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Monro, Alexander (Primus)


(b. London, England, 8 September 1697; d. Edinburgh, Scotland, 10 July 1767)


Monro was the only child of John Monro, military, surgeon, and Jean Forbes, granddaughter of Duncan, Forbes of Culloden. John Monro—who was the, youngest son of Sir Alexander Monro, advocate, of, Bearcroft, Stirlingshire—retired from the army in 1700 and took up private practice in Edinburgh. Alexander entered Edinburgh University in 1710, where he remained for three years, studying Latin, Greek, and philosophy. He also learned French, arithmetic, and bookkeeping under private teachers, and received instruction in fencing, dancing, music, and painting. He did not graduate in arts, but, having decided on a medical career, was formally, apprenticed to his father in 1713. He also attended, such medical courses as were available locally, but, these did not amount to much. He says “the dissection, of a human body was shewed once in two or three, years by Mr. Robert Elliot, and afterwards by Messrs. Adam Drummond and John Macgill, Surgeon-Apothecaries,” who he adds pointedly, “had the, Title of Professors of Anatomy.”

John Monro had studied at Leiden University under, Archibald Pitcairne, whose idea of founding a medical, school of repute in Edinburgh seems to have fired, his imagination, and once his son’s aptitude became, apparent, he spared no efforts in preparing him to, play a major role in the scheme. In 1717 Alexander, was sent to London, where he studied physics under, Whiston and Hauksbee and attended demonstrations, by the great anatomist William Cheselden. With the, encouragement of their master, Cheselden’s students, had formed a scientific society; and a paper read by, Monro on “the bones in general” was a forerunner, of his own important work on that subject. He also, made a number of anatomical preparations, which he, sent home and which were so admired by Adam, Drummond, one of the professors of anatomy at, Edinburgh, that he offered to resign in Monro’s, favor when he should return to Scotland. In the, spring of 1718 he went to Paris, where he attended a, course in anatomy by Bouquet and frequented the, hospitals. He performed operations under the direction, of Thibaut, was instructed in midwifery by Grégoire, in bandaging by Cesau, and in botany by Chomel. In the autumn of 1718 he went to Leiden, where he, won the favorable attention of Boerhaave, his father’s, old fellow student. He returned to Edinburgh in 1719.

Monro had come to realize the value of the history, of anatomy in the academic teaching of the subject, and with his customary thoroughness he enrolled as a student in Charles Mackie;s newly inaugurated, class of universal history. On 20 November 1719 he, was admitted a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, of Edinburgh, after passing the usual tests. On 29 January 1720, even though he was still only, twenty-two years of age, the town council appointed, him professor of anatomy. On Cheseiden,s recommendation he was elected a fellow of the Royal, Society in 1723. In 1724 and 1725 there was a popular, outcry against grave robbing in Edinburgh. Surgeons’ Hall was beset, and there were threats to demolish it. In 1725 the town council accordingly provided Monro, with an anatomy theatre and museum for his preparations within the comparative safety of the university, precinct, and thereafter he undertook all the duties, of a professor. One of these was to take his turn in, delivering the public oration that inaugurated, each session, and the subject of his first, delivered, on 3 November 1725, was “De origine et utilitate, anatomes,” which he later incorporated into his, course on the history of anatomy.

