Blair, Patrick

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Blair, Patrick

(d. Boston, England, 1728)

botany, biology, medicine.

Reliable biographical information on Blair is scanty and contradictory; for example, the evidence for his death in 1728 is indirect—he had reached the letter H in his pharmaco-Botanologia, and his death is assumed to have occurred when no further material appeared. Certainly he worked as a surgeon in Dundee, Scotland, for some years; and when, on 27 April 1706, a female Indian elephant died there, Blair dissected it. He presented his findings, with an extensive review of the literature, in a letter to the Royal Society in 1710; this communication was later published separately (1713), In 1712 Blair was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and the same year was given an honorary M.D. by King’s College, Aberdeen. Blair was a Jacobite, and was sentenced to death as such on 7 July 1716; he was, however, pardoned after he successfully appealed to Sir Hans Sloane and others, such as Richard Mead, to intercede with the authorities on his behalf.

Blair appears to have been a practicing surgeon for most of his life, and in a communication to the Royal Society in 1717 he gave what Caulfield has called “probably the earliest description” of pyloric stenosis on record. But it is for his contributions to botany that Blair is most famous—not so much for his natural interest as a physician in the medicinal properties of plants (although this took up much of his time) but more for his work on plant sexuality. Although Sachs, in his History of Botany, felt that in this regard “… Patrick Blair… did nothing himself, but merely appropriated the general results of Camerarius’ observations” (p. 391), Blair was only one of many—including Grew, Ray, Camerarius, and Bradley—who, according to Ritterbush, “escaped the consequences of plant sexuality for the scale of functions by ascribing hermaphroditic generation to plants, which they shared only with the lower animals” (Overtures to Biology, p. 117). Blair was an “ovulist” rather than a “pollenist.”

Blair was something of a polemicist, and his unpublished, manuscript preface bound with Bishop Rawlinson’s copy of Bradley’s Philosophical Account of the Works of Nature was, as Ritterbush has observed, “an exceptionally abusive attack upon Richared Bradley” (op. cit., p.96).


1. Original Works. In addition to several communications in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Blair wrote the following: Osteographia Elephantina: or, a Full and exact description of all the bones of an elephant, which died near Dundee, April the 27th. 1706, with their several dimensions. To which are premis’d, 1. An historical account of the natural endowments… of elephants… 2. A short anatomical account of their parts… In a letter to Dr. Hans Sloane (London, 1713); Miscellaneous Observations in the Practise of Physick, Anatomy and Surgery. With new and curious remarks in botany (London, 1718); Botanick Essays. In two parts. The first containing, the structure of flowers…and the second, the generation of plants, etc. (London, 1720); and Pharmaco-Botanologia: or, an Alphabetical and classical dissertation on all the British indigenous and garden plants of the new London Dispensatory… With many curious and useful remarks from proper observation (London, 1723–1728)

One of the most important collections of Blair MSS is bound in with Bishop Richard Rawlinson’s copy of Richard Bradley’s Philosophical Account of the Works of Nature, now in the possession of the Bodleian Library, Oxford. There are several Blair letters dated 1723–1724 as well as a 28-page preface to an apparently unfinished treatise.

II. Secondary Literature. For an account of Blair’s work on the elephant, see F. J. Cole, A History of Comparative Anatomy (London, 1944), pp. 325–328. A good general account of Blair’s botanical contributions is P. C. Ritterbush, Overtures to Biology (New Haven, 1964), ch. 3. For general biographical information, Ernest Caulfield, “An Early Case of Pyloric Stenosis”, in American Journal of Diseases of Children, 40 (1930), 1070–1077, is surprisingly informative. See also C. E. Raven, John Ray (Cambridge, 1950), pp. 185–186, for an account of Blair’s attack on John Ray; and Julius von Sachs, History of Botany (Oxford, 1890), p. 391.

L. R. C. Agnew