Lives of the fellows

James Copland

b.November 1791 d.12 July 1870
MD Edin(1815) LRCP(1820) FRCP(1837)

James Copland, M.D. This indefatigable and voluminous writer was born in the Orkneys in November, 1791. At nine years of age he was placed at a school at Lerwick, kept by the clergyman of that town. There he continued until he was fourteen, when he was removed to an adjoining clergyman, with whom he remained two years. At the age of sixteen he commenced his studies at Edinburgh. He was then intended for the church, and, with this view, entered to the various classes, classical, mathematical, and philosophical, of the university, attending in the course of the four years he devoted to these general studies the lectures, and securing the friendship of Dunbar, Ritchie, Leslie, Playfair, Dugald Stewart, Jamieson, Hope, Niell, and Fleming. In the vacations he acted as assistant or usher in a school. In 1811 he diverted from divinity to physic, and in November of that year commenced attendance on the medical classes at Edinburgh. He graduated doctor of medicine there 1st August, 1815 (D.M.I. de Rheumatismo).

Dr. Copland then came to London, and having availed himself of the best practical instruction to be there found, passed over to Paris and Ger-many, visited the chief hospitals, and then returned to England. Tired of an inactive life in London, and anxious to enter on some enterprise, but possessing inadequate means and interest, having lived for some months in the metropolis without employment, without friends, and with very few acquaintances, he was offered and accepted a medical appointment to the settlements on the Gold Coast belonging to the then African Company. He visited in succession Goree, the Senegal and Gambia, Sierra Leone, Cape Coast Castle, and the Bight of Benin, and after a hazardous and tempestuous voyage arrived in England early in 1818.

In 1820 he became a candidate for practice. He then commenced that literary career which was the main characteristic of his life. To the Quarterly Journal of Foreign Medicine he contributed some exhaustive essays on fever, and on the medical topography of the West Coast of Africa. In 1822 Dr. Copland became the editor of the London Medical Repository, and in the five years that he retained that office contributed to its pages a vast number of papers on a great variety of subjects.

In 1825 he projected an "Encyclopaediac Dictionary of the Medical Sciences," and drew up a prospectus of the undertaking. In this he was to have been assisted by Dr. Dunglison, afterwards of the United States, and Dr. Gordon Smith, and the preliminaries were agreed upon with the publishers, when a panic in mercantile affairs occurred and caused them to relinquish it. In 1828, still intent on the same idea, he drew up and distri-buted among his friends a full and detailed prospect us of a "Dictionary of the Medical Sciences," which Messrs. Baldwin and Cradock agreed with him to publish. Whilst he was engaged in making his arrangements for it, and procuring contributors, his intentions were frustrated by the publishers refusing to proceed with the undertaking. He soon found that the "Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine," under the editorship of Drs. Forbes, Tweedie, and Conolly, had usurped the place of his dictionary, and was about to be commenced.

It was, therefore, with no small pleasure that he undertook the offer made to him by Messrs. Longman and Co. at the end of 1830 to write a dictionary of practical medicine, and single-handed to contest the field with the numerous editors and contributors to the Cyclopædia of Practical Medicine. The first part appeared in September, 1832, with the title "A Dictionary of Practical Medicine. Comprising General Pathology, the Nature and Treatment of Diseases, Morbid Structures and the Disorders especially incidental to Climates, to the Sex, and to the different Epochs of Life. With numerous Prescriptions for the Medicines recommended; a Classification of Diseases according to Pathological Principles; a copious Bibliography, with References, and an Appendix of approved Formulæ. The whole forming a Library of Pathology and Practical Medicine, and a Digest of Medical Literature." It took more than a quarter of a century for its completion, and the last part appeared in 1858.

Considered as the production of one man, this work is one of the most extraordinary that has ever appeared for its size, comprehensiveness, accuracy and learning, and although necessarily inferior in certain respects from its very plan to some works of a like kind, the composition of a large body of writers associated for the purpose, it is superior to these in the general unity of the principles and practice laid down in it, and assuredly excels them all in depth and variety of research. The information amassed in these volumes is literally enormous, and must excite astonishment as the production of one individual—but when it is further considered that the whole of the materials were most carefully selected from all existing sources, most patiently digested, elaborated, and arranged into compact and simple forms easily accessible and readily available, it is not easy to point out in the whole of medical literature any work by a single hand so much calculated to excite admiration of the industry and talents of the author.

In every article contained in the volumes the reader cannot fail to be struck with the writer’s most extensive learning which has enabled him to collect knowledge from all authorities, ancient and modern, foreign and domestic, and he will at the same time be no less surprised than gratified at the singular power which has arranged the whole so lucidly, and in such systematic order. Thirty years of Dr. Copland’s life were devoted to the Dictionary. He laboured on it alone and unassisted. His labours, which he tells us were incessant for many years, were persisted in under circumstances and contingencies which few could have endured. He received no assistance in furtherance of his undertaking, nor, as he adds, with his knowledge of human nature, would he have accepted any.

The size and price of the Dictionary placed it beyond the reach of many, and in 1866 Dr. Copland, assisted by his nephew Mr. James C. Copland, brought out an abridged edition of it "throughout brought down to the present state of medical science " in one thick volume, octavo, pp. 1538.

Dr. Copland was held in high esteem by his colleagues in the College of Physicians. He had been admitted a Licentiate of the College 26th June, 1820, and a Fellow 3rd July, 1837. He was Censor in 1841, 1842, and 1861; Gulstonian lecturer in 1838; Croonian lecturer in 1844, 1845, 1846; Lumleian lecturer in 1854 and 1855; Harveian orator 1857, and was Consiliarius in 1844, 1849, 1850, 1851, 1861, 1862, 1863. Shortly before his death he retired to Kilburn, where he died on the 12th July, 1870, aged seventy-eight.

To Dr. Copland’s pen we owe, in addition to his opus magnum, the Dictionary and its Abridgment:
Richerand’s Elements of Physiology, translated by G. J. M. De Lys, M.D., with copious notes by James Copland, M.D. 8vo. Lond. 1824.
Pestilential Cholera: its Nature, Prevention, and Curative Treatment. 12mo. Lond. 1832.
On the Causes, Nature, and Treatment of Palsy and Apoplexy. 12mo. Lond. 1850.
The Forms, Complications, Causes, Prevention, and Treatment of Consumption and Bronchitis, comprising also the causes and prevention of Scrofula. 8vo. Lond. 1861.

William Munk

(Volume III, page 218)

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