William Cullen

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For other people named William Cullen, see William Cullen (disambiguation).
William Cullen
William Cullen.jpg
William Cullen
Born 15 April 1710
Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland[1]
Died 5 February 1790
Edinburgh, Scotland[2]
Nationality Scottish
Fields Medicine, Chemistry, Agriculture
Alma mater University of Glasgow
University of Edinburgh
Notable students Joseph Black, Benjamin Rush, John Walker, John Morgan, George Fordyce, William Withering, John Haygarth, John Moore, John Brown, Robert Willan, Sir Gilbert Blane, John Coakley Lettsom
Known for Teaching at the Edinburgh Medical School, author of popular medical textbook First Lines of the Practice of Physic, Scottish Enlightenment figure and mentor to Joseph Black
Cameo of William Cullen, 1786

William Cullen FRS FRSE FRCPE FPSG (15 April 1710 – 5 February 1790) was a Scottish physician, chemist and agriculturalist, and one of the most important professors at the Edinburgh Medical School, during its heyday as the leading center of medical education in the English-speaking world.[3]

Cullen was also a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. He was David Hume's physician and friend, and on intimate terms with Adam Smith, Lord Kames (with whom he discussed theoretical and practical aspects of husbandry), Joseph Black, John Millar, and Adam Ferguson, among others.

He was President of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow (1746–47), President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (1773–1775) and First Physician to the King in Scotland (1773–1790).[4] He was also, incidentally, one of the prime movers in obtaining a royal charter for the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, resulting in the formation of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783.[5]

Cullen was a beloved teacher, and many of his students became influential figures in their own right. His best-known students—many of whom continued to correspond with him during his long life—included (in addition to Joseph Black, who became his colleague) Benjamin Rush, a central figure in the founding of the United States of America; John Morgan, who founded the first medical school in the American colonies (the Medical School at the College of Philadelphia);[6] William Withering, the discoverer of digitalis; Sir Gilbert Blane, medical reformer of the Royal Navy; and John Coakley Lettsom, the philanthropist and founder of the Medical Society of London.[7]

Special mention must be made of Cullen's student-turned-opponent, John Brown, who developed the medical system known as Brunoniansm, which rivalled Cullen's. This was to have immense influence, especially in Italy and Germany, during the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century.[8]

Cullen was also a successful author. He published a number of medical textbooks, mostly for the use of his students, though they were popular throughout Europe and the American colonies as well. His best known work was First Lines of the Practice of Physic, which was published in a series of editions between 1777 and 1784.[9]

Early life[edit]

Cullen was born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire. His father William was a lawyer retained by the Duke of Hamilton as factor, and his mother was Elizabeth Roberton of Whistlebury.[10][11] He studied at the Old Grammar School of Hamilton (renamed in 1848 The Hamilton Academy), then, in 1726, began a General Studies arts course at the University of Glasgow. He began his medical training as apprentice to John Paisley, a Glasgow apothecary surgeon, then spent 1729 as surgeon on a merchant vessel trading between London and the West Indies. After two years as assistant apothecary to Mr Murray of Henrietta Street, London, he returned to Scotland in 1732 to establish himself in general medical practice in the parish of Shotts, Lanarkshire. From 1734 to 1736 he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he became interested in chemistry, and was one of the founders of the Royal Medical Society.

In 1736 he began medical practice in Hamilton, where he rapidly acquired a high reputation. He also continued his study of the natural sciences, especially of chemistry. From 1737 to 1740 William Hunter was his resident pupil, and at one time they proposed to enter into partnership. In 1740 Cullen was awarded the degree of MD from Glasgow University. In 1741, he married and started his family. He became ordinary medical attendant to James Douglas, 5th Duke of Hamilton (1703–43), his family, and his livestock. In 1744, following the Duke's death, the Cullens moved to Glasgow.

