John Barclay

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Barclay, John

(b. Perthshire, Scotland, 10 December 1758; d. Edinburgh, Scotland, 21 August 1826)


John Barclay was the leading teacher of anatomy in Edinburgh at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The son of a Perthshire minister, Barclay was originally destined for the Church, and having taken his license after a good education at St. Andrews University, he acted as a preacher in the Church of Scotland before turning his attention to medicine and graduating M.D. at Edinburgh in 1796. He was thirtyeight years of age before he began to teach anatomy on his own account, after assisting John Bell in his class.

The house in High School Yards, in which he lectured, soon became too small to accommodate the students, and Barclay was obliged not only to remove to a larger classroom in Surgeonsʾ Square but also to lecture on the same subject twice a day. In 1810 the number of students attending his class had risen to 300. Barclay had no monopoly on anatomical teaching; there were other extramural classes of anatomy that prospered, especially after the retirement of the second Monro from the university chair. Barclay was, however, the first teacher of anatomy and not to engage in practice. He made a number of valuable contributions to human and comparative anatomy, and indeed it was proposed that a chair of comparative anatomy should be created for him in the university.

This proposal aroused violent discussion, and was eventually abandoned. It is commemorated by a clever cartoon in Kay’s Edinburgh Portraits, entitled “The Craft in Danger.” Barclay is shown mounted on the skeleton of an elephant, being pushed into the university gate by some of his friends. His progress is resisted by his enemies.

The Barclay Collection of Comparative Anatomy was bequeathed by him to the Royal College of Surgeons. The result of twenty-seven years of collecting, it remains a monument to his industry.

Barclay was succeeded as conservator and teacher of anatomy by Robert Knox.


I. Original Works. Barclay’s writings include A New Anatomical Nomenclature (1803); Muscular Motions of the Human Body (1808); and The Arteries of the Human Body (1812).

II. Secondary Literature. There is no full-length biography of Barclay, but see Ballingall’s short notice (1827) and Struthersʾ memoir in his The Edinburgh Anatomical School (1867).

Douglas Guthrie

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Founder of a religious sect known as Bereans or Barclayites; b. Muthill, Perthshire, Scotland, 1734; d. Edinburgh, July 29, 1798. He studied for the Presbyterian ministry at St. Andrews University, where he supported the heterodox views of his professor, Dr. Archibald Campbell, "that the knowledge of the existence of God was derived from revelation and not from nature." He was licensed as a preacher in the Church of Scotland in 1759 and held assistantships at Errol and Fettercairn; but while he gained a popular reputation as a preacher, his clerical brethren regarded his theological opinions as dangerous. Defying the censure of his theological opinions by the presbytery of Fordoun, he published his views in several books between 1766 and 1771. Since he was refused any appointment in the Church of Scotland, Barclay was ordained in 1773 at Newcastle, England, outside the jurisdiction of the Scottish church. Adherents of his views formed themselves into independent churches in Edinburgh, Fettercairn, and a few other places. These sectarians, while accepting the general Calvinist theology of the Church of Scotland, held that natural religion undermines the evidences of Christianity, that assurance is of the essence of faith, that unbelief is the unpardonable sin, and that the psalms refer exclusively to Christ. Their constant appeal to Scripture in vindication of their views was regarded as similar to the attitude of the Bereans mentioned in Acts 17.10. Barclay was given charge of the Edinburgh congregation.

Bibliography: The Works of John Barclay, ed. j. thomson and d. mcmillan (Glasgow 1852). r. chambers, A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, ed. t. thomson, 3 v. (3d rev. ed. London 186870).

[d. mcroberts]