Category Archives: Research

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Research

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.


Filed under Research

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Research

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Research

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]


Leave a Comment

Filed under Research

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.


1 Comment

Filed under Research

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…

Leave a Comment

Filed under Research

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Research

William Cullen, ‘Jupiter’ Carlyle, and the celebrated Dr. Franklin

At the Cullen Symposium, I mentioned that, among other reasons, one of the ways we know that Dr. Cullen actually met Benjamin Franklin is because the Rev. Alexander ‘Jupiter’ Carlyle (1722-1805)—he acquired the nickname ‘Jupiter’, apparently, on account of his commanding good looks—rather non-chalantly mentions just such a meeting. In fact, in my mind, the meet-up that Carlyle mentions has always seemed to me to be a rather powerful example of the Scottish Enlightenment in action. Someone came up to me after the panel was over and wanted to know the specific reference where this meeting is mentioned, and it occurred to me that perhaps it was not as well-known as I assumed. So, I shall mention it here, along with a few other items of interest regarding the relationship between Franklin and Cullen.

Carlyle wrote an autobiography of his life during his final years, but it was published for the first time, if I’m not mistaken, in 1860 by John Hill Burton, based on Carlyle’s manuscript. I have to admit to being fairly ignorant of the details, but it is to the content I wish to draw attention.

I note, as well, that Carlyle’s memory cannot be entirely trusted here. But more on that below. Let us first enjoy the anecdote. Carlyle recalls that about the middle of September (1770), he and his friend a Dr. Wight (from Dublin):

supped one night in Edinburgh with the celebrated Dr Franklin at Dr Robertson’s house, then at the head of the Cowgate, where he had come at Whitsunday, after his being translated to Edinburgh. Dr Franklin and his son [William Franklin (c. 1730-1814)] with him; and besides Wight and me, there were David Hume, Dr Cullen, Adam Smith, and two or three more. Wight and Franklin had met and breakfasted together in the inn at [   ] without learning one another’s names, but they were more than half acquainted when they met here. Wight, who could talk at random on all sciences without being very deeply skilled in any, took it into his head to be very eloquent on chemistry, a course of which he had attended in Dublin; and perceiving that he diverted the company, particularly Franklin, who was a silent man, he kept it up with Cullen, then professor of that science, who had imprudently committed himself with him, for the greatest part of the evening, to the infinite diversion of the company, who took great delight in seeing the great Professor foiled in his own science by a novice. Franklin’s son was open and communicative, and pleased the company better than his father; and some of us observed indications of that decided difference of opinion between father and son which, in the American war, alienated them altogether.1

Here we have, on a particular evening at William Robertson’s house, a remarkable gathering of minds. William Robertson, Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith, William Cullen, and David Hume, all together, one entertaining evening. Note that Carlyle seems to find Franklin’s presence, as an out-of-towner, noteworthy, but not the gathering of Robertson, Hume, Smith and Cullen at the same dinner. To him, this was not unusual; these sorts of gatherings, in Edinburgh at the time, were presumably not very uncommon. But to us, looking back, we are reminded of the sheer concentration of singular figures that enjoyed each other’s company and conviviality, in the Scottish capital. When we speak of the Scottish Enlightenment, I, at least, think of moments like this.

I do not know what axe Carlyle had to grind against Cullen—though it may have been on religious grounds or, more likely, on account of Carlyle’s friendship with Dr. John Gregory, who was often at loggerheads with Cullen—but he clearly enjoys poking fun at him here. Now, it must be said that Carlyle’s chronology can’t be correct, and one wonders how much to trust his version of events. Perhaps he is really combining a few evenings into one, and that no such dinner in mid-September 1770 took place. I have no doubt that these kinds of evenings happened, especially during Franklin’s visits, but I’m unsure whether we can say that this particular one did. For the moment, let’s give Carlyle the benefit of the doubt.

Still, there are concerns: to begin, Carlyle is mistaken about Cullen’s position. In 1770 he was no longer Professor of Chemistry and had not been for at least 5 years. He became Professor of the Theory of Physic in 1766 or thereabouts. He had been Professor of Chemistry from 1756-1766 in Edinburgh (without here worrying about precise dates to the month). So either this evening happened earlier than 1770, when Cullen was in fact Professor of Chemistry, or it happened in 1770, but Carlyle was mistaken as to Cullen’s position. I suspect, since the entertainment of the story hinges so much on Dr. Wight making a fool of Cullen in chemistry, while he was Professor of that very subject, that it is the former—i.e. that the evening in question, if it happened in this way, took place earlier than 1770.

