Cullen, William

views updated May 17 2018


(b. Hamilton, Scotland, 15 April 1710;

d. Kirknewton, near Edinburgh, 5 February 1790), chemistry, physiology, natural history, psychology. For the original article on Cullen see DSB, vol. 3.

Cullen was one of the leading chemists of eighteenth-century Europe. Although he taught many talented students, the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries remembered him primarily for the supporting role that he played in the isolation of fixed air (carbon dioxide) by his protégé Joseph Black. Such an approach was part of a larger historiography that framed most eighteenth-century chemists, Cullen and Black included, as opening acts for the new chemical nomenclature that was proposed in France at the end of the century. Although histories written in this tradition have shed much light on select topics such as heat and gas, they usually bracket most of the theories and practices that do not resemble those used by modern chemists. Recent work on Cullen and his times, however, has revealed that chemistry was an exciting enterprise that was practiced both in the laboratory and in a wide variety of local settings such as mineral wells, farmer’s fields, infirmaries, and factories. When viewed from this perspective, Cullen turns out to be an extremely original and influential thinker.

Early Career . Cullen was first educated at home and then at Hamilton Grammar School. He briefly attended the University of Glasgow in 1729, but in the same year moved on to a short-lived apprenticeship with John Paisley, a highly regarded Glaswegian surgeon-apothecary. By the end of the year he had traveled to London where he was appointed surgeon on a ship that eventually sailed to Jamaica. He returned to Scotland three years later and set up a practice outside Hamilton. During the mid-1730s he attended several courses in the University of Edinburgh Medical School, but he remained a surgeon until he acquired an MD from the University of Glasgow in 1740. The next year he married Anna Johnstone, and he continued to practice as a physician until he was appointed professor of medicine at Glasgow in 1750.

From that point forward he championed the cause of chemistry, and in 1755 he was appointed to Edinburgh’s chair in the subject. He quickly became one of the most popular lecturers. In 1766 he moved to the chair in the theory of medicine and in 1773 he settled into the chair of the practice of medicine and remained there for the rest of his career. Although he held different posts in the medical school, it was chemistry that underpinned his empirically minded approach to health and disease. His reputation and publications on these topics led to his being appointed to the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh (1756) and the Royal Society of London (1777). He was a longstanding member of Edinburgh’s Philosophical Society and remained active as a fellow when it became the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1783). By the time of his death in 1790 he was one of the foremost chemists in Britain and, arguably, Europe.

Like many of his mid-eighteenth-century contemporaries, Cullen classified all observable matter into five principles: salts (acids and alkalines), inflammables, waters, earths, and metals (he added an “aer” principle in the 1760s). The compounds formed by these principles were held together by forces of attraction called affinities. Although he sometimes mentioned particles or corpuscles, Cullen refrained from linking microscopic manifestations of matter to Newtonian forces. In this sense he was part of a large wave of mid-century British chemists who rejected iatromechanism, that is, the belief that illness could be reduced to laws of motion or mechanical physics. Such theories had been promoted earlier in the century, but had failed to be therapeutically useful. Instead he used heat, water, and “menstrua” (acids and alkalis) as solvents to break down material conglomerates to various combinations of the five principles. Drawing from gravimetric practices forged in metallurgy, he used weight and ratios to determine the material composition of minerals, drugs, and bodily substances. As early as the 1750s he had developed different types of diagrammatic schemes that allowed him to represent visually the compounds formed by the combination or separation of different chemical species. It was these practices that Joseph Black, one of Cullen’s protégés, would go on to refine when he performed experiments that confirmed the existence of fixed air (carbon dioxide).

