Pitcairn, Archibald

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(b. Edinburgh, Scotland, 25 December 1652; d. Edinburgh, 20 October 1713), medicine, physiology.

Pitcairn was the son of Alexander Pitcairn, a merchant and magistrate. He was first urged by his father toward a clerical career and entered the University of Edinburgh in 1668 with that intention, graduating M.A. in 1671. By the time of his graduation, however, Pitcairn had already decided on a career in law. He began his legal studies in Edinburgh, then moved to Paris, where his interests widened to include medicine. While in Paris, Pitcairn spent much time with a group of medical students, even joining them on their hospital rounds. He returned to Edinburgh and was stimulated by his close friend David Gregory to take up mathematical studies, which he pursued with verve and some ability. He returned to Paris about 1975 and resumed his medical studies. On 13 August 1680 Pitcairn obtained an M.D. from Reims, then returned to Edinburgh, where in 1681 he joined in the founding of the Royal College of Physicians as probably the youngest of the original fellows. On 4 September 1685 he and another physician, James Halkett, were invited to join Robert Sibbald as the second and third medical professors at the University of Edinburgh. Although Pitcairn does not appear actually to have delivered any lectures, he was awarded the title of professor because of his “abilities and great qualifications.”1 Pitcairn’s good fortune was altered with the Glorious Revolution, for his family had long been identified with the Stuart cause; and Pitcairn himself was known as a Jacobite and a scoffer, or at least a skeptic, about puritanical religion. He was also averse to suppressing his strong political views.

Pitcairn was an eager party to the correspondence between his intimate friend David Gregory and Newton, preparing manuscripts, comparing results, and copying letters for Gregory’s side of the exchange.2 In March 1962 Pitcairn visited Newton at Cambridge. Their conversation doubtless covered a wide range of topics, and Newton gave Pitcairn an autograph copy of “De natura acidorum.”3 The essay was not quite complete, and Pitcairn, after adding a few lines and two short remarks, gave the manuscript to Gregory. Pitcairn’s visit to Newton seems to have occurred on his journey to Leiden, where in November 1691 he had been invited to become professor of the practice of the practice of medicine at an annual salary of 1,000 guilders,4 Although the post was a prestigious one, Pitcairn’s interest in it probably derived equally from the opportunity it6 provided to have Edinburgh honorably. He delivered his inaugural lecture on 26 April 1692. Later that year he was granted the right to lecture on the institutes of medicine and to participate in bedside teaching. All was not success and enthusiasm in Leiden. however. Pierre Bayle reported that Pitcairn’s lectures were unpopular because of their abstruse and mathematical character.5 In the summer of 1693 Pitcairn left Leiden for a holiday in Scotland, from which he never returned.

In 1693, after returning from Leiden, Pitcairn married Elizabeth Stevenson, eldest daughter of Sir Archibald Stevenson, a leading senior figure at the Royal College of Physicians. Pitcairn now became closely identified with Stevenson’s group in the College. Fed by both professional rivalries and contemporary political and religious differences, bitter factional disputes continued until, in 1704, Pitcairn and those who sided with him were reinstated at the College and an Act of Oblivion was passed, deleting from the minutes all references to these extended quarrels. Although restored to his fellowship, Pitcairn subsequently attended few College meetings. He was granted a second M.D. by the University of Aberdeen in 1699 and in 1701 was elected to the Royal College of Surgeons (Edinburgh), a rare honor for a physician.

Pitcairn’s principal intellectual campaign, for a “mathematical physick,” was publicly launched in his inaugural lecture at Leiden. He called physicians to abandon all false philosophies and to rely instead in theory and in practice only upon such principles as cannot possibly be called in question by “Mathematicians and Persons who are the least entangled with Prejudice.” His model science was mathematical astronomy. The physician, Pitcairn asserted, must learn to avoid crude hypotheses and “physical causes,” like the best mathematical astronomers, Newton and Gregory, who produced the undeniable mathematical laws that interrelate celestial phenomena.

The full meaning of Pitcairn’s call for radical medical change became clearer in subsequent lectures at Leiden. He was really aiming at a theory closely similar to that recently published by the Italian iatromechanist Lorenzo Bellini in his De urinis et pulsibus et missione sanguinis (1683). Bellini claimed that the prime fact of life was the circulation of the blood and that illness was merely one form or other of impaired circulatory hydraulics. In fevers, for example, there was a fault in the blood, whether in “motion, quantity or quality.” A typical symptom, excessive perspiration, resulted from “an augmented Velocity of the Blood… [which produces] a greater Number of Particles set at Liberty, and if they can perspire, and be perceived by the Touch, will appear to be greatly augmented in Efficacy and Quantity.”6

Pitcarin relied heavily on Bellini, but he differed in that he consistently embedded his own theoretical statements in an aggressive context. He asserted that the hydraulic theory of sickness and health was the “true” and “mathematical” account of the animal economy; all others were “false,” “hypothetical,” and “philosophical.” The iatrochemical and iatromechanical systems of such predecessors as Sylvius and Willis had to be abandoned utterly. Pitcairn’s system had to be correct, he believed, because the terms with which he constructed his theory—fluids, velocities, dimensions of vessels—were all, at least in principle, observable entities. Pathological and etiological theories constructed from them must, therefore, have the same degree of mathematical certainty as the propositions of Newton’s Principia.