In fact, there is an easy way to put a rough estimate on the evening in question, for Franklin came to visit Edinburgh twice, once in 1759 and again in 1771. During his 1759 visit, he stayed at the estate of Lord Kames in the Scottish Borders (Kaimes). He appears to have stayed for about six weeks, which ended sometime before the new year, based on Franklin’s letter to Kames, dated Jan. 3, 1760 from London, of which I excerpt below:

Our Conversation till we came to York was chiefly a Recollection and Recapitulation of what we had seen and heard, the Pleasure we had enjoy’d and the Kindnesses we had receiv’d in Scotland, and how far that Country had exceeded our Expectations. On the whole, I must say, I think the Time we spent there, was Six Weeks of the densest Happiness I have met with in any Part of my Life. And the agreable and instructive Society we found there in such Plenty, has left so pleasing an Impression on my Memory, that did not strong Connections draw me elsewhere, I believe Scotland would be the Country I should chuse to spend the Remainder of my Days in.2

During the time Franklin was staying with Lord Kames, Cullen was Professor of the Practice of Chemistry, so it is possible that Carlyle’s dinner occurred in late 1759, instead of 1770. More support is lent to this date, if we consider the whereabouts of Franklin’s son, William. It was likely he was traveling with his father in 1759, but he became Colonial Governor of New Jersey in 1763 and continued in that post until January 1776. It is possible, though unlikely, that he would have been traveling in Edinburgh in the early 1770s. Someone has probably already figured this out, but this suggests strongly to me that the evening Carlyle remembers happened in late 1759 instead of sometime in 1770.

It is worth mentioning that Cullen definitely meant and conversed with Franklin during his first trip to Edinburgh. Not only does Franklin begin a correspondence with Cullen in 1760 (alas, it is quite small, consisting of three letters—two of which are simple letters of introduction—as far as I am aware), but he (Franklin) specifically mentions, in a letter to Cullen from London dated Oct. 21st, 1761, that

I hear, that since I had the pleasure of seeing and conversing with you on the subject, you have wrote some of your sentiments of Fire, and communicated them to the Philosophical Society. If so, as it may be some time before their publication, I should think myself extremely obliged to you if I could be favoured with a copy, as there is no subject I am more impatient to be acquainted with. It should go no further than my own closet without your permission.3

During his 1771 visit (which began in late October 1771), Franklin stayed with David Hume at his home in the New Town.4

It would certainly be interesting to know more about the relationship between Franklin and Cullen. Cullen clearly had a deep respect for Franklin; and he mentions in some unpublished letters to his American pupils, that he was always very proud of his friendship with Franklin, and the many civilities they engaged over the years. It is surprising to me that there are not more extant letters between the two of them, but then Cullen could—and did—communicate with Franklin in his later years via his many American pupils who settled in Philadelphia and knew Franklin well (John Morgan, William Shippen, Benjamin Rush, etc). A letter from John Morgan, in 1786 for instance, mentions Cullen’s “old friend Dr Franklin.”5

It is also becoming clear that Franklin’s work on electricity played an important role in Cullen’s thinking on certain topics (as, indeed, it did with many philosophers and physicians in the mid-to-late eighteenth century). But that is not something I can explore here.

  1. See The Autobiography of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Carlyle, Minister of Inveresk: containing memorials of the men and events of his time, pp. 394-5
  2. See The Franklin Papers online here.
  3. See The Franklin Papers online here. I believe the essay that Franklin refers to is extant. And so far as I know it has not been studied. I do not know, either, whether Cullen sent a copy to Franklin. In any case, It can be found at the RCPE, in a Manuscript book of Cullen’s Miscellaneous Papers (CUL/3/1). For a description of this book, see the new RCPE archives online catalogue here.
  4. More on this topic can be found in Sir Michael Atiyah’s 2006 article “Benjamin Franklin and the Edinburgh Enlightenment” (though it is virtually silent about Cullen) and in James Bennett Nolan’s book Benjamin Franklin in Scotland and Ireland 1759 and 1771 (U Penn Press, 1956).
  5. See RCPE  CUL/1/2/1868. The catalogue description reads: “Letter from John Morgan, Philadelphia, 14 Jun 1786, Letter of introduction for Mr Barton, son of Rev Barton of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He mentions that Cullen’s ‘old friend Dr Franklin fills the chair of President of the State of Pennsylvania to the great satisfaction of its inhabitants’.” Both Cullen and Franklin died in 1790.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Research

New Section on Site: Originals

I am inaugurating a new section on william cullen dot net, dedicated to, as I explain on that page, “descriptions of, and links to, ‘original’ resources helpful (I hope) to those studying the life and thought of William Cullen. By ‘original’ I mean, essentially, resources that I have either created myself or that I have edited or enhanced in some significant way, for the use of others.”

These are various side projects, or background work, which I have dedicated some attention to over the past 2+ years, while studying Cullen. I have some projects in the wings, as well, that I plug away at, as time permits (but it usually doesn’t, and certainly won’t over the next few months).

But, for now, go on over and check out the new section Originals.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Research