On 3 January 1725 Monro married Isabella, MaeDonald, daughter of Sir Donald MacDonald of, Sleat (Isle of Skye). They had three sons and five, daughters. Only one of his daughters survived, infancy, and for her Monro wrote an “Essay on, Female Conduct,” which included a section on “The, Laws of Nature, the Mosaical Institution and the, Christian System.” John, the eldest son, became, an advocate; Donald, his second son, graduated M.D. (1753) and was physician to St. George’s Hospital, London; and Alexander, the youngest, succeeded, his father in the chair of anatomy at the University, of Edinburgh. In 1726 Monro published his major, work, The Anatomy of the Humane Bones. It had no, illustrations, being intended as a commentary on, actual demonstrations and dissections. Moreover, Monro knew that his old master Cheselden was, preparing a set of accurate plates for his Osteographia (1733), made with the help of the improved camera, obscura. The work is enlivened by Monro’s acute, and original comments based on close observation: for example, that different nationalities are distinguishable by the form of the cranium, that the nasal, sinuses improve the power and tone of the voice, that a man’s stature decreases as evening approaches, and that the bone at a healed fracture is stronger than, before. In the second (1732) and later editions there, is added “An Anatomical Treatise of the Nerves, an Account of the Reciprocal Motions of the Heart, and a Description of the Human Lacteal Sac and, Duct.” Here he observes that the nerves consist of “a great many threads lying parallel to each other,” and seems to anticipate Müiler’s law of specific nerve, energies, noting that “when all light is excluded from, the eyes an idea of light and colour may be excited, in us by coughing, sneezing, rubbing or striking the, eyeball.” The work continued to be reprinted as late, as 1828, by which time it had gone through nineteen, English editions and appeared in several translations, the most notable being the large, illustrated French, edition (1759) by Jean-Joseph Sue.

The Edinburgh Medical School had now a nucleus, of medical professors, but there was still no hospital, for clinical teaching. As early as 1721 John Monro had, agitated for the establishment of a regular hospital, in Edinburgh, and Alexander himself had published, appeals for funds for the purpose, but it was not, until 1725 that the matter was seriously pursued with, the help of George Drummond, lord provost of, Edinburgh. In 1729 a small hospital for the sick poor, was opened, and it was from its case register that much, of the material was derived for the Medical Essays, and Observations, 6 vols. (1732–1744), edited by, Monro for the Society for the Improvement of Medical, Knowledge, of which he was secretary. The series owed, much to the individual efforts of Monro, who contributed many of the papers, his most important being, an “Essay on the Nutrition of Foetuses,” in which, he showed “that there is no Anastomosis, Inosculation, or Continuation between the vessels of the Womb, and those of the Secundines and that the Liquors are, not carried from the Mother to the Foetus or from, the Foetus to the Mother by continued Canals.” The Medical Essays became a standard work of reference, went through five editions, and was translated into, several languages.

The scope of this society was widened in 1737 at the suggestion of Monro’s friend Colin Maclaurin, professor of mathematics, and it was renamed the, Society for Improving Philosophy and Natural, Knowledge, or the Philosophical Society, but, Maclaurin’s death and the rebellion of 1745 caused, its decline. In 1752 it was revived and Monro, was elected joint secretary with David Hume the, philosopher, contributing six medical papers to their Essays and Observations, Physical and Literary (1754, 1756). This society became the Royal Society of, Edinburgh in 1783. Monro belonged to several other, societies: the Honorable Society of Improvers of, the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland (disbanded in 1745); the Select Society, founded by Allan, Ramsay the Younger; and the Edinburgh Society for, Encouraging Arts, Sciences, Manufactures and Agriculture in Scotland, an offshoot of the Select Society. He was also a manager of the Royal Infirmary and, a director of the Bank of Scotland. In addition he, was a justice of the peace, a manager of the Orphans Hospital and of the Scheme for the Widows of Ministers and Professors, although he was less active, in these roles.

In politics Monro was a staunch Hanoverian but, no bigot. After the battle of Prestonpans in 1745, which went against his cause, he impartially assisted, the wounded of both armies. Upon the death of his, friend Maelaurin (1745), he delivered before the, university a memorial lecture that formed the basis of the memoir prefixed to Maclaurin’s posthumously, published Account of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophical, Discoveries (London, 1748). Monro actively fostered, the career of his gifted youngest son, Alexander, with the parental concern characteristic of the family. For his benefit he wrote a “commentary” on his Anatomy of the Human Bones and in 1754 persuaded, the town council to admit him as joint professor of anatomy with himself, although he had not yet, graduated. After his son Alexander, Secundus as he, was thenceforth designated, had taken his M.D. (1755), Monro Primus—to use the father’s new, epithet—was granted the degree of M.D. honoris, causa (1 January 1756). The system of joint professorships was to provide emoluments for the retiring, professor, but Monro Primus, having secured the, succession for his son, continued to share the duties, of the chair until 1758, after which he confined himself, to his favorite clinical lectures in the new Royal, Infirmary, which had been completed in 1741. The, infirmary was designed by William Adam under the, supervision of Monro and Lord Provost Drummond.