In Glasgow he gave extramural lectures for the University, on physiology, botany, materia medica, and chemistry. His great abilities, enthusiasm, and use of practical demonstrations for instruction, made him a successful and highly popular teacher, attracting large classes. At the same time he also maintained a medical practice. In 1747, Cullen was awarded Britain's first independent lectureship in Chemistry and was elected President of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. In 1748 while in Glasgow, Cullen invented the basis for modern refrigeration, although is not credited with a usable application. In 1751 he was appointed Professor of the Practice of Medicine, although he continued to lecture on chemistry.


In 1755 he was enticed by Lord Kames to become Professor of Chemistry and Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. It was in Edinburgh, in 1756, that he gave the first documented public demonstration of artificial refrigeration.[12] Cullen used a pump to create a partial vacuum over a container of diethyl ether, which then boiled, absorbing heat from the surroundings. This created a small amount of ice, but the process found no commercial application.

From 1757 he delivered lectures on clinical medicine in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. On the death of Charles Alston in 1760, Cullen at the request of the students undertook to finish his course of lectures on materia medica; he delivered an entirely new course, notes of which were published in an unauthorised edition in 1771, but which he re-wrote and issued as A Treatise on Materia Medica in 1789.

On the death of Robert Whytt, the professor of the institutes of medicine, Cullen accepted the chair, at the same time resigning that of chemistry. In the same year he had been an unsuccessful candidate for the professorship of the practice of physic (medicine), but subsequently an arrangement was made between him and John Gregory, the successful candidate, by which they both agreed to deliver alternate courses on the theory and practice of medicine. This arrangement continued until the sudden death of Gregory in 1773. Cullen was then appointed sole professor of the practice of physic, and he continued in this office until a few months before his death. He died on 5 February 1790.

Cullen taught many students who would go on to influential careers in British science. Indeed, a large number of the doctors who taught in Edinburgh's medical school from the 1790s to 1810s had studied with him, including the chemist Joseph Black, the anatomist Alexander Monro Secundus and the naturalist John Walker. Cullen's emphasis on the practical benefits of chemistry made his ideas popular amongst farmers, industrialists, naturalists and doctors alike. His influence on these fields was felt though the writings of his students, particularly in the books of John Anderson, the 'Aberdeen Agricola' and the lectures given by Joseph Black and John Walker from the 1770s to 1790s.


He was father to the judge Robert Cullen, Lord Cullen and to the physician Henry Cullen. Cullen's eldest son Robert became a Scottish judge in 1796 under the title of Lord Cullen later Baron Cullen,[13] and was known for his powers of mimicry.


Cullen's most popular and successful work was his medical textbook First Lines of the Practice of Physic, published in two volumes in 1777 and expanded with each edition until it reached four volumes in its final edition (1784).

His first book-length publication was Synopsis Nosologiae Methodicae (1769), Cullen's very influential nosology, or classification of diseases. His next publication was also a medical textbook, and it dealt with the Institutions of medicine, i.e. medical theory. Its full title was Institutions of Medicine. Part I. Physiology (1772) because it focused on physiology, which was traditionally only one part of the Institutions (pathology and therapeutics were also essential parts of medical theory). It went through two more editions (1777 & 1785).

Work on his magnum opus, First Lines of Practice of Physic, occupied much of his time in the 1770s and 1780s, but he did manage one final publication. This was his two volume A Treatise of the Materia Medica (1789), which was highly valued by other medical practitioners throughout Europe.

Thus, the following works, with their dates of publication (including multiple editions), comprise the majority of Cullen's oevre:

Cullen also published a few, shorter works (e.g. "A Letter to Lord Cathcart" in 1776), which have not been included in this list.


