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WILLIAM BUCHAN, M. D.
WILLIAM BUCHAN, Doctor in Medicine, was honoured with an interment in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, in consideration of his merits as a man and his talents as a physician ; and is farther entitled to a brief commemoration in these pages, as the author of the most popular work on the subject of his profession, which, up to this date, has been produced in the country. Descended from a family which boasted the honour of having suffered persecution for the sake of their religion, he was born in the year 1729, at the romantic village of Ancram, in Roxburghshire, in Scotland, and was sent, at the proper age, to a grammar school at Jedburg. There his advancement was so gratifying, and his fondness for books so manifest, that his father, a respectable man, enjoying a small entailed property of his own, the produce of which he augmented by cultivating an adjoining farm, resolved to educate so promising a scholar for a liberal profession. Young Buchan was accordingly sent to the University of Edinburgh with the view of studying for the church, but he had no sooner matriculated, than he forsook the mystical severity of Calvin's theology for the more sensible attractions of mathematical study; and such was the promptitude with which he comprehended the theorems of science, that in a short time he was able to act in the capacity of preceptor.
It was by this means that he formed an acquaintance with the medical scholars of the university, and from their conversation was induced to direct an inquiry into the nature of their pursuits. The city of Edinburgh was, at that period, springing into the healthy reputation for excellence in the study of physic, which was soon after improved to so creditable a pitch of superiority; the professors were men of learning and research, professing the principles of Boerhaave; and Buchan soon became satis fied, that a better prospect of fame and emolument was held out by following their example, than could be expected from any preferment which the kirk of Scotland could bestow. To medicine, therefore, and its collateral studies he finally devoted his mind.
A series of nine years now passed away in preparatory occupations; and after taking his Doctor's degree in the Royal College, for which he read an inaugural discourse on the management and diseases of children, he at last settled as a practitioner in the town of Sheffield, in Yorkshire. There his practice soon became respectable, and his talents so palpable, that after a competition with no less than ten candidates, he was elected physician to that branch of the large Foundling Hospital, which was established by Parliament at Ackworth. In this charge he confirmed his character for decided ability: in the course of two years, he reduced the deaths from six to one in fifteen, and introduced many judicious regulations, by which the previous burthens of the establishment were materially reduced. The House of Commons, however, was not satisfied with the advantages derived from the institution; it discontinued all support, and the hospital fell to
Returning, therefore, to Edinburgh, Buchan married a lady of the name of Peters, with whom he received a small fortune, and upon the strength of her connexions began to practise in this city. A vacancy soon after this event presented itself in one of the chairs attached to the physical professors, and he became a candidate for its honours. A pernicious system of suffering professorships to descend almost hereditarily in particular families then obtained ground in the College; Buchan attempted to break through the custom, but failed of success. The memory of this disappointment, however, was soon lost in the ardour of another pursuit; for he now conceived the plan of a work which should lay open the principles of medical knowledge to the public, and render its prescriptions intelligible to the wants of every reader. The result of his reflections upon this subject was the production of the Domestic Medicine,' a book which made its first appearance at Edinburgh, in the year 1770, with a dedication to Sir John Pringle, President of the Royal Society, who was distantly related to the author.
He has given a history of this volume in a style so characteristic, and with an anecdote so curious, that it can hardly be deemed uninteresting to copy his own words ;
“For some time after his birth, Master Neddy was reckoned a promising boy. When I first saw him, he was about eighteen years of age; but to judge by his look, one would have supposed him to have been eighty! His face was long, pale, and deeply furrowed with wrinkles ; his eyes were sunk in their sockets ; his teeth quite decayed; his nose and chin almost touched each other ; his breast was narrow and prominent, and his body twisted ; his legs were like spindles; his hands and fingers approached nearly to the form of a bird's claws; in short, his whole figure exhibited the truly pitiable appearance of a very old man sinking under the weight of years into the grave.
