Pringle, John

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(b. Roxburgh, Scotland, 10 April 1707; d. London, England, 18 January 1782)


Pringle, the son of Sir John and Magdalen Eliott Pringle, received a classical education at St. Andrews and Edinburgh universities and his M.D. at Leiden in 1730. After studying at Paris, he returned to practice medicine in Edinburgh, where in 1734 he was appointed professor of pneumatics (metaphysics) and moral philosophy. In 1742 he embarked upon a military career as head of the hospital of the British army in Flanders, and the following year he initiated the idea that military hospitals should be sanctuaries from enemy action, thus anticipating the “Red Cross” concept. Successively physician general and physician to the royal hospitals, he settled in London in 1749 to practice medicine, obtaining medical appointments to Queen Charlotte, King George III, and other royalty and being created baronet. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1745, and was president from 1772 to 1778, having achieved renown in a wide range of scientific subjects. A fellow of the College of Physicians of London speciali gratia, he was a member of scientific societies in Haarlem, Amsterdam, Göttingen, Kassel, Hanau, Madrid, Paris, St. Petersburg, Naples, and Edinburgh.

Pringle’s enduring contribution to medicine was his Diseases of the Army, a classic that entitles him to be regarded as a founder of modern military medicine. In it he was the first to publish a text that presented the results of extensive experience and research, clarifying knowledge about typhus, malaria, epidemic meningitis, dysentery, and other army scourges, and laying down practical rules of military hygiene. Pringle mentioned the “ague cake” spleen of malaria, described ulcers now called Peyer’s patches in typhoid, and called attention to a theory of contagion caused by animalcules but, surprisingly, did not mention tetanus.


I. Original Works. Pringle’s inaugural dissertation was De marcore senili (Leiden, 1730). Three (of seven) papers entitled “Experiments on Substances Resisting Putrefaction,” which introduced the words “septic” and “antiseptic” into medical terminology and won for him the Copley Medal of the Royal Society, were published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 46, no. 495 (1750), 480, and no. 496, 525, 550. Observations on Diseases of the Army (London, 1752), went through numerous eds. during his lifetime (1753, 1761, 1764, 1768, 1778) and one posthumously (1783), each revised and improved by the author. The final London ed. was printed in 1810. The 2nd ed. was translated into French as Observations sur les maladies des armées dans les camps et dans les garnisons … (Paris, 1755, 1771, 1793), also into Italian (Naples, 1757; Venice, 1762, 1781), German (Altenburg, 1754, 1772), Dutch (Middelburg, 1763; Amsterdam, 1785-1788), and Spanish (Madrid, 1775). There is also an American ed. with notes by Benjamin Rush and a biography of Pringle extracted from Benjamin Hutchison’s Biographica medica (Philadelphia, 1810; repr. 1812).

Observations on the Nature and Cure of Jay I-Fevers in a Letter to Dr. Mead (London, 1750), dealing with typhus, as well as Pringle’s papers on septics and antiseptics, were revised and added as appendixes to Diseases of the Army. Six Discourses Delivered by Sir John Pringle, Bart. When President of the Royal Society... (London, 1783), collected and arranged by Pringle, is prefaced by a biography of Pringle by his friend Andrew Kippis. Just before his death Pringle presented 10 MS vols, entitled “Medical and Philosophical Observations,” to the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh with the proviso that they should not be published.

II. Secondary Literature. The basic biography is that by Kippis in Six Discourses, cited above. William Mac-Michael, Lives of British Physicians (London, 1830), 172-182, adds a few facts. Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, Medical Portrait Gallery With Biographical Memoirs of the Most Celebrated Physicians, II, no. 14 (London, n.d. [1840]), includes the portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds for the Royal Society. See also William Munk, The Roll of the Royal College of Physicans of London, II (1878), 252; and J. F. Payne, in Dictionary of National Biography (London-New York, 1896), XLVI, 386.

Samuel X. Radbill

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