Monro Primus was of medium height, strongly, built, and energetic, but subject to periodical inflammatory fevers. He continued to take an active part, in university business until the end of 1765, although, by 1762 he was beginning to feel the symptoms of, cancer of the rectum, which caused his death on 10 July 1767 at his home in Covenant Close, Edinburgh. He, was buried in Greyfriars Churchyard, Edinburgh. He had bought an estate at Auchenbowie, Stirlingshire, but his plan to retire there was thwarted by circumstances, although he often visited it and took a close, interest in its management. He was a commissioner, of supply and highroads for Stirlingshire and a, benefactor of the local parish church. Earlier he had, provided a country home at Carolside, Berwickshire, for his father in his declining years.

Monro was not ambitious as an author. His great, work on the human bones was published rather as, a teaching aid, and many of his important contributions to Medical Essays and Observations were, anonymous. His lectures that exist in manuscript, reveal his wide reading in their references to past, and contemporary anatomical works. A section of, them was published without his authority in An Essay, on Comparative Anatomy (1744). In 1762 he published An Expostulatory Epistle to William Hunter, in which, he rebuked his old pupil for some criticisms of himself, included in Hunter’s Medical Commentaries (1762), a work primarily directed against Monro Secundus, but there is little doubt that it was parental concern, rather than personal pique that stirred him to the, attack. His last publication, An Account of the, Inoculation of Smallpox in Scotland (1765), was also, due to external prompting. It contains the answers, conscientiously gathered by Monro to a questionnaire, sent to him by the Faculty of Medicine in Paris about, the efficacy of inoculation, of which Monro himself, was a strong advocate. After his death his course of, lectures on the history of anatomy, which included, his remarks on the usefulness of the study of the, subject and the best method of teaching it, were, plagiarized by William Northcote in A Concise History, of Anatomy (1772).

Monro was not a great innovating genius (eighteenth-century anatomy indeed was marked more by, advances in the field of description than by new, discoveries), but his extraordinary industry, his wide, reading, his accuracy of observation, and his open, original mind sometimes led him to correct conclusions, that could only be verified by the more refined, equipment of later times. He was a supreme teacher, and demonstrator. A gifted technician, Monro improved methods of injecting minute vessels and, preserving anatomical preparations. He had the, manual dexterity of a master craftsman and was a, cool and expert surgeon, in spite of a strong natural, abhorrence of inflicting pain. His practice of lecturing, informally in English was then a novelty, Latin being, still the academic language, and he spoke from only, the briefest notes. Oliver Goldsmith, who was a, medical student at the University of Edinburgh (1752–1754), said he was “an able orator,” explaining “things in their nature obscure in so easy a manner, that the most unlearned might understand him,” In 1720 his class numbered fifty-seven, but by 1749 he, had 182 students, and by 1751 it had outgrown the, anatomy theater and had to be taught at two separate, meetings daily. His reputation attracted students from, all parts of Europe, so that his father’s dream of, Edinburgh as a medical center rivaling Leiden began, to come true. The advance guard of students from, America also began to appear, and the influence of, the Edinburgh Medical School was carried to the, New World. The inspiration of Monro’s teaching, was frequently acknowledged in grateful dedications, in the M.D. theses of his students, among whom, were such distinguished names as William Hunter, Robert Whytt, John Fothergill, Andrew Duncan, and, of course, his own son, Alexander Monro (Secundus).


I. Original Works. Note references in the text. Also, Monro Secundus, ed., The Works of Alexander Monro (Edinburgh, 1781), with a lite of A. Monro Primus by, Donald Monro. This book contains the published works, including contributions to Medical Essays and Observations. The largest collection of his manuscript lectures and, other unpublished material is in the Otago University, Library, New Zealand; see W. J. Mullin, “The Monro, Family and the Monro Collection of Books and MSS,” in New Zealand Medical Journal, 35 (1936), 221. See also, for MSS of his lectures The Index Catalogue of the Library, of the Surgeon General’s Office, IX (1888), 384, Monro’s, own carefully kept account book for his students’ fees, 1720–1749, is in Edinburgh University Library (Dc.5.95). The short biography, “Alexander Monro, Primus,” in University of Edinburgh Journal, 17 (1953), 77–105, although from an apparently holograph MS, may be, wholly or partly the work of Monro’s young friend, William Smellie, the printer, who published verbatim, extracts from it in his “Life of the Celebrated Dr. Monro,” in Edinburgh Magazine and Review, 1 (1744), 302–306, 337–344.