Cullen was a keen promoter of in situ and in vitro experimentation, and his main concern was to define and categorize all of the matter comprehended under each principle into a reasonable classification of genera and species. He often called such arrangements “doctrines,” and they were collectively known as a “system.” Such an approach was inherently nominalistic and allowed him to continually reclassify genera and species based upon new experiments. Although he experimented on many topics, he remained interested in formulating his own “doctrine of salts” throughout his career. Because saline experimentation was the leading decompositional method used during the eighteenth century, he worked diligently to understand the composition of a wide variety of acids and alkalis. His research on this topic utilized the affinity tables first developed by Étienne-François Geoffroy in France during the 1710s. Drawing from a superior knowledge of books, monographs, and journals published across Europe, he fused his observations on affinity with the ideas offered by leading continental chemists such as Geoffroy, Hermann Boerhaave, and Georg Ernst Stahl. In addition to giving his own classification of salts, he also expanded Geoffroy’s tables by adding fifteen new columns. By the late 1750s he was distributing printed copies of the table in his chemistry lectures. It was enthusiastically received by his students, including Black, Donald Monro, George Fordyce, and Benjamin Rush.

The Usefulness of Chemistry . Throughout his career Cullen worked diligently to show that chemistry was relevant to the larger improvement of Scotland’s national economy. He gave lectures on georgics during the 1760s, and these inspired several leading agriculturalists, Lord Kames and John Anderson, for example, to use chemistry to study soil fertility. His research into Scottish potash production was also appreciated by industrialists involved in the linen, ceramic, and sulfuric acid industries. Yet even though these and other efforts put extra money in his pocket and strengthened his ties with government officials, his main experimental interests were guided by a practical concern for how chemical principles could be used to ameliorate disease. He held that substances contained “active principles” that had both positive and negative effects upon the human body. In particular he was influenced by a school of thought called neo-humoralism, which held that these principles could be used to regulate the hard and soft tissues of the body, thereby creating a balance of health. His overriding concern for identifying and systematizing the therapeutic effects of these principles led him to oversee original physiological experiments that guided the addition and removal of pharmaceutical cures contained not only in his own publications but also in the various editions of the widely read Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia (which he edited from 1773 to 1775). Indeed, his efforts to link in vitro experiments conducted in Edinburgh’s Medical School with observations made in the city’s Royal Infirmary made him one of Britain’s leaders in clinical medicine.

Because drugs were made from mineral, plant, and animal substances, Edinburgh’s primary site for systematic instruction in natural history was the Medical School. Cullen was an early convert to the utility of Carl Linnaeus’s binomial nomenclature and used it not only to create medical systems but also to order his botanical and mineralogical specimens. For minerals, however, Cullen replaced Linnaeus’s external characters (mainly color and shape) with those based on the principles of chemistry. His thoughts on this matter were influenced by the chemical mineralogies developed in continental Europe, especially in the work of Johann Pott and Axel Cronstedt. Throughout his career he actively followed international publications on this subject, especially works published by chemists connected to mining academies situated on or near the Baltic Sea. His expertise on mineralogy was respectfully acknowledged by Scotland’s landed aristocracy, for whom he sometimes assayed ores and soils. This mineralogical legacy was institutionalized when the Reverend Dr. John Walker, one of Cullen’s many protégés, was appointed as the Medical School’s professor of natural history in 1779—one of the first chairs of the subject to be established in Europe. Both Walker and Black followed in their mentor’s footsteps and taught their students how to use chemical characters to classify minerals and geological strata. Under Cullen’s guidance they also became mineralogical advisors to some of Scotland’s most powerful patrons, including Lord Bute, Lord Kames, and Lord Hopetoun.

Cullen’s therapeutic approach was based upon a vitalistic physiology that treated the nervous system as the cause of chemical and mechanical processes. Although he recognized that the mind could influence the body and vice versa, he held that thought and matter were categorically different substances. Cullen’s nervous system included not only the brain, spinal cord, and nerves but also different types of muscle fibers (especially those of the heart and stomach). As all of these “nervous fibers” regulated the hardness or softness of body tissue, they played a key role in maintaining health. In fact, Cullen coined the term neurosis to label most forms of sickness that could not be attributed to a fever or a localized disease. For such disorders he promoted both chemical and “hygenic” cures. To induce chemical cures he prescribed drugs with active principles that were known to stimulate or relax nervous fibers. He was particularly fond of the stimulatory (tonic) power of fixed air, and he regularly advised his patients to drink mineral water from spas that contained it. Hygenic cures regulated peace of mind via environmental factors. To relax nervous fibers he advised leisurely strolls in the country and spending time at spa resorts. He also prescribed novels to excite the nerves of those suffering from depression or a debilitating sickness—the most famous recipient of this cure being the philosopher Dugald Stewart.

