Whytt, Robert

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(b. Edinburgh, Scotland, 6 September 1714; d. Edinburgh, 15 April 1766)

medicine, neurophysiology.

Remarkably rational in an age in which reaction of a muscle to artificial nerve stimulus was considered magical, Robert Whytt (pronounced “White”)was a practitioner of physic, teacher of medicine, and the foremost neurologist of his time. The first to demonstrate reflex action in the spinal cord, he also localized the site of a single reflex (Whytt’s reflex), wrote the first important treatise on neurology after Thomas Willis, and gave the first clear description of tuberculous meningitis in children.

The second son of Robert Whytt, an advocate of Bennochy, and Jean Murray, of Woodend, Perth–shire, Whytt was born six months after his father died; and his mother died when he was six years old. When he was fourteen, he succeeded to the family estate when his older brother died. After education in the public school at Kirkcaldy, in fife, he went to St. Andrews University, where he received a degree in arts in 1730. for the next four years he studied medicine at the newly organized medical faculty of Edinburgh, which included Alexander Monro (Primus), Andrew St. Clair (Sinclair), John Rutherford, John Innes, and Andrew Plummer.

In 1734 Whytt went to London, where he studied under William Cheselden and walked the wards of the hospitals; from there he traveled to Paris and the wards of the Charité and Hôtel Dieu, also attending lectures and private dissections by Jacques Benigne Winslow, who condensed and simplified the study of anatomy. Finally, following Edinburgh tradition, he studied under the aged Hermann Boerhaave at Leiden, where he also had the advantages of anatomical instruction under Bernhard Siegried Albinus. On his way home in 1736, Whytt tarried three days at Rheims to acquire the M. D. form the university after separate Latin examinations “for a considerable space,” in anatomy, physiology, and the diagnosis and treatment of various diseases. After his return to Scotland, St. Andrews also awarded him an M. D. on 3 June 1737. Not quite three weeks later (21 June 1737) he became licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and set up practice as a physician. He was admitted a fellow of the College on 27 November 1737.

About this time Mrs. Joanna Stephens was stirring up public excitement with her well-publicized sovereign remedy for urinary bladder stones; and after enriching herself for several years, she offered to sell the secret of her nostrum for £5,000. Since it was enthusiastically endorsed by Gentleman’s Magazine, a popular journal of the period, such highly regarded persons as Horace Walpole, dukes, earls, bishops, and even doctors of medicine offered to contribute to a fund to buy the secret; but not enough money was forthcoming. Parliament then appointed a commission that included such experts as Stephen Hales, William Cheselden, Caesar Hawkins, and other highly respected scientists; and upon their recommendation the government paid the sum asked in order that this medicine might be sold cheaply to the poor.

It was then revealed that the secret consisted of calcined egg and snail shells, with “alicant” soap. This finding induced Whytt to carry out elaborate experiments with limewater and soap, from which he concluded that this mixture had considerable power of disintegrating calculi in vitro; he there upon tested courses of injections into the bladders of patients at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh suffering from the stone. His results were first published as “Essay on the Virtues of Lime-Water and Soap in the Cure of the Stone” (1743). This was followed by subsequent reports for nearly a score or years. An important result of this work on alkalies in the treatment of urinary calculi was that it led Joseph Black, then at Glasgow, to do his historic series of experiments on the chemistry of magnesia alba, quicklime, and other alkaline substances in search of a better solvent for stones. In 1754, in the course of that work, Black discovered the first known gas, “fixed air” (carbon dioxide). Soap was recommended as a lithontriptic, especially when dissolved in limewater, well into the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The rebellion of 1745 produced great confusion throughout Scotland, but by the winter of 1746–1747 affairs settled down and the medical faculty at Edinburgh was reorganized. Innes had died, and Whytt was elected to succeed him as professor of the institutes of medicine; and on 26 August 1747 he was elected professor of the practice of medicine, taking over the duties of John Rutherford, who thereafter devoted himself entirely to clinical lectures at the Royal Infirmary. Andrew Sinclair, in failing health, seems to have ceased lecturing entirely, Whytt having officiated for him at the university for some time before this; and Andrew Plummer, another member of the original medical faculty, devote himself to teaching only chemistry. Whytt was associated with Alexander Monro and William Cullen at the Royal Infirmary, where he gave clinical lectures in 1760 and where he treated many of the patients upon whose clinical records he based much of his speculations and publications.