II. Secondary Literature. On Monro and his work, see A. Duncan, Sr., An Account of the Life and Writings of, Alexander Monro, Senr. (Edinburgh, 1780); D. J. Guthrie, “The Three Alexander Monros,” in Journal of the, Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, 2 (1956), 24–34; J. A. Inglis, The Monros of Auchenbowie (Edinburgh, 1911); K. F. Russell, British Anatomy, 1525–1800: a, Bibliography (Melbourne, 1963); S. W. Simon, “The, Influence of the Three Monros on the Practice of Medicine, and Surgery,” in Annals of Medical History, 9 (1927), 244–266; and R. E. Wright-St. Clair, Doctors Monro, a Medical, Saga (London, 1964).

C. P. Finlayson

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Monro, Alexander (Secundus)


(b. Edinburgh, Scotland, 10 March 1733; d. Edinburgh, 2 October 1817).


The third and youngest son of Alexander Monro (Primus), Monro was educated first at James, Mundell’s private school, Edinburgh, and then, at the University of Edinburgh. His name appears, in his father’s account book for his anatomy class in 1744, when he was only eleven years of age. In the, following year he matriculated in the Faculty of Arts, and studied Latin, Greek, philosophy, mathematics, physics, and history. Like the majority of arts students, in the university at that time, he did not graduate, individual professors’ certificates being then more, highly valued than the official diploma. In 1750 he, began the serious study of medicine under Andrew, Plummer (chemistry), Charles Alston (botany), John, Rutherford (practice of physic), Robert Whytt (institutes of medicine), and Robert Smith (mid-wifery).

His father encouraged his natural bent for medicine, making for him in 1750 a manuscript commentary, on his Anatomy of the Human Bones, and entrusting, him in 1753 with the teaching of the evening anatomy, class necessitated by the growing numbers of students. After only one session of this arrangement Monro, Primus petitioned the town council, the patrons of, the university, to appoint his son joint professor of, anatotm, and his request was backed by a certificate, from the students of his son’s evening class (they, included Joseph Black) testifying to their satisfaction, with his teaching. On 10 June 1754 the desired, appointment was ratified, although Monro was still, only twenty-one years of age. On 25 October 1755 he, graduated M.D. with the thesis De testibus et semine, in variis animalibus. Edinburgh M.D. theses were, printed at this period, but most were essays based on, secondary sources. Monro’s thesis extended the, knowledge of the seminiferous tubules by some, original research. He injected the tubules with mercury, and showed their connection with the epididymis, observing that semen has a close relationship with, blood and lymph, although his later lectures show that, his notions about the real nature of the substance, were quite fanciful. Whereas his father considered, that the spermatozoa alone formed the embryo, Monro Secundus taught that “these animalculae are, no more essential to generation than the animals, found in vinegar are to its acidity.”

Soon after graduating he went to London, where, he attended the lectures of William Hunter, an old, student of Monro Primus. He then went on to Paris, but had to return hastily to Edinburgh in 1757 to, deputize for his father during an illness. He returned, to the Continent later in the same year, spending, several months in the home of the famous Berlin, anatomist Meckel, with whom he performed the, operation of paracentesis of the thorax. While there, he puhlished his treatise De venis lymphaticis valvulosis (Berlin, 1757), in which he showed that the lymphatics, were absorbents and distinct from the circulatory, system. There was a counterclaim for priority in this, discovery from William Hunter, which sparked off, an acrimonious exchange of pamphlets. Monro, Secundus replied to Hunter’s claim in his Observations, Anatomical and Physiological, Wherein Dr. Hunter’s, Claim to Some Discoveries Is Examined (1758). Hunter retorted in Medical Commentaries, Part I: Containing a Plain and Direct Answer to ProfessorMonro, Jun., Interspersed with Remarks on the, Structure, Functions and Diseases of Several Parts of, the Human Body (London, 1762–1764). Monro seems, to have been ahead of Hunter in the matter of the, lymphatics, but their mutual jealousy blinded them, to the earlier discoveries of Friedrich Hoffman in this, field.