Pedagogy and Publications . Cullen was extremely devoted to being a good lecturer. In many ways the world was his classroom. He was one of Britain’s first medical professors to lecture in the vernacular (as opposed to using Latin), and he not only gave lectures in university halls but also took his students on excursions around the Firth of Forth and the Pentland Hills (where they collected pharmaceutical simples). No matter where he might be, he was always ready to conduct an experiment—the louder and brighter, the better. From the start his students were impressed with the pedagogical efficacy of his chemically based medical systems and the enthusiasm that he had for the subject. They diligently took notes that were transcribed and bound as manuscripts that were then treated just like medical textbooks, many of which are now housed at the University of Edinburgh and the Wellcome Library in London. Once students had taken his introductory classes Cullen then supervised final dissertations on subjects that were relevant to his own industrial and medical interests. Thus, during the 1750s and 1760s Cullen’s chemical and physiological ideas were spread via manuscript notebooks, dissertations, and the high praise sung by his former students in Edinburgh, London, and Philadelphia.

Cullen’s ideas also spread throughout Europe and its colonies via his correspondence and publications. By the end of his career he was receiving hundreds of letters per year requesting advice on everything from mining to depression. Many of his responses were more essays than letters, and they often were circulated among aristocratic households and European academic societies. Cullen’s first publication was an article on the fall in temperature caused by evaporation, which appeared in the Essays and Observations, Physical and Literary(1756). It was soon combined with Black’s essay on magnesia alba and converted into a pamphlet that went through at least two editions. Because Cullen made much of his money from fees paid by students who attended his lectures, he was initially reluctant to put his ideas into print. However, his lectures were so popular that a pirated version of his materia medica course appeared. This episode, and the legal wrangling that went along with it, baptized him into the world of medico-scientific print and no doubt motivated him to publish his other lectures before he lost money on more pirated editions. He went on to write Synopsis nosologiae methodicae (1769), Institutes of Medicine (1772), and his four-volume magnum opus First Lines of the Practice of Physic (1777–1784). His books went through multiple revisions and printings, and they were translated into several European languages (including Latin, German, French, and Dutch). His work was also included in medical anthologies well into the nineteenth century. Cullen’s chemical ideas were also spread via chemistry books and articles written or translated by devoted students such as William Hunter, William Withering, Thomas Trotter, Charles Blagden, and John Brown.


The largest collection of Cullen’s personal notes and letters, along with bound copies of student notes taken in his lectures, are housed in the libraries of the University of Edinburgh, the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow, and the Wellcome Trust, London.


“Of the Cold Produced by Evaporating Fluids, and Some Other Means of Producing Cold.” In Essays and Observations, Physical and Literary, Read before a Society in Edinburgh and Published by Them. Vol. 2, pp. 145–156. Edinburgh, 1756.

Synopsis nosologiae methodicae. Edinburgh, 1769.

Lectures on the materia medica. London: Printed for T. Loundes, 1772.

Institutes of Medicine. Edinburgh: Printed for Charles Elliot and T. Cadell, 1772.

First Lines of the Practice of Physici. Edinburgh: Printed for W. Creech, 1777–1784.

“A Cullen Manuscript of 1753.” Edited by Leonard Dobbin. Annals of Science 1 (1936): 138–156. Cullen’s classification of salts.


Bowman, Inci Altug. William Cullen (1710–90) and the Primacy of the Nervous System. PhD diss., Indiana University, Bloomington, 1975.

Bynum, William F., and Roy Porter, eds. Brunonianism in Britain and Europe. London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1988.

———, and Vivian Nutton, eds. Theories of Fever from Antiquity to the Enlightenment. London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1981.

