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PITCAIRNE, ARCHIBALD (1652-1713), a distinguished Scottish physician, born at Edinburgh in 1652, and descended of an ancient Fifeshire family which barely escaped extinction at the battle of Flodden, - the proprietor of the estate and his seven sons having fallen in the battle, and the succession being only preserved by the birth of a posthumous child. After obtaining some classical education at the school of Dalkeith, Pitcairne entered Edinburgh university in 1668, and took his degree of M.A. in 1671. Like some men of great general ability, he seems to have remained long undetermined as to his future profession, and before taking to medicine he had made some progress first in divinity and then in law. But, having been sent to France for the benefit of his health, he was induced at Paris to begin the study of medicine. On his return to Scotland he applied himself for a time and with great success to the study of mathematics. Having at last taken vigorously to medicine, first at Edinburgh and afterwards for the second time at Paris, he obtained in 1680 his degree of M.D. from the faculty at Rheims. On returning to Scotland lie at once began practice at Edinburgh, and in a short time acquired a great and wide reputation - so much so that in 1692 he was invited to fill a professor's chair at Leyden, and is said to have lectured there with great applause. Among his pupils were at least two men who afterwards rose to great eminence in their profession, Mead and Boerhaave, and both of them are understood to have attributed much of their skill to what they had learned from Pitcairne. l.n the following year Pitcairne returned to Scotland to fulfil a matrimonial engagement with a daughter of Sir Archibald Stevenson, an eminent physician in Edinburgh ; and, the family of the young lady having objected to their daughter going abroad, Pitcairne did not return to Leyden, but settled once more in Edinburgh, speedily acquired a most extensive practice, rose indeed to be the first physician of his time in Scotland, and was frequently called in as consulting physician not only in England but even in Holland.
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 dissect the bodies of paupers in " Paul's Work " unclaimed by their relations, and who therefore had hitherto been buried at the town's expense. They offered to attend them gratis when ill, and after dissection to bury them at their own charges. 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.
Though, according to Boerhaave, Pitcairne had not completely emancipated himself from some of the fanciful theories prevalent in his age in the science of medicine, yet the main characteristic of his superiority appears to have been that, like Sydenham and the higher class of physicians in England at that time, he insisted on strict adherence to the Baconian method of attendinc,b chiefly to facts of experience and observation. " Nothing," he remarks, "more hinders physic from being improved than the curiosity of searching into the natural causes of the effects of medicines. The business of men is to know the virtues of medicines, but to inquire whence they have that power is a superfluous amusement, since nature lies concealed. A physician ought therefore to apply himself to discover by experience the effects of medicines and diseases, and reduce his observations into maxims, and not needlessly fatigue himself by inquiring into their causes, which are neither possible nor necessary to be known. If all physicians would act thus we should not see physic divided into so many sects."
Pitcairne's medical opinions are chiefly contained in a volume of Dissertations which he published in 1701 (second and improved edition, 1713). In these he discusses the application of geometry to physic, 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 opinion of Dacier and others that it was known to Hippocrates), the cure of fevers by evacuating medicines, and the effects of acids and alkalis in medicine.
In addition to his great knowledge and, skill as a physician, Pitcairne is understood to have ...been also an accomplished mathematician. He was intimate with the two Gregorys, and is said to have made some improvement on the method of infinite series invented by David Gregory. His strong addiction to mathematics seems to have misled him, along with some other eminent men of his time, into the idea of applying its methods of reasoning to subjects for which they are quite unfitted : in Pitcairne's case the attempt is made in one of his papers to adapt them to medicine.
He was also a very thorough classical scholar, and wrote Latin verses, occasionally with something more than mere imitative cleverness and skill. Some verses of his on the death of Lord Dundee were translated by Dryden, and, as one of the latest editors of Dryden's poetry with perfect justice remarks, "the translation will not be thought so happy as the original."
According to the representations which are left by his contemporaries of his personal bearing and character, he seems to have carried his great faculties very lightly. A strong man all round, with great animal spirits and jovial habits, somewhat contemptuous of the gravities and feeblosities around him, a loudly avowed Jacobite and Episcopalian, rather reckless in his jests and sarcasms, and spending a good deal of his time in clubs, public houses, and drinking jollities, he was evidently regarded with little favour and some suspicion by the sober and decent Presbyterian circles of Edinburgh. " Drunk twice a day," according to the worthy, credulous, gossiping Wodrow (in one of his note books) ; " an unbeliever," " much given to profane jests," an " atheist," according to , others. These reports may be taken for what they are worth, which perhaps is not very much. What is certain is that 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. Ruddiman, the great 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.
" - Vale, lux Seotigenum, princepsque Medentum, Musarum columen deliciteque, vale!"
are the concluding lines of a Latin epitaph by him on his venerated patron and friend, which still remains on Pitcairne's monument in the Greyfriars churchyard. Mead too, appears never to have forgotten what he owed to his old teacher at Leyden. 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. Pitcairne died in October 1713. Among his other scholarly tastes he had been a great collector of books, and his library, which is understood to have been of considerable value, was, through the influence of Ruddiman, disposed of to Peter the Great of Russia.