Lives of the fellows

James Matthews Duncan

b.April 1826 d.1 September 1890
MA Aberd(1843) MD(1845) Hon MD Dubl Hon LLD Cantab Edin LRCS Edin FRCP Edin FRS Edin FRCP(1882) FRS Hon FKQCPI

James Matthews Duncan was born at Aberdeen, the fifth child of William Duncan, merchant, and his wife Isabella Matthews. He was educated at the local Grammar School and Marischal College and took the degree of M.A. at the age of seventeen. He studied medicine both at Aberdeen and at Edinburgh and graduated as M.D. before his twenty-first birthday. Having spent a winter in Paris, he became assistant to James Y. Simpson at Edinburgh in 1847 and on the 4th of November of the same year took part with Simpson and Keith in their historic experimental inhalation of chloroform. Two years later, after some months’ travel with the Marquis of Bute, he began to practise in Edinburgh, mainly as an obstetrician. In 1853 he started to teach midwifery as an extra-academical lecturer and in 1861 was elected physician to the Royal Infirmary. He helped to found the Royal Hospital for Sick Children. His huge practice earned him a high reputation which was enhanced by his writings—among them the massive but invaluable Fecundity, Fertility and Sterility (1866).

When on Simpson’s death in 1870, the chair of midwifery at Edinburgh fell vacant, it was generally supposed that Matthews Duncan would be elected in his place. His candidature, however, failed, and seven years later he accepted an invitation to become physician-accoucheur and lecturer on midwifery at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. His practice in London quickly assumed the proportions of the one he had abandoned in Edinburgh, and he continued to add to his reputation. He published a series of Clinical Lectures on Diseases of Women (1879-89) which came to be regarded as a standard textbook. In 1883 he delivered the Goulstonian Lectures before the Royal College of Physicians and was nominated as a Crown member of the General Medical Council. He examined in midwifery fopthe Universities of London, Oxford, Cambridge and St. Andrews and held office as president of the Obstetrical Society of London. Cautious in his attitude to surgery as employed in his own field, because he doubted the extent to which the work of Pasteur and Lister had made it safe, Matthews Duncan nevertheless watched their progress with the keenest interest and was ever the inspirer of his colleagues and pupils. His teaching, like his writings, highly competent, judicious and lucid, set a new standard at St. Bartholomew’s and indeed in London medical schools as a whole. His eminence was recognised by Queen Victoria when, after his death at Baden-Baden, she sent a telegram to his widow lamenting that "the country and Europe at large have lost one of their most distinguished men". In character, Matthews Duncan was modest, sincere and plain spoken. Although an able linguist in French and German, he had no hobbies and avoided social intercourse with his fellows. He married in 1860 Jane Hart Hotchkis and had thirteen children.

G H Brown

[Lancet, 1890; B.M.J., 1890; St. Bart.'s Hospital Reports, 1890, xxvi, p. xxxiii; D.N.B., 1st Suppl., ii, 167]

(Volume IV, page 286)

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