During his teaching career from 1747 to 1766, Whytt attracted throngs of students to his lecture theater. A practicing physician, he taught physiology in the modern spirit, lecturing in English instead of the customary Latin. One of the first doctors in Scotland to do research in the modern sense, he demonstrated his experiments to his classes and spent considerable time in experimental work on animals. Like his predecessors, Whytt at first used Boerhaave’s Institutiones medicae, which dealt with physiology, as his textbook; but in 1762 he switched to Institutiones pathologiae medicinalis by Boerhaave’s disciple Hieronymus David Gaubius (originally published in 1750), which was less limited in its approach.

In 1751 Whytt published The Vital and Other Involuntary Motions of Animals, a classic in neurophysiology, which attracted wide attention. After numerous vivisections he concluded that the capacity for muscle movement is preserved for some time after death. He referred to decapitated frogs and other animals moving in a coordinated manner–with some degree of intelligence, as it were– and concluded that the brain cannot be the only center of neurological activity. In 1649 Descartes had explained reflex action as exemplified in blinking of the eyelids on the sudden approach of an object; Robert Boyle had shown that a viper wriggles when pricked even several days after decapitation; and Stephen Hales had shown that destruction of the spinal cord prevents reflex action. the animistic system of Georg Ernst Stahl, based upon the premise that the soul is the principium vitae, was not abandoned until Albrecht von Haller convinced the scientific world with his arguments, backed by experimental demonstrations, concerning sensibility and irritability of part of the human body in 1752. Whytt, however, was not yet able to divert his thinking of the soul as the basis of life and vitality so that he ascribed involuntary movement to the effect of a stimulus acting upon an unconscious “sentient principle,” “By the sentient principle,” he explained, “I understand the mind or soul in man, and that principle in brutes which resembles it.”

Haller called Whytt a “semi-animist,” but Whytt was actually opposed to the views of Stahl, Paracelsus, and others that there was a conscious soul in each living thing to direct its vitality and movement. Stahl and his followers looked upon the spinal cord as a simple conductor of nerve impulses; Whytt, however, demonstrated conclusively that centers for involuntary action could be located in “the brain of the spinal marrow.” For the first time in the history of physiology, he presented a clear description of what Marshall Hall a century later called “reflex action.” Whytt gave admirable accounts of various kinds of reflexes, even of what is now know as the “stretch reflex.” He hypothesized the continuity of nerve fibers from the brain and the identity of separate nerve fibrils. Johann August Unzer, who first differentiated between voluntary and involuntary movements and who had experimented upon beheaded people in 1746, denied the intervention of any soul in reflex actions; and Haller, busily engaged in similar physiological pursuits, praised Whytt’s book while criticizing it severely in a review published by the Royal Society of Science of Göttingen.

In 1753 in the Commentaries of this society Haller published his “De partibus corporis humani sensibilibus et irritabilibus,” in which he laid down the principle that only certain parts of the body possess sensibility and contended that “irritability,” or power of muscle contraction, was an innate property (vis inisita) of muscle fibers independent of nervous influence an having no connection with sensation or stimulus. Haller had mush greater practical experience than Whytt; but Whytt was a more brilliant philosopher, given to freer speculation and gifted with shrewd logic and extraordinary insight, so that his ideas served as the starting points for later physiologists.

