Matthew Dobson was a medical pioneer who discovered and described conditions such as hyperglycemia and sought further understanding of known diseases such as diabetes. Because medical knowledge of diabetes was limited in the 1700s, his research and observations aided other physicians in diagnosing patients' illnesses more accurately and in developing more effective treatments. Dobson's scientific writings provided a foundation for future generations of medical researchers.
Not much is known about Dobson's early life. Some biographical sources state that he was almost 40 years old when he died in 1784, suggesting that he was born around 1745, while others place his birth date a decade earlier, in the 1730s. The 1753 date of his first dissertation suggests that the latter estimate is correct. Biographical sketches of Dobson's wife, the notable translator and writer Susannah Dobson, say that her husband was from Liverpool and was buried at Bath, a town that was home to hot springs and health resorts where Dobson possibly sought treatment to relieve pain from a chronic condition. He might have been Scottish because he attended school in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
His 1753 dissertation at the University of Glasgow was entitled Dissertatio philosophica inauguralis de natura hominis and his 1756 dissertation at the University of Edinburgh was called Dissertatio medica inauguralis, de menstruis, suggesting that he may have been interested in gynecology and obstetrics. Medical histories locate Dobson at Yorkshire during his work on diabetes. He was named a fellow of the Royal Society.
Although he probably dealt daily with routine concerns such as fevers and infections, Dobson's specialty was what modern physicians label endocrine disorders, which concern the distribution of hormones in the bloodstream. The role of glands, which secrete hormones, including insulin (crucial for metabolizing sugar), was not understood when Dobson was conducting his investigations. Doctors did not comprehend the immediate and long-term health risks of diabetes, such as patients' being blinded, becoming comatose, and dying suddenly. Physicians such as Thomas Willis had commented that the urine of some diabetic patients tasted sweet. By 1776 Dobson had examined urine and tissue samples and demonstrated that diabetics had sugar in both their urine and blood serum, causing the sweetness.
Dobson is also cited as the discoverer of hyperglycemia, which is more commonly referred to as high blood sugar. He collected information on case studies of diabetes and wrote an article entitled "Experiments and Observations on the Urine in Diabetes." Medical historians refer to Dobson's work as being part of the diagnostic period of diabetes research, following the clinical era in which diabetes was merely described and preceding the empirical treatment and experimental periods.
Dobson also contributed to early work in pneumatic medicine. He pioneered methods to treat lung abscesses with carbon dioxide and to relieve respiratory ailments with mineral waters. He also used his techniques to loosen hardened material in the urinary tract. Dobson's text discussing this work, A Medical Commentary on Fixed Air, was published in London in 1779. Like his patients, Dobson suffered from frail health and perhaps was even diabetic. He died either in his late 30s or early 50s, depending on his actual birth date.
ELIZABETH D. SCHAFER