning of 1769, Dr Cullen, having at length obtained the consent of Dr Gregory, and the approbation of the other members of the Faculty, presented to the Patrons a petition, in which, after stating the inconveniences resulting from the Theory and the Practice being taught by different professors, and the advantages which would result, if the same persons taught both branches, when the students would have an opportunity of hearing complete courses of both, he requested them to appoint the petitioner, Dr Cullen, and Dr John Gregory, join Professors of the Theory and Practice of Medicine (404-5).

Bower, hinting that he had access to perhaps another unnamed source, claimed that the reason the arrangement was agreed to was because both men realised the extent to which they were promulgating truly incompatible doctrines: “A full explanation of the reasons for this transaction was never publicly given by either of the parties. It has been well understood in private, however, that it was in consequence of the different theories they had espoused upon some leading medical doctrines, which both professors could not avoid mentioning in their lectures” (Bower 1817, 385).

Despite these suggestions, a plausible explanation for the joint arrangement remains elusive because none of these explanations explain, in satisfactory terms, why Gregory would have agreed to give up his sole Professorship. What did he get in return? It may have been—as most commentators seem to concede—that the pressure from students, as well as from Cullen and his friends, was quite great. Yet no plausible explanation has been given for why Gregory would agree to such a sacrifice of his own interests. And that is what we are after.

I discuss this in more detail in my forthcoming PhD dissertation, but suffice it to say here that we now know (thanks to some new documentary evidence) that, contrary to Thomson’s romanticized version, there was some back-room negotiations among the Professors and the exchange of money, as well.


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3 Responses to The ‘Great Affair’: Cullen & the Practical Chair

  1. William Cullen

    Thank you for these updates about this great academic. I look forward to seeing more. Also, I would like to know more about his personal life, his family life, for I am sure that I am an indirect descendant of his. I have learned that one of his son’s – John – came to the American Colonies before the American Revolution and married a young lady by the name of Nancy Foster, and they lived in Augusta County, Virginia.
    Again, thank you for these updates.

    • Julie Foster

      I am interested in the union of John Cullen of Scotland and Nancy Foster of England. I recently received a typed family tree that has this information on the 1st page. I imagine they immigrated to the colonies sometime in the 1700s but would like more info. The next page follows withe their children, etc. Please let me know if you have any info. Thanks, Julie

      • William Cullen

        It is my understanding that John Cullen came to the American colonies sometime before the American Revolution, settling in the Augusta County area of Virginia. Once there he met and married Nancy Foster. John’s father, Dr. William Cullen (1710-1790), as you may know, was a professor who taught Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh.

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