Whytt subsequently published Physiological Essays (1755), consisting of “An Inquiry Into the Causes Which Promote the Circulation of the Fluids in the Very Small Vessels of Animals” and “Observations on the Sensibility and Irritability of the Parts of Men and Other Animals: Occasioned by M. de Haller’s Late Treatise on These Subjects.” The first essay concerned the peristaltic action of peripheral blood vessels, which assists the pumping action of the heart, a theory opposed by Haller and not generally accepted until capillary contractility was clearly demonstrated more than a century later. In the second essay Whytt contended that all muscle action was governed by nervous control. Admittedly uncertain about the minute structure of nerves, he nevertheless asserted that sensation, motion, and other functions are brought about through nervous connections between all parts of the body. This was long before Charles Bell (1811) and François Magendie (1822) proved the separate existence of sensory and motor nerve paths.

The dispute between Whytt and Haller attracted much attention on the Continent. By showing that lasting dilatation of the pupil could be due to compression of the optic thalamus, he was the first to localize a reflex (Whytt’s reflex). He likewise showed that only a portion of the spinal cord suffices for reflex action. In addition he made the first attempts since Galen to localize the seat of reflex action.

Observations on . . . Nervous, Hypochondriac or Hysteric Disorters (1764) reveals great clinical acumen and provides vivid accounts of a wide range of neurological and psychiatric patients whom Whytt attended at the Royal Infirmary. He declared that disorders variously called flatulent, spasmodic, hypochondriac, hysteric, and, more recently, nervous, had become the wastebasket diagnosis for those conditions about which physicians were ignorant; and therefore he set out “to wipe off this reproach” and to throw some light on these ailments. He resorted to his previous work to explain the nature of these diseases, emphasizing the “sentient and sympathetic power of the nerves,” and described instances of referred pain –anticipating, by his explanations of the causes, modern demonstrations of the reasons for them. Whytt clarified Thomas Willis’ term “nervous,” already in use for over 100 years, and explained such physical phenomena as blushing, lacrimation, and sweating, brought on by emotion or passion, as owing to some change made in the brain or nerves by the mind or sentient principle. This work added significant contributions to scientific medicine.

Through his Observations on the Dropsy in the Brain, published posthumously in 1768 by his son, Whytt achieved lasting remembrance in the history of pediatrics for the first clear description of tuberculous meningitis. It is a masterpiece of clinical observation, the finest first description of a disease to appear until then. Brief and lucid, the monograph is based upon about a dozen cases in which everything of clinical value that could be detected without modern laboratory apparatus is recorded. Monro’s foramen, connecting the lateral and third ventricles of the brain, was first observed greatly dilated in one of the cases here described, which Monro (Secundus) and Whytt saw in 1764 during a consultation. Allusions to tuberculouos meningitis before Whytt, usually included under a general heading of “phrenitis,” generally went unnoticed. Whytt’s description is a pediatric milestone that gave great impetus to the study of meningitis.

The Works of Dr. Whytt (1768) included papers on a range of subjects which indicate Whytt’s versatility. These included “The Difference Between Respiration and Motion of the Heart, in Sleeping and Waking Persons.” “Cure of Fractured tendo achilles,” “Use of Bark in Dysenteries.” “Hoarseness After Measles,” and “Anomalous and True Gout.”

In 1752, upon the recommendation of his friend and former classmate Sir John Pringle, Whytt was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London. He was appointed physician to the king in Scotland in 1761 and, two years later, was elected president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. His first wife was Helen Robertson, the sister of James Robertson, governor of New York. The two children of his first marriage died in infancy. Whytt’s interest in colonial America was also enhanced by correspondence with Alexander Garden, Lionel Chalmers, John Moultrie, and John Lining, all living in Charleston, South Carolina, and all of Scottish extraction. His second wife, Louisa Balfour of Pilrig, Midlothian, whom he married in 1743, bore him fourteen children, of whom six survived.

Whytt was not of a robust constitution. He became ill in 1765 and died the next year of symptoms suggestive of diabetes. His grave, in Old Greyfriars Church, is marked by a handsome monument. When Whytt died, William Cullen vacated the chair of chemistry at Edinburgh in favor of Joseph Black, in order to succeed Whytt as professor of the theory of medicine.


