Pitcairne was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. After obtaining some classical education at the school of Dalkeith, Pitcairne entered Edinburgh University in 1668, and took his degree of MA in 1671. Having been sent to France for the benefit of his health, he was induced at Paris to begin the study of medicine, and after courses at Edinburgh and Paris he obtained in 1680 the degree of MD at Rheims.
Private practice and academic appointment
He began practice at Edinburgh, and in a short time acquired so great a reputation that in 1692 he was appointed professor of medicine at Leiden. Among his pupils were Richard Mead and George Cheyne and both of them attributed much of their skill to what they had learned from Pitcairne. The great Dutch physician Herman Boerhaave was once thought to have been a student of Pitcairne's, but is now known not to have been.
In 1693 Pitcairne returned to Scotland to marry a daughter of Sir Archibald Stevenson, an eminent physician in Edinburgh. The family objected to her going abroad, so he did not return to Leiden, but settled once more in Edinburgh. He rose to be the first physician in Scotland, and was frequently called into consultation both in England and the Netherlands.
Soon after his return to Edinburgh, feeling the great want of the means of anatomical study, he importuned the town council to permit himself and certain of his medical friends to treat without fee the sick paupers in Paul's Work, on condition of being allowed to dissect such of the bodies as were unclaimed by their relatives, and therefore had to be buried at the towns expense. Strangely enough this proposal was strongly opposed by the chief surgeons of the place, but ultimately the town council had the good sense to comply with Pitcairne's request, and in this way he may be said to have the credit of laying the foundation of the great Edinburgh school of medicine.
Pitcairne's medical opinions are chiefly contained in a volume of Dissertationes medicae which he published in 1701 (2nd ed. 1713). In these he discusses the application of geometry to physics, the circulation of the blood in the smaller vessels, the difference in the quantity of the blood contained in the lungs of animals in the womb and of the same animals after birth, the motions by which food becomes fit to supply the blood, the question as to inventors in medicine (in which he repels the idea of certain medical discoveries of modern times having been known to the ancients, especially vindicating for Harvey the discovery of the circulation of the blood, and refuting the view that it was known to Hippocrates), the cure of fevers by evacuating medicines, and the effects of acids and alkalis in medicine.
Pitcairne was a good classical scholar, and wrote Latin verses, occasionally with something more than mere imitative cleverness and skill. He was supposed to be the author of a comedy, The Assembly, or Scotch Reformation, and of a satirical poem Babel, containing witty sketches of prominent Presbyterian divines of the time, whom, as a loudly avowed Jacobite, he strongly disliked.
Beliefs and private life
He was prone to irreverent and ribald jests, and thus gained the reputation of being an unbeliever and an atheist, though he was a professed deist. The stories about his over-indulgence in drink are probably exaggerated. He was repeatedly involved in violent quarrels with his medical brethren and others, and once or twice got into scrapes with the government on account of his indiscreet political utterances.
Among his friends, however, he was evidently well liked, and he is known to have acted with great kindness and generosity to deserving men who needed his help. Thomas Ruddiman, the Scottish scholar, for example, was rescued from a life of obscurity by his encouragement and assistance, and by no one was his memory more gratefully cherished. Mead, too, appears never to have forgotten what he owed to his old teacher at Leiden.
A son of Pitcairne's had gone out in the rebellion of 1715, and, having been condemned to death, was saved by the earnest interposition of Mead with Sir Robert Walpole. He pleaded, very artfully, that if Walpole's health had been bettered by his skill, or if members of the royal family were preserved by his care, it was owing to the instruction he had received from Dr Pitcairne.
Death and legacy
Pitcairne died in Edinburgh on 20 October 1713, aged 60. He had been a great collector of books, and his library, which is said to have been of considerable value, was, through the influence of Ruddiman, disposed of to Peter the Great of Russia.