Christie, John R. R. “Historiography of Chemistry in the Eighteenth Century: Hermann Boerhaave and William Cullen.” Ambix 41 (1994): 4–19.

Clow, Archibald, and Nan L. Clow. The Chemical Revolution: A Contribution to Social Technology. London: Batchworth Press, 1952.

Cowen, David L. Pharmacopoeias and Related Literature in Britain and America, 1618–1847. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2001.

Craig, William Stuart. History of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Oxford: Blackwell, 1976.

Doig, Andrew, et al., eds. William Cullen and the Eighteenth Century Medical World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993.

Donovan, Arthur L. Philosophical Chemistry in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Doctrines and Discoveries of William Cullen and Joseph Black. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1975.

———. “Pneumatic Chemistry and Newtonian Natural Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century: William Cullen and Joseph Black.” Isis 67 (1976): 217–228.

———. “William Cullen and the Research Tradition of Eighteenth-Century Scottish Chemistry.” In The Origins and Nature of the Scottish Enlightenment, edited by R. H. Campbell and Andrew S. Skinner, 98–114. Edinburgh: J. Donald, 1982.

Eddy, Matthew D. ‘The Doctrine of Salts and Rev John Walker’s Analysis of a Scottish Spa, 1749–1761.” Ambix 48 (2001): 137–160.

———. “Scottish Chemistry, Classification, and the Early Mineralogical Career of the ‘Ingenious’ Rev. Dr. John Walker (1746–1779).” British Journal for the History of Science 35 (2002): 411–438.

———. “Set in Stone: The Medical Language of Mineralogy in Scotland.” In Science and Beliefs: From Natural Philosophy to Natural Science, edited by David Knight and Matthew D. Eddy, 77–94. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

Golinski, Jan V. “Utility and Audience in Eighteenth-Century Chemistry: Case Studies of William Cullen and Joseph Priestley.” British Journal for the History of Science 21 (1988): 1–31.

Lawrence, Christopher. “Ornate Physicians and Learned Artisans: Edinburgh Medical Men 1726–1776.” In William Hunter and the Eighteenth-Century Medical World, edited by W. F. Bynum and Roy Porter, 153–176. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Monro, Donald. “An Account of a Pure Native Crystalised Natron, or Fossil Alkaline Salt....” Philosophical Transactions61 (1771): 567–573. Contains a chart listing Cullen’s saline affinities.

Morrell, Jack B. “The University of Edinburgh in the Late Eighteenth Century: Its Scientific Eminence and Academic Structure.” Isis 62 (1971): 158–171.

Risse, Guenter B. Hospital Life in Enlightenment Scotland: Care and Teaching at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

———. New Medical Challenges during the Scottish Enlightenment. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005.

Stott, Rosalie. “Health and Virtue; or, How to Keep Out of Harm’s Way: Lectures on Pathology and Therapeutics by William Cullen, c. 1770.” Medical History 31 (1987): 123–142.

Taylor, Georgette. “Unification Achieved: William Cullen’s Theory of Heat and Phlogiston as an Example of His Philosophical Chemistry.” British Journal for the History of Science 39 (2006): 477–501.

Thomson, John, W. Thomson, and David Craigie. An Account of the Life, Lectures, and Writings of William Cullen, M.D. 2 vols. Edinburgh, 1869. The best source on Cullen’s life.

Withers, Charles W. J. “William Cullen’s Agricultural Lectures and Writings and the Development of Agricultural Science in Eighteenth-Century Scotland.” Agricultural History Review 37 (1989): 144–156.

———, and Paul Wood, eds. Science and Medicine in the Scottish Enlightenment. East Linton, U.K.: Tuckwell Press, 2002.

Wright, John. “Materialism and the Life Soul in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Physiology.” In The Scottish Enlightenment: Essays in Reinterpretation, edited by Paul Wood, 177–197. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2000.

Matthew D. Eddy

Cullen, William

views updated May 23 2018

Cullen, William

(b. Hamilton, Scotland, 15 April 1710; d. Kirknewton, near Edinburgh, Scotland, 5 February 1790)

medicine, chemistry.