Pitcairn’s radical program also encompassed an assault on the institutes of medicine. Such classic conceptions as “sign,” “symptom,” and “indicant” had no meaning to him. The only basic pathological condition was impaired circulation, from which all symptoms could be logically and inexorably deduced. Similarly, therapeutic methods could be determined with deductive certainty. Remedies worked not by providing some imaginary “alkali” to neutralize a fictive “acid”; rather, successful therapy was hydraulic in nature, restoring the circulatory system to good order. The physician could either manage the blood by manipulating its secretory products (perspiration, urine) or, occasionally, by adding material of appropriate kind and quantity directly to the bloodstream.

Pitcairn’s views provoked intense reactions from his medical colleagues. In Scotland, public reaction largely took the form of rival pamphlets bearing such titles as A Short Answer to Two Lybels Lately Published... by Drs. Cheyne and Pitcairn (1702). In England, the impact of “mathematical physick” was felt in a less personal, more philosophical way. William Cockburn and Richard Mead, two young physicians who had heard Pitcairn lecture at Leiden, led the way in establishing public support for “mathematical physick.” They saw Pitcairn’s system as part of the quickly rising Newtonian philosophy. Through their papers and books they helped the “Newtonian” medical system triumph over the “Cartesian” in the early eighteenth-century Royal Society, of which Newton was elected president in 1703. Arguments were advanced along “mathematical” and “corpuscular” lines, and the debate continued for several years. By the second decade of the century, Pitcairn’s views were triumphant not only at the Royal Society but also at the Royal College of Physicians (London). While members of the Royal Society and the College of Physicians were being converted to the “mathematical” theory of the animal economy, Stephen Hales and James Keill applied sophisticated, quantitative experimental techniques to the verification and extension of the hydraulic system. Much of Hales’s Haemastaticks (1733) was conceived in 1708 as an experimenter’s response to Pitcairn’s new theory.

On the Continent, Pitcairn also exerted a considerable influence. Bellini, from whom Pitcairn derived much of his general style and many specific ideas, was himself stimulated by Pitcairn’s efforts for a “mathematical physick.” In 1695 he dedicated Opuscula aliquot to Pitcairn. Boerhaave was also greatly impressed by Pitcairn, whom he had heard at Leiden. Later, in his lectures and published works he often referred to Pitcairn’s ideas and medical program with respect. He thought mechanical and mathematical reasoning an essential part of medicine but differed from Pitcairn in his stress on the need for a studious empiricism in pathology and therapeutics. Albrecht von Haller showed two crucial traces of Pitcairn’s influence. Many of his physiological ideas were based essentially on Pitcairn’s hydraulic theories; and his methodology, important in his recognition and articulation of the phenomena of irritability, was explicitly Newtonian.


1. Robert Peel Ritchie, The Early Days of the Royall Colledge of Phisitians, Edinburgh, p. 25.

2. H. W. Turnbull, ed., The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, III (Cambridge, 1961), 172.

3.Ibid., 212–213.

4. G. A. Lindeboom, “Pitcairn’s Leyden Interlude Described From the Documents,” p. 274; further details about Pitcairn’s Leiden professorship are also derived from Lindeboom.

5. Quoted in “Archibald Pitcairn,” in Dictionary of National Biography, new ed., XV, 1221.

6. Lorenzo Bellini, A Mechanical Account of Fevers (London, 1720), 89.


I. Original Works. Pitcairn’s two principal medical works are Dissertationes medicae and Elementa medicinae physico-mathematica. The first, a collection of such shorter pieces as his inaugural oration at Leiden, was published at Rotterdam in 1701 and at Edinburgh in 1713. It was also translated into English as Works (London, 1715) and Whole Works (London, 1727). The latter translation was done by George Sewell and J. T. Desaguliers. Elementa medicinae purports to present the substance of Pitcairn’s lectures at Leiden as recorded in student notes. It was published in 1717 at London and appeared a year later in English trans. Several of Pitcairn’s lectures at Leaden as recorded in student notes. It was published in 1717 at London and appeared a year later in English trans. Several of Pitcairn’s satirical poems, plays, and Latin verses were also published; there is a full listing in the British Museum General Catalogue of Printed Books, CXC, cols. 660–661, which also records many of the pamphlets he wrote or provoked. The fullest extant ed. of Pitcairn’s various writings, including his medical works, poetry, and some satirical essays, is Opera omnia medica (Venice, 1733; Leiden, 1737).

II. Secondary Literature. There is no full study of Pitcairn, although there are many useful shorter pieces. The entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, new ed., XV, 1221–1223, is quite rich, as is Robert Peel Ritchie’s biographical account in The Early Days of the Royall Colledge of Phisitians, Edinburgh (Edinburgh, 1899), 159–187. There is an early appreciation by Charles Webster, An Account of the Life and Writing of the Celebrated Dr. Archibald Pitcairne (Edinburgh, 1781). G. A. Lindeboom, “Pitcairne’s Leyden Interlude Described From the Documents,” in Annals of Science, 19 (1963), 273–284, provides useful information.

Also of considerable help are accounts of early eighteenth-century iatromechanism and Newtonian philosophy that include references to Pitcairn and his followers. Particularly useful are Kurt Sprengel, Histoire de la médecine, A. J. L. Jourdan, trans., V (Paris, 1815), 131–195; Charles Daremberg, Histoire des sciences mëdicals, II (Paris, 1870), 849–887; Theodore M. Brown, “The Mechanical Philosophy and the ‘Animal Oeconomy’” (Ph.D.diss., Princeton, 1968), chs. 4–6; and Robert Schofield, Mechanism and Materialsm: British Natural Philosophy in an Age of Reason (Princeton, 1970), 49–62, 68–79.

Theodore M. Brown