I. Original Works. “Essay on the Virtues of Lime Water and Soap in the Cure of the Stone,” in Observations and Essays in Medicine by a Society in Edinburgh, 2, pt. 2 (1743), followed by “An Essay Towards the Discovery of a Safe Method for Dissolving the Stone,” in Medical Essays and Observations Revised and Published by a Society in Edinburgh,5 (1744), 667–750, and 5, pt. 2 (1747), 156–242, was a long tract attempting to develop a rational form of treatment for urinary calculus. Essays on the Virtues of Lime-Water in the Cure of the Stone: With an Appendix, Containing the Case of The Right Honourable Horatio Walpole, Written by himself (Edinburgh, 1752; 2nd ed., 1755; 3rd ed., Edinburgh, 1761; Dublin, 1762), contains in the 3rd ed. a further account of the Walpole case, as well as that of the bishop of Llandaff; there was also a French trans. of the 2nd ed. by M. A. roux (Paris. 1757).

Essays and Observations, Physical and Literary, Read Before the Philosophical Society in Edinburgh, I (1754), contains “Of the Difference Between Respiration and the Motion of the Heart, in Sleeping the Waking Persons” (436–446); “On the Various Strength of Different Lime-Waters” (372–385) and “Of the Anthelmintic Virtues of the Root of the Indian Pink, Being Part of a Letter From Dr. John Lining, Physician at Charlestown, South Carolina, to Dr. Robert Whytt” (386–389). The same Journal, 2 (1756), includes “Description of the Matrix or Ovary of the Buccinum ampullatum” (8–10), concerning the hermit crab in its shell; and “ome Experiments Made With Opium on Living and Dying Animals” (280–316).

These Essays and Observations Physical and Literary were republished in 3 vols. (Edinburgh, 1770–1771). Vol. I contains Whytt’s essay on the strength of different kinds of limewater, read to the Philosophical Society in Edinburgh in 1751 (240); the article by John Lining on Indian pink, addressed to Whytt (436); and the difference in respiration and pulse in people asleep and awake (492). Vol. II includes “The Description of a New Plant by Alexander Garden, Physician at Charleston in South Carolina,” which described to Whytt the gardenia found in 1753 and in 1754 “about a mile from the Town of New York, in New England” (1–7); the opium experiments on animals (307–346); and “A description of the American Yellow Fever in a Letter From Dr. John Lining, Physician at Charlestown in South Carolina, to Dr. Robert Whytt,” dated 14 Dec. 1753 and read to the Society on 7 Mar. 1754 (404–432). In vol. III are a critique read to the Philosophical Society by Alexander Monro in 1761 concerning Whytt’s opinions regarding the effects of opium on the nervous system of animals (299); “Use of the Bark in Dysenteries, and a Hoarseness After the Measles,” read in Jan. 1761 (366–379); and observations (on arthritis anomala, or imperfect gout), in reference to a similar article on this subject by another author (466–470).

Other works are An Essay on the Vital and Other Involuntary Motions of Animals (Edinburgh, 1751; 2nd ed., 1763); and Physiological Essays (Edinburghm 1755; repr. 1757; 2nd ed., 1759; repr. 1761; 1763; 3rd ed. 1766). The National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Md., has a MS copy of Whytt’s clinical lectures, transcribed by one of his students at Edinburgh in 1761.

Observations on the Nature, Causes and Cure of Those Diseases Which are Commonly Called Nervous, Hypochondriac of Hysteric (Edinburgh, 1764) is the first important English work on neurology. The 2nd ed., corrected, with the author’s name spelled “Whyte” (Edinburgh, 1765), was entitled Observations on the Nature, Causes and Cure of Those Disorders Which Have Been Commonly Called Nervous, Hypochondriac or Hysteric and includes “Remarks on the Sympathy of the Nerves.” The 3rd ed. is dated 1767. in which year a French trans. also appeared at Paris (2nd French ed., 1777); there also are a German ed. (Leipzig, 1766) and a Swedish ed. (Stockholm, 1786). Whytt’s last separately and posthumously printed work was Observations on the Dropsy in the Brain; to Which Are Added His Other Treatises Never Hitherto Published by themselves (Edinburgh, 1768).