Cullen’s father was factor to the duke of Hamilton; his mother was the daughter of a younger son of Roberton of Ernock. From Hamilton Grammar School he proceeded to the University of Glasgow, where he could have learned little pertaining to medicine but where, in 1727, he was a member of the mathematics class of Robert Simson, the famous philosophical interpreter of Euclid and Apollonius. After being apprenticed to John Paisley, in whose library he laid the foundation of his wide knowledge, Cullen moved to London in 1729; the following year he was appointed surgeon to a vessel proceeding to the West Indies.

After acting as private physician in Hamilton, Cullen spent the academic years 1734/1735 and 1735/1736 attending classes in the recently founded medical school at the University of Edinburgh, where in all probability the lectures of Andrew Plummer turned his interest to chemistry. Plummer had studied under Boerhaave; but despite statements to the contrary, Cullen himself never studied at Leiden. In 1736 Cullen returned to Hamilton, where for eight years he remained in private practice; during the earlier part of this period William Hunter resided with him as a pupil. In 1740 he graduated M.D. at Glasgow; and in 1741 he married Anna Johnstone, a lady whose charm and intelligence were as much appreciated as were her husband’s. To them were born four daughters and seven sons, one of whom, Robert, rose to be a judge of the Court of Session.

In 1744 the removal of the Cullen family to Glasgow marked the beginning of an academic career that remained unbroken until December 1789. Lecturing at first extramurally, Cullen soon reached an agreement with Dr. Johnstone, the professor of medicine, to deliver a course of lectures on that subject—which Johnstone himself had never seen any necessity to do. The year 1747 marked the foundation of the first independent lectureship in chemistry in the British Isles: the university provided a modest sum for the setting up and maintenance of a laboratory. The incumbents were at first William Cullen and John Carrick, assistant to Robert Hamilton, professor of anatomy. The early death of Carrick left Cullen as the first undisputed university teacher of chemistry—not chemistry and medicine, as the earlier chair at Edinburgh was entitled from its inception until it became the present chair of biochemistry. Cullen was, however, permitted to continue his lectures on the theory and practice of physic, botany, and materia medica.

Cullen’s published contribution to the advancement of science (as distinguished from medicine) consists of one paper. His reputation as a teacher is based not merely on skill in imparting information but on a number of innovations, in no one of which he may have been an innovator, but which had never previously been brought together by one man. From the first he lectured in English and freely developed an orderly series of his own notes rather than reading from a stereotyped text; many of his points were illustrated by simple demonstrations, and students were encouraged to take part in laboratory operations at stated times. Above all, Cullen carried the science of chemistry beyond medicine by emphasizing its basic importance both to natural philosophy and to many “arts,” such as agriculture, mining, brewing, vinegar manufacture, bleaching, and the manufacture of alkalies. It was his boast, supported by the evidence of records of his lectures extending over many years, that only “when the languor and debility of age shall restrain me…shall I cease to make some corrections of my plan or some addition to my course.”

On 2 January 1751, after some delay, Cullen was inducted into the chair of medicine at Glasgow, by then vacated by Johnstone, but continued his lectures in chemistry until the summer of 1755, when Plummer was struck down by an illness that rendered him incapable of continuing his chemical lectures at Edinburgh. The intrigues pursuant to the support of rival candidates for succession form a locus classicus for the study of the division of university governance between academic Senatus and administrative town council: without the strong hand taken by the latter, it is unlikely that Cullen would ever have entered on his illustrious career in Edinburgh. A somewhat similar and even more squalid display occurred when the succession to the chair of practical medicine was raised; on 1 November 1766 Cullen succeeded Robert Whytt in the chair of the institutes (theory) of medicine, later sharing with John Gregory in alternate years the task of lecturing in the practice of physic, in the chair of which he succeeded Gregory in 1773. In these controversies Cullen’s greatest pupil, Joseph Black, had been a rival; but no shadow of personal acrimony had ever marred their friendship.