“ It was at Midsummer I paid my first visit; I then found him wrapped up in clothing sufficient for the rigours of a Lapland winter, and so closely muffled, that one could hardly see the tip of his pose. He wore several pairs of stockings; his gloves were double and reached his elbows, and, to complete the absurdity of his dress, he was tightly laced in stays. Though armed in this manner at all points, he seldom peeped out of doors, except in the dog-days, and then ventured no farther than the church, which was only forty paces from his father's house. I believe this was the most distant excursion he ever made; and the extraordinary attempt was always accompanied with peculiar care, and many additional preservatives from cold. The eye of his parents might be truly said to watch over him not only by day, but by night also, as he slept in the same bed with them; having never been permitted to lie alone, lest he should throw the clothes off, or feel the want of any immediate assistance. It did not once occur to his father or mother, that all the inconveniences which they so much dreaded could not be half so injurious as the relaxing atmosphere of a warm bed, surrounded by close curtains, and impregnated with the noxious effluvia from their lungs and bodies. His food and drink were of the weakest quality; they were always administered warm, and by weight and measure. When I recommended a more nourishing diet, and a little generous wine, I was told that the strongest thing Master Neddy had ever taken was chicken water ; and that they durst not venture on wine or animal-food, for fear of a fever. Thus was the poor lad reduced almost to a skeleton, through the silly apprehension of a disease of which he was not susceptible. Nature was in him too weak to spread a hectic flush even for a moment over his countenance, which had acquired the colour of a parboiled chicken ; all his vital powers were languid, and even his speech resembled the squeaking of a bird more than the voice of a man. When I spoke of exercise, I was told he took a walk every fine day in the hall, and that was deemed sufficient for one of his delicate constitution. I mentioned a horse: the mother was frightened at the very name of so dangerous an animal. On telling her, that I owed the firmness and vigour of my own constitution to riding every day, she began to think there might be something specific in it; and she therefore consented to the purchase of a poney. But, tame as the creature was, it did not quiet the mother's alarms. Master Neddy, though placed upon the poney's back, was not entrusted with the reins : these were given in charge to a maid-servant, who led the horse round the orchard, while the cautious rider fastened both hands on the pommel of the saddle; and the father walking on one side, and the mother on the other, held him fast by the legs, lest he might be brought to the ground by any sudden start of his high-mettled racer. The exhibition was too ridiculous not to excite the laughter of the neighbours, which soon put an end to Master Neddy's equestrian exercise. The timidity of a youth thus brought up is more easily conceived than described : fearful of every thing, he would run from the most inoffensive animal, as if he had been pursued by a lion or a tiger. Improper food, tight or oppressive clothing, and want of fresh air and exercise, have, in their turn, proved destructive to thousands. This young man fell a victim to them . all; and it would have been a miracle, indeed, had he survived their combined influence. He died without a groan, or any mark of disease, except premature old age, the machine being fairly worn out before he completed his 21st year. His death proved fatal to both his parents, for their lives were closely bound up in that of the lad.
“The father had perceived his own error, but not before it was too late. On reading my Inaugural Dissertation, which was then published in Latin, he sent for me, and begged I would endeavour to save his son. The youth, alas ! was far beyond the reach of my most zealous efforts: I could only witness the certainty of his fate. Medicine was of as little use to him as consolation to his afflicted parents. The bita terness of their grief was increased by self-reproach; and Friendship exerted her soothing voice in vain. The father on his death-bed conjured me to translate my Dissertation into English, as he thought it might be of infinite service to mankind. My compliance with this request gave rise to the 'DOMESTIC MEDICINE,' of which that essay on the means of preserving the lives of children constitutes the first, and, in my opinion, the best chapter.”
If that test of literary excellence which Drýden laid down for his plays in rhyme, namely, the praise and satisfaction of those for whom the author writes, is to be received as a standard, Buchan's Domestic Medicine must be regarded as a publication of decided merit. Its success was extraordinary: it ran through no less than twenty editions during his lifetime, and made the fortune of Smellie the printer, in whose hands the copyright of it was vested. Like all other works which have been composed for the purpose of communicating the secrets of a profession to the uninitiated, its reception was opposed by the men whose influence it tended to undermine; and as Blackstone's Cominentaries have never been quoted as an authority amongst lawyers, so Buchan's Medicine has systematically been condemned by the faculty. The verdict of an interested party is therefore to be investigated with suspicious prudence : and perhaps it may be enough to conclude, that such a book was wanted because it was purchased; and that it was of value, because it remains to this day as popular as it ever has been. Nor was its reception less flattering abroad than it had proved at home: it was translated into all the civilized languages of Europe; and even made a classical authority in the German schools, through the medium of a Latin version. Upon its appearance in Russia, the late Empress Catherine honoured the author with a fine gold medallion, and complimentary epistle, in which she expressed her conviction of the utility of his exertions for the welfare of his species, and thanked him for the pleasure she had received from his book.
But the reputation which now encircled itself round the name of Buchan was in a great degree robbed of its enjoyments by the jealousy of his professional brethren. His practice declined, and even the number of his acquaintances decreased, so that, when in 1775, Ferguson, the celebrated itinerant lecturer on Natural Philosophy, bequeathed him a valuable collection of instruments, he did not hesitate to imitate the labours of his departed friend.
Thus, with the assistance of his son, who conducted the experi, mental department, he delivered a course of lectures at Edinburgh during the usual season, for three successive years, and was attended by crowded auditories, among whom were counted the most talented inhabitants of the city. With the novelty of this undertaking, however, its popularity subsided : he at length