A collected ed., Works of Robert Whytt (Edinburgh, 1768), also was issued by his son, who was assisted in collecting and editing the material by Sir John Pringle;a letter to Pringle dated 10 Nov. 1758, entitled “Account of an Epidemic Distemper at Edinburgh and Several Other Parts in the South of Scotland in the Autumn of 1758,” is on 747–752. The collected Works was also translated into German as Saemmtliche zur Practischen Arzneykunst Gehoerige Schriften (Leipzig, 1771). It includes the research on limewater and soap in the cure of the stone, 1–238; ldquo;Nervous, Hypochondriac or Hysteric Disorders,” 239–616; “Cure of a Paralysis by Electricity,” 619–623; vesicatories in pulmonary congestion, 623–637 (addressed to the Royal Society in Feb. 1758 and published in the Philosophical Transactions, 50 , pt. 2 [1758], 569–578); the epidemic distemper of 1758,637–646, read by Pringle to the Medical Society of London on 12 Feb. 1759; a work on the uses of the corrosive sublimate of quicksilver in the cure of phagadenic ulcers (in a letter to Pringle, 10 Jan. 1757,read 16 Feb. 1759 and published in Medical Inquiries and Observations, 2 [1762]) and additional case reports, 646–662; and “Observations on the Dropsy in the Brain,” 662–696. the Collected Works Relating to Theoretical Medicine were translated by Johann Ephraim Lietzau as Sämmtliche zur theoretischen Arzneikunst gehoerige Schriften (Berlin–Stralsund, 1790) and included “Vital and Involuntary Motions in Animals,” “Circulation of Fluids in the Small Vessels,” “Sensibility and Irritability,” and “Experiments With Opium on Living and Dying Animals.”

II. Secondary Literature. See Rachel Mary Barclay, The Life and Work of Robert Whytt, M. D. (Edinburgh, 1922), M. D. diss.; Alexander Bower, History of the University of Edinburgh, II (Edinburgh, 1817), 345, 355; Charles W. Burr, “Robert Whytt,” in Medical Life, 36 (1929), 109; John D. Comire, “An Eighteenth Century Neurologist,” in Edinburgh Medical Journal, n.s. 32 (1925), 755; and History of Scottish Medicine, 2nd ed.,I (London, 1932), 306; Documents and Dates of Modern Discoveries in the Nervous System (London, 1839), 112, 152, 162, 203, which reprints excerpts from Whytt’s writings; Roger K. French, Robert Whytt, the Soul, and Medicine, Publications of the Wellcome Institute, Historical Monograph ser., no. 17(London, 1969); John F. Fulton, Muscular Contraction and the Reflex Control of Movement (Baltimore, 1926), 32; and History of Physiology (London, 1931), 43, 90; Fielding H. Garrison, History of Medicine, 4th ed. (Philadelphia, 1929), 326; and Alexander Grant, Story of the University of Edinburgh, II (London-Edinburgh, 1884), 401.

See also Heinz Hürzeler, Robert Whytt (1716–1766) und seine physiologischen Schriften (Zurich, 1973); Max Neuburger, Die historische Entwicklung der experimentellen Gehirn- und Rückenmark-Physiologie (Stuttgart, 1897), 122, 174–192; John Ruräh, Pediatrics of the Past (New York, 1925),401; William Seller, “Memoir of the life and Writings of Robert Whytt,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 23 (1861–1862), 99–131; George Frederic Still, History of Paediatrics, repr. ed. (New York, 1965) 443; G. Stronach, in Dictionary of National Biography; John Thomson, Life of William Cullen, I (Edinburgh, 1859), 241–258, which presents an extensive evaluation of Whytt; Ilza Veith, Hysteria: The History of a Disease (Chicago-London, 1965), 159; and Joseph I. Waring, History of Medicine in South Carolina 1670–1825 (Charleston, 1964), 57 and passim, which discusses Whytt’s relationships with physicians in Charleston and includes excerts from John Lining’s account of yellow fever.

Samuel X. Radbill