Cullen’s sole paper, although appearing in the same volume (II) of Essays and Observations Physical and Literary Read Before a Society in Edinburgh and Published by Them (1756), was evidently based on experiments conducted before he left Glasgow. As Cullen himself observed, Richmann had already (1747) given a “very exact account of the phenomena” of the cold produced by evaporating fluids: Cullen’s achievement was to repeat the experiments on a variety of fluids under a receiver exhausted by the air pump; in the case of “nitrous aether,” the surrounding water, contained in a slightly larger vessel, was frozen.

Cullen made no claim to novelty in his exposition of chemistry, although in an earlier (unpublished) paper on “salts” (which then included acids and bases) he was moving toward a classification in terms of the compounds between the “four” acids (to which he later and guardedly seems to add phosphoric, arsenic, and boric) and the “three” alkalies. Strongly influenced by Boyle (rather than by the narrow Newtonianism then fashionable), he gave but nodding respect to atoms, considering them hardly relevant to the understanding of chemical operations; but he was probably the first to give symbolic precision to the “affinity” tables then much in vogue, using reversed arrows to represent what came to be called “double decompositions.” He was an uneasy phlogistonist and at one stage suspected that the increase in weight following “calcination” was due to an “acid” in the air; nothing came of it, however.

No adequate appraisal of Cullen’s contribution to science can omit reference to his work on nosology or to his deep understanding of the contemporary empirical philosophy, explicit in one of his lectures on the institutes of medicine and everywhere implicit in the orderly deployment of his system of chemistry. He also played a prominent part in the founding of both the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Medical Society (Edinburgh). He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1777 but never signed the roll attesting formal admission.


Primary printed sources for Cullen’s contribution to science (the purely medical are here omitted) comprise only “Of the Cold Produced by Evaporating Fluids and of Some Other Means of Producing Cold,” in Essays and Observations Physical and Literary Read Before a Society in Edinburgh and Published by Them, II (Edinburgh, 1756), 145 f.; and Substance of Nine Lectures on Vegetation and Agriculture Delivered to a Private Audience in the Year 1768 (London, 1796). The Synopsis nosologiae methodicae, related to the Linnaean system of general systematics, is marginal.

Primary MS sources consist of notes for lectures; a tract on “salts,” edited by L. Dobbin, “A Cullen Chemical Manuscript of 1753,” in Annals of Science, 1 (1936), 138–156; and a short introductory course on the history of chemistry. All of these are in autograph or corrected in Cullen’s hand.

Despite its being stigmatized (in the D.N.B.) as “diffuse and ponderous,” John Thomson’s Account of the Life, Lectures and Writings of William Cullen M. D. (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1832) is still indispensable. The narrative is soundly based on correspondence and other documents, many of which are cited at length; it is, however, marred by long digressions of doubtful relevance.

Numerous transcripts of Cullen’s chemistry courses (probably restricted to those given in Edinburgh) are to be seen at the universities of Glasgow (where most of his autograph miscellanea are), Manchester, and Aberdeen; Clifton College (Bristol); London Medical and Chirurgical Society; Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh; and Paisley Public Library. The most recent to come to light is the property of Dr. W. A. Smeaton, University College, London. Most of the above are described in articles by W. P. D. Wightman, in Annals of Science, 11 (1955), 154–165, and 12 (1957), 192–205, in which a reconstruction of Cullen’s first complete course at Glasgow is attempted, together with an appreciation of his views on chemistry.

Other important secondary sources are Andrew Kent, ed., An Eighteenth Century Lectureship on Chemistry (Glasgow, 1950), passim; and M. P. Crosland, “The Use of Diagrams as Chemical “Equations’ in the Lecture Notes of William Cullen and Joseph Black,” in Annals of Science, 15 (1959), 75–90; and Historical Studies in the Language of Chemistry (London, 1962), pp. 90–91, 99, 119–120.

