Category Archives: Research

The Future

The PhD is done and the thesis printed. After enjoying a bit of time absorbing this new state of affairs, I have begun thinking more seriously about the future.

It’s impossible to say what it holds, although I am looking for ways to continue my historical research.

In the meantime, I have been beefing up my technical chops. I am in the final days of a wonderful 11 week web development course here in Chicago, and I have a lot of ideas about how to put these skills to use, especially in the Digital Humanities.

More to come on this theme in the weeks ahead.

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PhD Thesis Now Available

The long journey is over. I have completed all requirements for the PhD and am eligible to graduate. Therefore, I would now like to make my PhD thesis available to those interested in learning more about Cullen. I have provided the thesis in two formats: PDF (including bookmarks for easy navigation) and Print (see below). If you cite my work at some future date, I only ask that you acknowledge the source.

I am always happy to hear what you think (email).

Visiting the link below will take you to the download page for the file:

“Our Master & Father at the Head of Physick”: The Learned Medicine of William Cullen

If you prefer a more tactile experience, you can order a print copy—unfortunately not free—from the print-on-demand service that I use. The price is a direct reflection of the cost of production, in addition to a small cut that Lulu (the POD) takes. I make no money off of the sale:

Paperback | Hardback

Here is a preview of the wrap-around cover of the printed thesis:


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PhD Thesis Title & Abstract

“Our Master & Father at the Head of Physick”: The Learned Medicine of William Cullen

By Jeffrey Charles Wolf


This is a study of the life and thought of Dr. William Cullen (1710-1790), the Scottish chemist, physician, and professor of medicine, who was a significant figure in the Scottish Enlightenment.

I argue that Cullen was both a more unorthodox figure in Scottish medicine than he is generally depicted, as well as a more ambitious one. Despite his controversial doctrines, he skillfully managed the hierarchy of his profession and reached the pinnacle of success as a learned physician in the Scottish Enlightenment.

I explore Cullen’s contentious doctrines and hard-won triumphs by focusing on a few aspects of his life and thought. I analyse his pedagogical persona and philosophy of medicine, both of which shaped the experiences of his pupils. I show how his influential neurophysiology was rooted in his disputed interpretation of the nature of the nervous fluid. And I provide a detailed look at Cullen’s understanding of hygiene, or the art of health—a rarely-studied component of his practice of medicine.

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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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Euler’s Influence on Cullen

I am completing the final section of my final incomplete chapter (fingers-crossed) and one of the questions it has raised is what influence the work of Euler had on Cullen’s thinking (or perhaps I should say the Eulers, but I am here primarily thinking of the work of the elder Euler, Leonhard [1707-83]). These two are not usually linked together. Indeed, Cullen has been called – somewhat mistakenly in my view – a typically ‘Scottish’ thinker, but again and again I keep seeing the influence of Continental physicians (Boerhaave, Haller, Gaubius, Stahl) and natural philosophers on his own system of the natural world.

A particularly fruitful and interesting topic in this regard is Cullen’s understanding and use of a subtle matter, or aether, in the many areas of medicine and philosophy that interested him. It has been pointed out by Christie and others that in some of Cullen’s chemical writings, his view of the Aether and its role in physiology shares similarities with the work of the Irish physician, Bryan Robinson, especially in his Dissertation on the Aether of Sir Isaac Newton (1743). And Cullen makes explicit reference to Robinson’s work, a number of times (e.g. in his c.1761 chemical lectures). But, as we go later into the 1760s and look at Cullen’s lectures on the institutions of medicine, a new name crops up where Robinson’s name used to be: Euler. Although Cullen had a copy of Euler’s 1746 Opuscula Varii Argumenti (which contained Euler’s influential new theory on light and colour) in his library upon his death, it remains unclear when the significance of Euler’s work dawned on him. I conjecture sometime between 1761-1766, though whether this was on account of Cullen’s first reading of Euler’s theory or through another channel may not be possible to say (though a thorough review of Cullen correspondence might be where to look).

Through the generosity of an older scholar who has done important work on Euler, Newton and Aepinus, I have been able to obtain an unpublished English translation of Euler’s 1746 essay, and I have to say that I have been extremely impressed with its clarity and rhetorical persuasiveness. It is heads above the work of Robinson and Hartley, for instance, and reads – even in translation – as a suitable successor to Newton’s own work on light and colours (with which it takes issue).

In any case, since Cullen – in his defense of his belief in the existence of a nervous elastic fluid that was a modification of the universal Newtonian Aether – claims to agree with Euler’s system of nature (at least as of early 1769), I have thought it worthwhile to spend a little time reading Euler’s theory and some of the secondary literature on it. Euler may be better known for his mathematics, but he was no slouch in optics and other areas of natural philosophy either.