Monro extended his attacks to include Hewson, his own former pupil and a colleague of Hunter, who, in 1767 had recommended the operation of paracentesis of the thorax in traumatic pneumothorax and, at the same time had published his own discovery, of the existence of laeteals and lymphatics in non-mammalians. Monro asserted his own priority in, both fields in A State of Facts Concerning the First, Proposal of Performing the Paracentesis of the Thorax, and the Discovery of the Lymphatic Valvular Absorbent, System of Oviparous Animals. In Answer to Mr. Hewson (Edinburgh, 1770).There is no doubt that Monro had, preceded Hewson in performing the operation of, paracentesis of the thorax. Although he had earlier, shown injections of thlymphatics and described them, to his class, Hewson was the first to publish a full and, accurate account of them in nonmammalian animals.

From Berlin, Monro went on to Leiden, where he, met the anatomist B. S. Albinus, once a fellow, student of Monro Primus and Peter Camper, professor, of anatomy at Amsterdam, In January 1758, his, father being again taken ill, Monro, now in his, twenty-fifth year, had to cut short his European tour, in order to conduct the anatomy class at Edinburgh.

His father recovered and delivered the opening lecture, of the session (1758–1759), but thereafter Monro, Secundus undertook the main work of the chair and, continued to do so for the next fifty years. On 1 May 1759 he became a fellow of the Royal College of, Physicians of Edinburgh. His course started with a, detailed history of anatomy and proceeded to anatomy, itself, beginning with the bones; then came physiology, and finally the operations of surgery. His clear, informal style of lecturing was even more effective, than his father’s. The official records of the Faculty, of Medicine give him 228 students in 1808.

His earlier publications were largely polemical, and it was not until he had been teaching for twenty-five years that his three main contributions to medical, literature appeared:

His Observations on the Structure and Functions of, the Nervous System (Edinburgh, 1783; German ed., Leipzig, 1787) advanced the study of the subject, by making several original discoveries, the most, famous being of the foramen connecting the lateral, and third ventricles of the brain, thereafter known as, the “foramen of Monro.”

The Structure and Physiology of Fishes Explained, and Compared With Those of Man and Other Animals (Edinburgh, 1785) was the first important Edinburgh, textbook on comparative anatomy, a subject that had, been recently introduced to their London students, by the Hunters.

A Description of All the Bursae Mucosae of the, Human Body; Their Structure Explained and Compared, With That of the Capsular Ligaments of the Joints, and, of Those Sacs Which Line the Cavities of the Thorax, and Abdomen: With Remarks on the Accidents and, Diseases Which Affect Those Several Sacs, and on, the Operations Necessary for Their Cure (London, 1788), trans, into German by J. C. Rosenmüller (Leipzig, 1799), was a practical manual for direct, use in surgery. Although next to nothing was known, of germ life at that time, Monro’s acute observation, and independent empirical judgment led him to the, conclusion that the chief danger of infection in surgery, of the joints lay in exposure to the air.

Monro published three lesser but original works:

In Experiments on the Nervous System, With Opium, and Metalline Substances; Made Chiefly With the, View of Determining the Nature and Effects of Animal Electricity (Edinburgh, 1793), he showed that stimulation of a nerve by Galvani’s couple (tinfoil and, silver) produced muscle contraction, but he failed, to deduce the true nature of nervous energy, clinging, to the old theory of nervous fluid. Still he did at least, conclude that the nerves conducted “that matter by, which the muscle is influenced more readily than the, skin, flesh or blood vessels.”