William P. D. Wightman

Cullen, William (1710–1790)

views updated May 18 2018

CULLEN, WILLIAM (17101790)

CULLEN, WILLIAM (17101790), British scientist and academic physician. Cullen was born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland, the second oldest son of a steward working for the duke of Hamilton. His mother was a Robertson of Whistlebury. In 1741 he married Anna Johnstone, daughter of the minister of Kilbarchan, and they had seven sons and four daughters.

Cullen began his education at the Hamilton Grammar School and went on in 1727 to the University of Glasgow; he also served an apprenticeship with a well-known surgeon, John Paisley. At age nineteen, he went to London, where he obtained an appointment as a ship's surgeon on a merchant vessel bound for the West Indies. On his return, Cullen apprenticed with a London apothecary, going home in 1730 to settle family affairs and briefly practice in the parish of Shotts. Two years later, he resumed his studies, then attended medical courses at the University of Edinburgh during the winter sessions of 17341735 and 17351736 before starting surgical practice in Hamilton. Employed by the duke and duchess of Hamilton and other prominent families, Cullen became involved in local agriculture and manufacturing issues and developed interests in chemistry and linen bleaching.

After obtaining his M.D. degree from the University of Glasgow in 1740, Cullen remained in that city in 1744 and began teaching medicine as an extramural lecturer. Two years later, the university appointed him to teach both medicine and materia medica, and in 1747 offered him an independent lectureship in chemistry together with a research laboratory. Cullen's academic career in Glasgow culminated in 1751 with his appointment to the chair of medicine. Lack of resources and advancement prompted him to leave for Edinburgh, where the Town Council in 1755 appointed him professor of chemistry and medicine at the local university. A year later, he also agreed to teach botany and materia medica. His teaching soon attracted many students and solidified his reputation.

Cullen's penchant for explaining the phenomena of health and disease with the aid of speculative medical theories that challenged the Boerhaavian system then in vogue created tensions among Edinburgh academics and their sponsors. This led to his appointment in 1766 to the chair of medical theory instead of medical practice. However, Cullen and the new incumbent, John Gregory (17241773), agreed to give alternate courses in the theory and in the practice of medicine, an arrangement that lasted until Gregory's death in 1773. Until his retirement in 1789, Cullen remained the University of Edinburgh's incumbent professor of Practice of Physic.

In Scotland, Cullen was an important pioneer in the transformation of chemistry into an independent scientific discipline by separating it from its close relationship with medicine. On the theoretical side, he was quite interested in theories of heat, the phenomenon of evaporation, and the property of salts, but he experimented and published little. Instead, Cullen was instrumental in promoting the practical value of chemistry for Scottish agriculture, mining, and brewing, also making useful proposals for the manufacture and purification of common salt and the bleaching of linens. In medicine, he was also known as a systematist, promoting a coherent theory of human physiology and pathology. His scheme was an eclectic combination of previous mechanical and chemical explanations of bodily functioning, now placed under the direction of the nervous system.

Among Cullen's major works was the Synopsis Nosologiae Methodicae, published in 1769, a useful and widely employed classification of diseases based on clinical symptoms and signs. He considered it a heuristic device useful to practitioners and students. His most important publication was the First Lines of the Practice of Physic, published and expanded to include four volumes between 1776 and 1784. It was translated into several languages and made him an authority in medical practice throughout Europe and America.

Cullen was a transitional figure. As with other system builders before him, his medical theories became rapidly obsolete as new anatomical and physiological views transformed our understanding of the human body. Likewise, his disease classification was soon replaced by other schemes based on new criteria such as pathological changes discovered in human tissues and organs. Nevertheless, Cullen was widely admired and remembered as a gifted teacher, one of the first to lecture in the vernacular. He was the architect of clinical teaching in Edinburgh, and his reputation attracted students from around the globe.

See also Boerhaave, Herman ; Chemistry ; Medicine .


Doig, Andrew, et al., eds. William Cullen and the Eighteenth-Century Medical World. Edinburgh, 1993.

Thomson, John. An Account of the Life, Lectures and Writings of William Cullen M.D. 2 vols. Edinburgh, 1859.

Guenter B. Risse

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