Cullen, I think, would happily agree.

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The Interconnectedness of Cullen’s System

As I struggle to revise the current chapter I am working on, I am once again struck by how interconnected Cullen’s thought is. Dig a little below the surface and you quickly see how seemingly independent parts of his system are actually connected to each other: once you think you can adequately explain, say, his understanding of the nervous fluid, you realise that his beliefs about it are actually rooted, or connected at least, to his fundamental doctrines in chemistry (elective attraction, fire, etc). And these in turn are hard to extricate from his more general stance on the workings of all of nature (atoms and the aether).

So you pull a piece of the thread and a lot more than you expect comes tumbling out with it. This is both exhilarating and frustrating – especially if you’re looking to tie things up nicely in a self-contained chapter. It’s clear, in any case, why writing about Cullen so easily becomes a much larger, more time-consuming project — one which the Thomson family knew unfortunately too well — if you let it.

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The Chicago Chapter Begins

I am now comfortably settled in Chicago and admit to being overwhelmed by its magic. Interestingly, there is original primary source material related to Cullen in various Chicago archives.

Nothing more about Dr. Cullen at this moment, but consider this post as a promise that more is to come sooner rather than later.

Chicago Skyline (stylised)

[Image Source]


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Prize for Transcription of Cullen’s work

This is old news, in a way, but I can now post a link to official recognition of a prize I won some months ago, having to do with my transcription of some unpublished Cullen material. I am thrilled that the Scottish History Society recognized the importance, in the context of Scottish history, of this kind of material, which showcases the outsized contribution of Scots and Scotland to the history of medicine.

Scottish History Society Postgraduate Prize | Previous Winners

And I should note, as well, that I would not have won it were it nor for my supervisor, Dr. Thomas Ahnert, alerting me to the prize and how my work might be suitable for it. Or were it not for my co-supervisor, Dr. John Henry, and his essential feedback on an early draft of my application. Or were it not, very early on, for Glasgow University Library’s Sarah Hepworth (Special Collections) and her agreeing to allow me to create a digital archive of the Cullen Papers, held there.


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Quick Update

Things have been so busy that I have not had time to update this site with anything substantive. But lots of substantive work has gone on, and I am on the cusp of finishing a very large chapter that I hope is a fresh interpretation of Cullen’s understanding of the nervous system.

I move to Chicago on Saturday, and this means a lull in my research and writing, but hopefully one which does not last too long. I now have a great deal of written material, more than I can use for my PhD thesis, and I will soon begin the next stage of the (my?) writing process, which I take to be a great deal of consolidation, concision, reviews and evaluations of secondary sources, and a high-level restructuring and connecting of what I have already written.

More once I get settled in my new hometown…

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A Very Rare Edition: Cullen’s 1770 Textbook

It has long been assumed that the 1772 edition of Cullen’s textbook on the Institutions of Medicine, entitled Institutions of Medicine. Part I. Physiology. For the Use of the Students in the University of Edinburgh, was the first one Cullen printed.

But I have discovered, quite to my surprise, that this is not the case. Cullen in fact printed an earlier version of this textbook in 1770, and I have located what must be one of the only surviving copies.

In a certain sense, this is not a revelation. From fairly detailed and well-preserved student notes taken down during his 1770-71 lectures (see NLS MS 3535), we know that he gave his students some kind of text and that it appeared to be, at least in the parts that discussed the nervous system, very similar to—but not identical with—his published text from two years later.

While re-reading these lectures, I realised that Cullen clearly indicates that he has handed out a printed textbook to his students in 1770, one that he published (for, he says, he hazards his reputation by doing so). So I wondered whether any such book still survives. And, after some searching, I discovered that, yes, a copy exists in one—but, as far as I can tell, only one—library.

I still need to confirm that it is what the catalogue claims it is (I have ordered some images), but I am 95% certain that a copy of Cullen’s 1770 textbook survives. From NLS MS 3535, we already have a good sense of its contents, but to find the actual ‘published’ edition, which must be exceedingly rare, is a treat.

And it leads to a further query, for we know that Cullen handed out some kind of text or lengthy syllabus to his students as early as his 1768-69 Institutions course. I believe this was the first time he did so, with a view to publication. But it is unclear whether this text was ‘published’ in the same way that the later ones were. Cullen may have simply handed out pages in loose-leaf, for example. But he may have printed his 1768-69 text, and I am now on the lookout for that too. But, if it survives, it must be extremely rare and probably only survives among the collected papers of some of his students.

All of this material, I hope, feeds into the chapter(s) I am writing on Cullen’s views of the nervous system, and how they developed over the course of his lectures on the Institutions of Medicine. And that can be seen quite clearly in the different editions or variations that his textbook underwent from 1768 to 1772.

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