In Observations on the Muscles and Particularly, on the Effects of Their Oblique Fibres: With an, Appendix, in Which the Pretension of Dr. Gilbert, Blane, That He First Demonstrated the Same Effect, to Be Produced by Oblique Muscles as by Straight, Ones. With a Less Proportional Decurtation of Fibres, is Proved to Be Quite Unfounded (Edinburgh, 1794), his old combative spirit is shown not to be quite, dead.

The third work was his Three Treatises on the Brain, the Eye and the Ear (Edinburgh, 1797).

Like his father, Monro Secundus was a sociable, man. He was a member of the Harveian Society of, Edinburgh, which cultivated conviviality as well, as oratory, in both of which fields Monro shone, brilliantly. He was joint secretary of the Philosophical, Society of Edinburgh along with David Hume (1760–1763) and sole secretary (1763–1783) when it, became the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was also, a district commissioner for cleansing, lighting, and, watching the streets, a manager of the Royal Infirmary, and a member of the committee of defense for Midlothian during the French invasion scare of 1794.

On 25 September 1762 Monro married Katherine, Inglis, daughter of David Inglis, treasurer of the, Bank of Scotland, and by her had three sons and two, daughters. He lived first in a flat in Carmichael’s, Land in the Lawnmarke,t Edinburgh. In 1766 he, moved to a house with a garden in Nicolson Street, near the university, where he stayed until 1801, when, he took up residence in the New Town, in St. Andrew, Square. In 1773 he bought a property of 271 acres, at Craiglockhart on the outskirts of the town, not, as a residence but purely to indulge his passion for, gardening.

In 1798 he persuaded the town council to appoint, his elder son, Alexander, thereafter known as Monro, Tertius, to be joint professor of anatomy with him. He himself continued to share the duties of the chair, until 1808, when he retired at age seventy-five. He, died of apoplexy on 2 October 1817, at age eighty-four. He had bequeathed his fine collection of anatomical, and pathological specimens for the use of his son, and his successors in the chair of anatomy.

Monro Secundus was a kindly man in family and, social life but perhaps overjealous of his professional, reputation. He used his powerful influence, for, instance, to prevent until almost the end of his teaching, career the establishment of a separate chair of surgery—a clear necessity as Monro, although officially, professor of anatomy and surgery, was not himself, a practicing surgeon, His medical ability had been, proved in the most testing of situations, having to, follow a great father and work with such colleagues, as William Culiem Joseph Black, Daniel Rutherford, James Gregory, and Andrew Duncan.


I. Original Works. Most are referred to in the text. Read also Essays and Heads of Lectures on Anatomy, Physiology, and Surgery. With a Memoir of His Life … by His Son (Edinburgh, 1840).

II. Secondary Literature. On Monro and his work, see A. Duncan, Senior, An Account of the Life, Writings, and Character of Alexander Monro, Secundus (Edinburgh, 1818). Other relevant works are in the bibliography under, Alexander Monro, Primus. See especially R. E. Wright-St. Clair, Doctors Monro: a Medical Saga (London, 1964).

C. P. Flnlayson

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Monro, Alexander

Monro, Alexander (1697–1767). Scottish surgeon and anatomist. John Monro (1670–1740) had been so impressed by the system of medical education experienced at Leiden that he determined to introduce the same into Edinburgh, educating his son Alexander to play the principal role. After apprenticeship to his father and studies in London (under Cheselden), Paris, and Leiden (under Boerhaave), Alexander returned home to be admitted to the Incorporation of Surgeons by examination (1719). Rapidly appointed by the town council as ‘Professor of Anatomy in this city and college’, a public riot against body-snatching in 1725 encouraged him to move from Surgeons' Hall to within the university walls. A brilliant extempore speaker, his lectures (in English, not Latin) covered anatomy, surgery, bandaging, and physiology, and he claimed 4,400 students passing through his hands. Thriving in practice as a surgeon-apothecary, his third son Alexander (1733–1817, later known as secundus) was educated to follow him, both being conjoint professors of anatomy by 1754. Awarded an MD (1756), Monro primus disenfranchised himself from the incorporation, modified his title to ‘Professor of Medicine and Anatomy’, and was received into the medical faculty of the university, thus essentially completing it as a medical school.

A. S. Hargreaves

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