Lives of the fellows

William Pitcairn

b.1711 d.25 November 1791
MD Rheims MD Oxon(1749) FRCP(1750) FRS

William Pitcairn, M.D., was descended from the family of Dr. Archibald Pitcairn, celebrated as the founder of the mechanical sect of medicine, who, having followed the fortunes of the exiled James, was for a short time professor of the practice of physic at Leyden. Dr. William Pitcairn was born in 1711, and was the eldest son of the Rev. David Pitcairn, minister of Dysart, in Fifeshire, by his wife Catherine Hamilton, a relative of the ducal family of that name. I can recover but few particulars of his education, general or medical, except that he studied for a time under Boerhaave at Leyden, where he was entered on the physic line 15th October, 1734, and graduated doctor of medicine at Rheims.(1) He was private tutor to James, the sixth duke of Hamilton, whilst that nobleman was studying at Oxford, and he accompanied him in 1742 in his travels on the continent. At the opening of the Radcliffe library in April, 1749, the university of Oxford, upon the recommendation of the trustees, conferred upon him the degree of doctor of medicine by diploma. Dr. Pitcairn then settled in London; was admitted a Candidate of the College of Physicians 26th June, 1749; and a Fellow, 25th June, 1750. He soon obtained the confidence of the profession and of the public, and rapidly rose to eminence and fortune. He delivered the Gulstonian lectures in 1752; was Censor in 1753, 1755, 1759, 1762; Elect, in place of Dr. Letherland, 16th April, 1764; Consiliarius, 1764; and eventually President. To this office he was elected in 1775, and was annually re-elected for ten years, resigning in 1785, and then retiring from the practice of the profession. On the 30th September, 1785, a motion was made, seconded, and passed unanimously in the College,—"That the thanks of the College be given to Dr. William Pitcairn for his unremitting attention to the affairs of the College, and for the great zeal which he showed for its honour and prosperity during the ten years in which he held the office of President." Dr. Pitcairn was elected physician to St. Bartholomew’s hospital 22nd February, 1750, and resigned his office there 3rd February, 1780. The governors of the hospital, to mark their sense of the value of his services, elected him one of the almoners on the 26th June, 1782; and he was appointed treasurer of the hospital 4th March, 1784. This circumstance, probably, hastened his retirement from practice, and he removed from his residence in Warwick-court to the treasurer’s house within the hospital. Dr. Pitcairn was an accomplished botanist. He had a house in the Upper-street, Islington, opposite Cross-street, to which he frequently retired, and where he had a botanical garden five acres in extent, laid out with great judgment, and so abundantly stocked with the scarcest and most valuable plants as to be second only in size and importance to Dr. Fothergill’s garden at Upton. At this, his suburban residence Dr. Pitcairn died on the 25th November, 1791.He was buried on the 1st of December in the church of St. Bartholomew-the-Less.(2) His garden was dismantled, and it and its contents sold by auction in May, 1792. Dr. Pitcairn was also physician to Christ’s hospital, and a fellow of the Royal Society. Dr. Pitcairn did not publish anything. But tradition hands him down to us as an eminently sound and successful physician. He introduced and taught in the wards of St. Bartholomew’s hospital a much freer employment of opium in the treatment of disease, and especially of fevers, than was customary with his contemporaries. Of his practice in this respect—his Currus triumphalis Opii, as it was designated by some of his brethren—he was justifiably proud; and the more so when (through the medium of his nephew, the future Dr. David Pitcairn, then a student of medicine at Edinburgh) it reached the ear of Dr. Cullen, and was the means of saving the life of the son of that great master of physic. The case was thought desperate by Dr. Cullen, who, acting on what he had heard from the nephew, of Dr. Pitcairn’s practice in London, administered to his son a larger dose of laudanum than was usually prescribed, and with complete success,(3) His portrait, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, engraved by Jones, now in the Censors’ room, was bequeathed to the College by Elizabeth (Almack), the widow of David Pitcairn, M.D.

William Munk

[(1) Russell’s Letter to Dr. Addington on his Refusal, &c. &c.
(2) "Vir bonus et doctus in medicina exercendâ peritus, et re herbaria curiosus cujus Hortus Botanicus herbis et fructicibus rariori-bus turgebat: sed præ omnibus Proculeius alter notus in fratres animi paterni, in omnes benevoli." Oratio ex Harveiæ instituto habita 1792, auc. Gulielmo Cadogan, p. 19.
(3) Gold-Headed Cane. 2nd ed. Lond. 1828. p. 185]

(Volume II, page 172)

<< Back to List