Dunglison, Robley

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Dunglison, Robley

(b. Keswick, England, 4 January 1788; d. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1 April 1869)

medical education, lexicography, physiology.

His father, William, and his maternal grandfathers were wool manufacturers; his mother was Elizabeth Jackson, and his maternal grandmother was a Robley, hence his first name. Orphaned as a child, Dunglison received a classical education at Green Row Academy, Abbey Holme, through a legacy from a rich uncle. There he obtained an excellent knowledge of Greek and Latin as well as a fluent pen in English; later he was also to become well-versed in French and German. Having decided upon a medical career, he took a preceptorship with a surgeon at Keswick and went to Edinburgh, Paris, and London for his formal medical education; he obtained his degree by examination from Erlangen. In London he assisted the ailing Dr. Charles Thomas Haden, a prominent practitioner, who greatly influenced the development of Dunglison’s professional and social character. Dunglison passed the examinations of the Royal College of Surgeons and of the Society of Apothecaries and commenced practice in 1819 at London, where he was appointed physician-accoucheur to the Eastern Dispensary. His pen, however, was busier than his lancet, and by 1824 he had published articles on the English Lake Region, belladonna, malaria, and meningitis; a book on the bowel complaints of children; numerous book reviews; translations of Félix-Hippolyte Larrey’s Moxa and of François Magendie’s Formulary; and an edition of Robert Hooper’s VadeMecum; and had served on the editorial boards of two medical journals. In 1824 he married Harriet Leadam, daughter of a London apothecary; they had seven children. Shortly after their marriage they went to the University of Virginia where, at the behest of Thomas Jefferson, Dunglison was appointed to the chair of medicine. Responsible only for teaching, Dunglison was able to prepare textbooks on those subjects he taught. (Medical instructors, who had, until then, been actively engaged in practice, relied chiefly upon the European literature for information on current advances.) Dunglison thus became the first full-time professor of medicine in the United States and the first American author of a book on physiology, a medical dictionary, and a history of medicine, as well as a pioneer in the publication of works on public health (or hygiene, as he called it), materia medica and therapeutics, medical jurisprudence and toxicology, medical education, and internal medicine. (He abhorred the knife and completely avoided surgery.) Dunglison also made important contributions to William Beaumont’s classic work on the physiology of digestion.

After eight years at the University of Virginia, Dunglison moved to the University of Maryland and then, after three years, to the Jefferson Medical College at Philadelphia, where he taught for the next thirty-two years. When he arrived, faculty dissension and rivalry with another Philadelphia medical school were threatening to destroy the college, but Dunglison’s skillful reorganization of the faculty welded it into a coherent, cooperative teaching group, and he succeeded in establishing the school as one of the country’s best medical centers. Fluent, lucid, elegant, entertaining, instructive, and stimulating as a lecturer, he attracted many students: more than 5,000 nineteenth-century physicians proudly displayed his signature on their diplomas. Elected to many organizations, he was especially active in the American Philosophical Society and in the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia. As a member of the Pennsylvania Institution for the Blind he was an early advocate of raised type for the blind. He was also interested in the Elwyn School for the mentally retarded and worked for improved care of the insane poor, preparing several reports that led to reforms in asylums. An Episcopalian, he was a member of the vestry of St. Stephen’s Church, Philadelphia. Two of his sons, Richard James and Thomas Randolph, were physicians. Although medical practice was not to his taste, he attended Thomas Jefferson in his last illness and was consulted by presidents Monroe, Madison, and Jackson and by families connected with the University of Virginia. His importance to American medical history rests in his extraordinary success in sifting from the world literature information of importance to medical students and physicians, and in his ability to present this information effectively. In addition we owe to him the firm establishment of two great medical institutions, the University of Virginia School of Medicine and the Jefferson Medical College.


I. Original Works. A fairly complete list of Dunglison’s writings appears in “The Autobiographical Ana of Robley Dunglison,” ed. with notes and an intro. by Samuel X. Radbill, in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s., 53 (1963), 196–199. His most significant medical publications are Commentaries on the Diseases of the Stomach and Bowels of Children (London, 1824); Syllabus of Lectures on Medical Jurisprudence, and on the Treatment of Poisoning and Suspended Animation (Charlottesville, Va., 1827); and Human Physiology, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1832; 8th ed., 1856). A New Dictionary of Medical Science and Literature, 2 vols. (Boston, 1833) appeared in 1 vol. in its 2nd and subsequent eds.; the 19th ed. (Philadelphia, 1868) was the last published in Robley Dunglison’s lifetime; his son Richard edited several subsequent eds.; in 1911 Thomas Lathrop Stedman continued it as Stedman’s Practical Medical Dictionary, and it is still appearing, a century after Dunglison’s death. Other works are Elements of Hygiene (Philadelphia, 1835); General Therapeutics, or Principles of Medical Practice (Philadelphia, 1836); The Medical Student (Philadelphia, 1837); New Remedies (Philadelphia, 1839); and The Practice of Medicine, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1842). The Dictionary for the Blind in Tangible Type, 3 vols. (Philadelphia, 1860) was prepared by W. Chapin under the supervision of Dunglison. Dunglison also edited the following journals: London Medical Repository (1823– 1824), Medical Intelligencer (1823), Virginia Literary Museum and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, etc. (1830), and American Medical Library and Intelligencer (1837–1842). Dunglison’s interest in the mentally retarded is reflected in Appeal to the People of Pennsylvania on the Subject of an Asylum for the Poor of the Commonwealth (Philadelphia, 1838): a Second Appeal was pub. in 1840. A posthumous work, History of Medicine, was arranged and ed. by his son Richard J. Dunglison, M.D. (Philadelphia, 1872).

II. Secondary Literature. On Dunglison and his work, see William B. Bean, “Mr. Jefferson’s Influence on American Medical Education,” in Virginia Medical Monthly, 87 (1960), 669–680; John M. Dorsey, Jefferson-Dunglison Letters(Charlottesville, Va., 1960); Chalmers L. Gemmill, “Educational Work of Robley Dunglison, M. D. at the University of Virginia,” in Virginia Medical Monthly, 87 (1960), 307–309; Chalmers L. Gemmill and Mary Jeanne Jones, Pharmacology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine (Charlottesville, Va., 1966), pp. 9–23; Samuel D. Gross, “Memoir of Robley Dunglison,” in Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, n.s., 4 (1874), 294–313, and Autobiography, II (Philadelphia, 1887), 334; Mary Jeanne Jones and Chalmers L. Gemmill, “The Notebook of Robley Dunglison, Student of Clinical Medicine in Edinburgh, 1816–1818,” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 22 (1967), 261–273; Henry Lonsdale, Worthies of Cumberland, VI (London, 1875), 262–279; Samuel X. Radbill, “Robley Dunglison, M. D., 1788–1869: American Medical Educator,” in Journal of Medical Education, 34 (1959), 84–94; and “Dr. Robley Dunglison and Jefferson,” in Transactions and Studies of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 4th ser., 27 (1959), 40–44.

Samuel X. Radbill