Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Abercrombie, John (1780-1844)

ABERCROMBIE, JOHN, M.D. (1780–1844), physician, was the only son of the Rev. George Abercrombie, one of the parish ministers of Aberdeen. He was born on 10 Oct. 1780, in Aberdeen, where, at the grammar school and at Marischal College, he received his early education. In 1800 he went to Edinburgh to study medicine, and took his degree there in 1803. The mental aspects of medical science seem already to have attracted him, his inaugural address being ‘De Fatuitate Alpinâ,’ a subject to which he recurred in his work on the intellectual powers. He spent about a year in London in further study at St. George's Hospital, and soon after his return to Edinburgh in 1804 began to practise. From the outset of his career his fellow-citizens recognised in him a man of boundless energy and of generous public spirit. Becoming connected with the public dispensary, he gradually gained an intimate knowledge of the moral and physical condition of the poor, and found opportunities for the exercise of those habits of close and accurate observation which were already formed in himself, and which throughout his life he strove to teach to others. He did much to train the medical students of his time. It is recorded as part of his system that he divided the poorer quarters of Edinburgh into districts, and allotted them to different students, himself maintaining a supervision of the whole. Meanwhile he kept with scrupulous care a record of every case of scientific interest that came before him. The results of his observations appeared in a series of papers on pathological subjects, contributed chiefly to the ‘Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal’ from 1816 to 1824. From these papers were elaborated his two chief works on pathology, published in 1828, in which his aim was rather to group together well-tested facts than to theorise. On the death of Dr. James Gregory in 1821, Abercrombie, whose professional reputation stood very high, immediately became one of the chief consulting physicians in Scotland. He failed, however, in his application for Dr. Gregory's chair of the practice of medicine. In 1823 he was made a licentiate, and in 1824 a fellow, of the College of Physicians, and he received the complimentary appointment of physician in ordinary to the king in Scotland. About this time he began the works with which his name has been chiefly associated. Like Dr. Gregory, the friend of Reid, he was led away from science to metaphysics, through a belief that his wide knowledge of nervous diseases enabled him to throw light on mental problems. In 1830 he published a work on the intellectual powers and the application of logical methods to science, followed three years afterwards by another and shorter work on the moral feelings. Both books acquired an instant popularity, which even now has scarcely died away. Immediately after their first publication they were brought out in America. Within ten years there appeared ten English editions of the ‘Intellectual Powers,’ and in 1860 it was still in such favour that it was introduced as a text-book in the Calcutta University. The causes of this popularity were, no doubt, partly the numerous cases set forth of peculiar mental phenomena, whose detailed record made a dry subject easy and entertaining reading, and partly the pious and practical tone in which the books were written, rendering them acceptable for educational purposes. They have now no philosophical value. Abercrombie's theory of the mind is such as might be expected from a thinker of little originality, who was acquainted with the works of Reid, Brown, and Stewart, and who studiously kept himself from bold speculation as from a thing savouring of impiety. The facts which formed his own contribution to the subject are very rudely classified, and are subjected to the most superficial analysis. Lord Cockburn no doubt referred to the ‘Intellectual Powers’ and the ‘Moral Feelings,’ when he said that Dr. Abercrombie's ‘fame would perhaps have stood higher had he published fewer books.’ During his later years he wrote little besides a few popular essays, which were collected after his death. In 1835 the degree of doctor of medicine was conferred upon him by Oxford. In the following year the students of Marischal College elected him their lord rector. Before the disruption he hesitated long as to the course which he should take, but he finally decided to quit the established church. He died very suddenly on 14 Nov. 1844, of a somewhat exceptional disease of the heart, a full account of which is given in the ‘Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal,’ lxiii. 225. The report, drawn up by Dr. Adam Hunter, states that Abercrombie's brain weighed 63 oz., being only a little less than the weight of Cuvier's.

A list of his early papers is given in Raige-Delorme and Dechambre's ‘Dict. Encycl. des sciences médicales.’ His principal works were the following: 1. ‘Pathological and Practical Researches on Diseases of the Brain and Spinal Cord,’ Edinburgh, 1828; 2nd edition, enlarged, 1829. 2. ‘Pathological and Practical Researches on Diseases of the Stomach, the Intestinal Canal, the Liver, and the other Viscera of the Abdomen.’ Edinburgh, 1828. 3. ‘Inquiries concerning the Intellectual Powers and the Investigation of Truth,’ Edinburgh, 1830. 4. ‘The Philosophy of the Moral Feelings,’ London, 1833. 5. A collected edition of ‘Essays and Tracts,’ chiefly on moral and religious subjects, Edinburgh, 1847.

In ‘Hogg's Instructor,’ iii. 145, will be found a portrait of Dr. Abercrombie, and in the ‘Scottish Nation,’ i. 3, a woodcut of the medallion on his monument in the West Churchyard, Edinburgh.

[Edin. Med. and Surg. Journal, lxiii. 225; Witness, 23 Nov. 1844; Rev. J. Bruce's Funeral Sermon; Anderson's Scottish Nation, i. 3; Hogg's Instructor, iii. 145; Lobb's Abercrombie as a Text Book in the Calcutta University; Cockburn's Journal, ii. 203–4.]

G. P. M.