(b. Scotland, ca. 1698; d. Edinburgh, Scotland, 16 April 1756)
Plummer was a member of the first organized medical faculty at the University of Edinburgh and one of the founders of a society of physicians that published the journal Medical Essays and Observations, The journal first appeared in 1733 and contained meteorological observations; accounts of diseases known in Edinburgh; essays on the history of medicine, drugs, chemical operations; and reports on experiments. This material was collected and revised by the society according to rules laid down in the preface to volume I.
After completing his early education in Edinburgh, Plummer entered the medical school at Leiden on 5 September 1720. He received the M.D. on 23 July 1722, and on 4 February 1724 he petitioned the College of Physicians of Edinburgh “for tryall”; he was examined and then licensed to practice on 25 February. Plummer was elected a fellow of the College in September and a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians on 3 November 1724. A week later he and three other young physicians purchased a house next to the “physic gardens’ for a chemical “elaboratory” in which to instruct students. Although a medical faculty had been appointed at Edinburgh in 1685. in 1720 Alexander Monro (Primus), who had recently returned from Leiden, was appointed professor of anatomy and thus became the “Father” of the Edinburgh Medical School.
For two years Plummer and his three colleagues lectured privately; but in February 1726 they were appointed to the faculty, with full powers “to profess and teach medicine in all its branches, examine candidates, and do every thing requisite to the graduations of doctors of medicine.” The medical school thus became a formal part of the university; rooms were assigned in the college, and the administration of the examination for the M.D. degree was transferred from the Royal College of Physicians to the medical faculty.
Plummer taught medical chemistry, which he had studied under Boerhaave at Leiden. John Fothergill, who had been a student of Plummer’s in 1734, stated that Plummer knew chemistry well and because of his broad knowledge of science was dubbed “a living library” although diffidence obscured his talents as a lecturer. Plummer avoided the mysticism of Helmont and the alchemists and thus established a modern approach to teaching chemistry in the British Isles; his method was then more fully developed by his successors, William Cullen and Joseph Black. From 10 March 1756 Cullen was joint professor of chemistry with Plummer, but succeeded to the chair when Plummer died. Black received the chair ten years later and developed it into a famous seat of chemical learning.
Plummer made the first chemical analysis of the waters of Moffat Spa; and in 1745, in a letter to Cullen, Black alluded to experiments by Plummer on the analysis of pit coal. Plummer’s personal wealth enabled him to leave his practice; and after suffering a stroke in 1755, he sold his laboratory to Cullen for £120—a great bargain since it was near the infirmary, where, from 1741, students had attended clinical lectures.
Plummer’s name was familiar to the medical profession for nearly two centuries because of his popular “Plummets pills.” which were composed of calomel and golden sulfured of antimony and were used to treat venereal diseases, cutaneous eruptions, and other complaints. His pill received great acclaim, especially after its popularization in Germany by Paul Werlhof and its introduction into European pharmacopoeias. In his formulation of the pill Plummer substituted calomel for the ethiops mineral (which had been condemned by Boerhaave) in the combination of mercury and antimony used in older ethiopic pills; thus his pill was sometimes called Plummets ethiops. Antimony, which had been used as a cosmetic in antiquity and rhapsodized about in Basil Valentine’s translation of Thölde, The Triumphant Chariot of Antimony, was present in kermes mineral, which Glauber produced about 1651. Golden sulfuret of antimony is a byproduct in the preparation of this mineral. The famous Bravo case of 1876, in which a young barrister died of antimony poisoning, may have sounded the death knell of antimony; and antibiotics in the past thirty years have all but eliminated the medical use of mercury.
I. Original Works. Plummer’s works are “De phthisis pulmoni” (M.D. diss., Univ. of Leiden, 1722); “An Alterative Mercurial Medicine,” in Medical Essays and Observations Revised and Published by a Society of Physicians in Edinburgh, 1 , art. 6 (1733), 46–62, contains his pill formula and reports his “trial of a medicinal compound of sulphur auratum antimonii and calomelas . . . two Herculian medicines”; a Latin trans, is “Actorum medicorum Edinburgensium . . . De medicamento alterante ex mercurio . . . ex anglico sermone Latine reddidit 1735,“in Paul Werlhof, Opera medica collegit et auxit J. E. Wichmann, III (Hannover, 1776), 641–652; Werlhof indicates that A. Hugo introduced Plummer’s formula into the German pharmacopoeia as pulveris alterantis Edmburgensium.
Subsequent works include “Experiments on the Medicinal Waters of Moffat,” in Medical Essays and Observations . . ., 1, art. 8 (1733), 82–94; “A History of the Rabies Canina,” ibid., 3rd ed., 5, pt. 2 (1747), 97; “Remarks on Chemical Solutions and Precipitations, “ in Essays and Observations, Physical and Literary, Read Before a Society in Edinburgh, 1 (1754), 284; “Experiments on Neutral Salts, Compounds of Different Acid Liquors, and Alcaline Salts, Fixt and Volatile,” ibid., 315; and “History of a Cure Performed by Large Doses of an Alterative Mercurial Medicine Communicated to Dr. Plummer by Mr. George Dennistown, Surgeon in Falkirk,” ibid., 390. This last journal was the continuation of the Medical Essays and Observations; Plummer contributed to every issue that appeared during his life.
II. Secondary Literature. On Plummer and his work, see J. Comrie, History of Scottish Medicine, I (London, 1932), 266, 299; Complete Collection of the Medical and Philosophical Works of John Fothergill, J. Elliot, ed. (London, 1781), 643; R. Fox, Dr. John Fothergill and His Friends (London, 1919), 13, 14, 38, 45; The Works of Alexander Monro, M.D., by his Son, A. Monro (Secundus), ed. (Edinburgh, 1781), xii; R. Ritchie, Early Days of the Royal College of Physicians (Edinburgh, 1899), 116, 132, 135; J. Thomson, Account of the Life, Lectures and Writings of William Cullen, M.D., I (Edinburgh, 1859), 39, 59, 82, 86, 89; and A. Wootton, Chronicles of Pharmacy, I (London, 1910), 351; II, 153.
Samuel X. Radbill