Douglas, James

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Douglas, James

(b. Baads, Scotland, 21 March 1675; d. London, England, 2 April 1742)

medicine, natural history, letters.

Douglas was the second son of William Douglas of Baads, near Edinburgh, and his wife, the former Joan Mason. They were an obscure but industrious family of small landowners, a minor branch of the widespread Douglas clan. Of their twelve children, four became fellows of the Royal Society—Walter, James, John, and George—although only James and John, both physicians, produced work of lasting importance. Nothing is known of the early schooling of James Douglas; but on 23 July 1699 he was granted the degree of docteur by the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Rheims, and it is likely that he had obtained the M.A. at Edinburgh in 1694. He was working in London by 1700 and early decided on a career in obstetrics and anatomy. In 1705 he read his first paper to the Royal Society and was granted fellowship in 1706. He became fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1721. To his contemporaries he was sufficiently outstanding to receive mention in Pope’s Dunciad, and he was a friend of Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum; the physician Richard Mead; and William Cheselden, whose lateral operation for removal of bladder stones he described.

Douglas married Martha Wilkes, aunt of John Wilkes, the political reformer and rake. They had two children, but neither married and both died young. Following her husband’s death, Martha Douglas gave lodging to William Hunter and to his brother John during their early days in London.

By 1707, when he published his handbook of comparative myology, Douglas had realized the importance of anatomical teaching to the advancement of medicine; and he was among the first to advertise classes, which were well attended. His major publication in this field was that on the peritoneum (1730), an excellent monograph that drew attention to the duplicature of the peritoneal membrane, at that time a controversial subject. In this book there is a short description of the structure later known as the pouch of Douglas and still recognized by that name. There are also the ligament, the line, and the semilunar fold of Douglas. In the Hunterian Library of the University of Glasgow, donated by will of its founder, William Hunter, are no fewer than sixty-four unpublished manuscripts by Douglas, on many aspects of anatomy, natural history, grammar, and orthoepy, and the Blackburn Collection in that library contains an enormous number of documents, drawings, and notes, nearly all in Douglas’ hand.

Douglas was also a collector of editions of the works of Horace; and he published a magnificent catalog of his library of Horatiana, containing 557 volumes.

In the Hunterian Library may also be seen an interesting series of case notes, written at the bedside of his patients, dating from 1704 and illustrating the problems of diagnosis and treatment at that time. They show, too, that he acted as consultant to the London midwives, being called for medical treatment during pregnancy as well as for the complications of labor.

In obstetrical science Douglas carefully studied the anatomy of the female pelvis and of the fetus; in 1735 he attended Anne, princess of Orange, daughter of George II, in Holland. He was also concerned, in 1726, in the exposure of Mary Toft, the “rabbit woman” of Godalming.

In 1719 James assisted his younger brother John, a brilliant but irascible physician, in the promulgation of John’s ideas in introducing suprapubic lithotomy, one of the earliest attempts at routine abdominal surgery in England.

Douglas’ publications on natural history include a well-produced monograph on the “Guernsay-lilly” (Nerine sarniensis) and a paper to the Royal Society on the flamingo (1714). Both demonstrate the care and method of his presentation.

His greatest contribution to the future, however, lay in his encouragement of William Hunter, who came to him as a resident pupil in 1741. The brilliant young student and his shrewd master established an intimate relationship, and on Douglas’ death in 1742 Hunter wrote a touching letter to his mother. (The letter is now in the Royal College of Surgeons of England.) During the single year of their contact, Hunter became interested in the anatomical subjects on which Douglas had worked. Thus the anatomy of aneurysms, of the bones, of the “cellular membrane,” and above all of the gravid uterus were topics upon which William Hunter elaborated at various later dates. It is not too much to say that the encouragement and training received by Hunter during this formative period was an important factor in those developments in British medical education for which he and his brother John were so largely responsible.


I. Original Works. Douglas’ writings are Myographia comparatae specimen, or a Comparative Description of All the Muscles in a Man and a Quadruped... (London, 1707); Bibliographiae anatomicae specimen sive catalogus omnium pene auctorum qui ab Hippocrate ad Harveium rem anatomicum... (London, 1715); Index materiae medicae... (London, 1724); Lilium Sarniense: or a Description of the Guernsay-Lilly... (London, 1725); The History of the Lateral Operation (London, 1726); An Advertisement Occasion’d by Some Passages in Sir R. Manningham’s Diary... (London, 1727); Arbor Yemensis fructum cofé ferens: or a Description and History of the Coffee Tree (London, 1727); A Description of the Peritoneum and of... the Membrana Cellularis (London, 1730); and Catalogus editorum Quinti Horatii Flacci ab an. 1476 ad an. 1739 quae in bibliotheca Jacob. Douglas... adservantur (London, 1739).

Eleven articles that appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society between 1706 and 1731 are listed in K. Bryn Thomas, James Douglas of the Pouch... (London, 1964), p. 198. Unpublished MSS in the Blackburn Collection at the Hunterian Library of the University of Glasgow are catalogued and annotated in the book by Thomas (above) pp. 85–193; and in J. Young and P. H. Aitken, A Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of the Hunterian Museum... (Glasgow, 1908), p. 425 ff.

II. Secondary Literature. Besides Thomas’ book (see above) one may also consult J. C. Carpue, A Description of the Muscles... With the Synonyma of Douglas (London, 1801); Börje Holmberg, James Douglas on Pronunciation, c. 1740 (Copenhagen, 1956); and D. Watson, The Odes, Epodes, and Carmen seculare of Horace... With a Catalogue of the Editions of Horace From 1476 to 1739 in the Library of James Douglas (London, 1747).

K. Bryn Thomas

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