  1. ^ Thomson, John. An Account of the Life, Lectures and Writings of William Cullen, M.D. Volume 1. William Blackwood & T. Cadell, 1832, p. 1.
  2. ^ Thomson, John; Thomson, William; Craigie, David. An Account of the Life, Lectures and Writings of William Cullen, M.D. Volume 2. William Blackwood & Sons, 1859, p. 660.
  3. ^ Thomson, John. An Account of the Life, Lectures and Writings of William Cullen, M.D. Volume 1. William Blackwood & T. Cadell, 1832.
  4. ^ Doig, A., Ferguson, J. P. S., Milne, I. A., and Passmore, R. William Cullen and the Eighteenth Century Medical World. Edinburgh University Press, 1993, pp. xii–xiii.
  5. ^ Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002: Biographical Index I. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Retrieved 29 September 2010. 
  6. ^ http://www.jstor.org/stable/3143563
  7. ^ Doig, A., Ferguson, J. P. S., Milne, I. A., and Passmore, R. William Cullen and the Eighteenth Century Medical World. Edinburgh University Press, 1993, esp. pp. 40–55.
  8. ^ Bynum, W.F. and Porter, Roy. Brunonianism in Britain and Europe. Medical History, Supplement No. 8 (1988), pp. ix–x.
  9. ^ Doig, A., Ferguson, J. P. S., Milne, I. A., and Passmore, R. William Cullen and the Eighteenth Century Medical World. Edinburgh University Press, 1993, esp. pp. 34–39.
  10. ^ "Cullen | William | 1710–1790 | physician, chemist and metallurgist". Nahste.ac.uk. Retrieved 20 January 2012. 
  11. ^ "Free Family History and Genealogy Records –". Familysearch.org. Retrieved 22 April 2013. 
  12. ^ William Cullen, Of the Cold Produced by Evaporating Fluids and of Some Other Means of Producing Cold, in Essays and Observations Physical and Literary Read Before a Society in Edinburgh and Published by Them, II, (Edinburgh 1756)
  13. ^ "NPG D2239; Robert Cullen, Baron Cullen". Npg.org.uk. Retrieved 20 January 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

Basic biographical sources[edit]

  • Thomson, John. An Account of the Life, Lectures and Writings of William Cullen, M.D. Volume 1. William Blackwood & T. Cadell, 1832.
  • Thomson, John; Thomson, William; Craigie, David. An Account of the Life, Lectures and Writings of William Cullen, M.D. Volume 2. William Blackwood & Sons, 1859. This book, in conjunction with its predecessor (see previous reference), is the standard biography of William Cullen's life and thought.
  • Doig, A., Ferguson, J. P. S., Milne, I. A., and Passmore, R (Editors). William Cullen and the Eighteenth Century Medical World. Edinburgh University Press, 1993. This collection of edited essays is the most recent, full-length work on the life and thought of William Cullen. It was the result of an exhibition and symposium at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1990 to commemorate the bicentenary of Cullen's death.
  • Bynum, W. F.. "William Cullen (1710–1790)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/6874.
  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Eddy, M. D. ‘Dr. William Cullen, M.D., (1710–1790)’, New Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Noretta Koertge (ed.), (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2007).

William Cullen and chemistry[edit]

  • Donovan, Arthur L. Philosophical Chemistry in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Doctrines and Discoveries of William Cullen and Joseph Black. Edinburgh: University Press, 1975.
  • J V Golinski, "Utility and Audience in Eighteenth-Century Chemistry: Case Studies of William Cullen and Joseph Priestley," The British Journal for the History of Science (1988): 1–31.
  • Christie JR (1994). "Historiography of chemistry in the eighteenth century: Hermann Boerhaave and William Cullen". Ambix 41 (1): 4–19. doi:10.1179/amb.1994.41.1.4. PMID 11616322. 
  • Eddy, M. D. The Language of Mineralogy: John Walker, Chemistry and the Edinburgh Medical School, 1750–1800 (Aldershot: 2008).
  • Eddy, M. D. "The Aberdeen Agricola: Chemical Principles and Practice in James Aderson's Georgics and Geology", in L. Principe (Ed.), New Narratives in Eighteenth-Century Chemistry (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007).

William Cullen and medicine[edit]

External links[edit]