Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Adams, Francis

ADAMS, FRANCIS (1796–1861), physician and classical scholar, was born 13 March 1796 at Lumphanan, Aberdeenshire, the son of James Adams, a small farmer, was educated at a parish school, and afterwards at the grammar school, Aberdeen. On entering the latter at the age of 15, he found himself backward in classical attainments, and with extraordinary energy devoted, in his own words, ‘seventeen hours a day to the study of Virgil and Horace,’ reading each of these authors six or seven times in succession. Obtaining a bursary at King's College, Old Aberdeen, he graduated there M.A., and afterwards studied medicine. Coming to London, he became a member of the College of Surgeons, 1 Dec. 1815, but, returning to Scotland, settled as a medical practitioner in the small village of Banchory Ternan, where he spent the remainder of his life. He received an honorary LL.D. from the university of Glasgow 6 Nov. 1846, and the degree of M.D., also honorary, from King's College, Aberdeen, 8 Nov. 1856. He died 26 Feb. 1861. Dr. Adams married the daughter of Mr. William Shaw, by whom he left a family. His second son was Andrew Leith Adams [q. v.]

Dr. Francis Adams combined in a remarkable manner the character of a busy country doctor and an indefatigable scholar. Through the whole of his life his fondness for classical and especially Greek literature amounted to a passion. Though unceasingly engaged in his profession, he found time to read ‘almost every Greek work which has come down to us from antiquity, except the ecclesiastical writers,’ and to produce some important works. In pure scholarship his chief works were ‘Hermes Philologus,’ on the difference between the Greek and Latin syntax, &c. (8vo, London, 1826); papers on Greek prosody, &c. in the ‘Classical Journal,’ and an appendix to Dunbar's ‘Greek Lexicon,’ containing valuable explanations of the Greek names of animals, plants, &c. It is understood that he had a large share in compiling the last edition of that lexicon, especially the English-Greek portion. He also published ‘Arundines Devæ,’ or poetical translations on a new principle, by a Scotch physician, 8vo, Edinburgh, 1853; and in early life a translation of ‘Hero and Leander’ from the Greek of Musæus, with other poems (Aberdeen, 1820).

But Adams's most important labours were in the subject of Greek medicine, a department of learning in which he effected more than had been done by any British scholar for nearly a century and a half. His attention was first drawn to the subject by a Dr. Kerr, of Aberdeen, whose library, after his death, Adams acquired, and made the foundation of his studies. In 1834 he published the first volume of a translation of Paulus Ægineta, but the publication was interrupted by the failure of the publisher. The scheme was afterwards taken up by the Sydenham Society of London, and the complete translation published in three volumes (‘The Seven Books of Paulus Ægineta, translated from the Greek, with a Commentary,’ Lond. 1844–7, 8vo). The translation is useful, as the only English one of the writer, but the chief value of the work resides in the commentary, which shows wide and accurate learning, and gives a fuller account of Greek and Roman medicine (to some extent of Arabian also) than is elsewhere accessible in English, or perhaps in any modern language. Considering the isolated position of the writer, remote from great libraries and immersed in professional work, it is a very remarkable performance. Adams afterwards prepared for the Sydenham Society an English translation of Hippocrates, comprising only the supposed ‘genuine’ works (‘The Genuine Works of Hippocrates, translated from the Greek,’ London, 1849, 2 vols. 8vo). This is valuable as the only complete English version, and the introduction and notes are important. He further brought out, under the auspices of the same society, an edition of Aretæus, the revised Greek text with an English translation. Both parts are valuable, and especially so considering the paucity of such works published in England (‘The Extant Works of Aretæus the Cappadocian, edited and translated by F. Adams,’ London, 1856, 8vo). This work, involving reference to important libraries, brought Adams into communication with many English and foreign scholars, and procured for him his honorary degree from Aberdeen.

Adams was regarded as a good practitioner and skilful operator. He showed his interest in his profession by frequent visits to the surgical wards of the Aberdeen infirmary. His medical writings consisted solely of memoirs, of which the most important were ‘On the Human Placenta’ (‘London Med. Gazette,’ 1848, &c.; reprinted Aberdeen 1858), ‘On Uterine Hæmorrhage,’ ‘On a Case of Dislocation of the Knee-joint,’ &c. These memoirs show, along with much learning, a strong tendency to paradox—e.g. Adams obstinately refused to believe that the sounds of the fœtal heart could be heard by auscultation. He was an excellent naturalist, being well versed in the botany and ornithology of Scotland, especially of Deeside.

After Adams's death a monument was erected to his memory at Banchory by public subscription. It is a granite obelisk, bearing a Latin inscription by Professor Geddes of Aberdeen. His bust in marble, by Brodie, is in the university of Aberdeen, having been presented by his son, Dr. Leith Adams.

Adams's reputation in his own special field of scholarship is very high. His translations are good and generally accurate, though not brilliant and not always elegant. His notes are less valuable for critical insight than for their richness in accessory learning. The achievement of so much good work, under such difficulties, cannot but be regarded as evidence of a very remarkable character.

Besides the works mentioned above, Adams wrote numerous papers and reviews in medical journals.

[Aberdeen Herald, 2 March 1861; Scotsman, 27 Feb. and 9 March 1861 (notice copied in Med. Times and Gazette, 1861, i. 292); MS. communications from family and other friends.]

J. F. P.