Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Baillie, Matthew
BAILLIE, MATTHEW (1761–1823), morbid anatomist, was born at Shots, Lanarkshire, on 27 Oct. 1761. His father (James) was the minister of the parish, and was afterwards professor of divinity at Glasgow. His mother (Dorothea) was a sister of the great anatomists, William and John Hunter. Joanna, the poetess, was Matthew's sister. Baillie went to the grammar school of Hamilton, and thence to the university of Glasgow. On the advice of Dr. William Hunter he chose medicine as his profession. He came to London at the age of eighteen, and lived in William Hunter's house. Baillie entered at Balliol College, Oxford, and worked hard there at the studies of the place; but his more valuable education was carried on in Windmill Street in the vacations. A lecture-theatre and museum adjoined Dr. William Hunter's house, and in them Baillie attended public lectures, which his uncle supplemented by instruction whenever he and his nephew were together. He taught Matthew how to observe, communicated to him his own love of science, and set him an example of lucid exposition. In two years Dr. William Hunter died, and left theatre and house to his nephew. The museum was ultimately to go to Glasgow, where it now is, but its present use was left to Matthew, and so was a family estate in Scotland. This Baillie honourably handed over to his uncle, John Hunter, as the natural heir. No man could have had a more foitunate introduction to medicine, and Baillie showed that he understood his advantages. He began to lecture, and turned his attention in Particular to every kind of diseased structure, In 1787, being M.B., he was elected physician to St. George's Hospital, and in 1789 took his M.D. degree, and became a fellow of the College of Physicians. Somewhat later he was elected F.R.S. His first publication appeared in 1794, and was an edition of a treatise on the 'Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus,' which Dr. William Hunter had left in manuscript. In 1795 Baillie published 'The Morbid Anatomy of some of the most important Parts of the Human Body,' the work on which his fame rests. It was the first book on the subject in English, and excelled any of the previous Latin treatises in lucidity. Morgagni's 'De Sedibus et Causis Morborum,' the work which may be regarded as the foundation of the study of diseased structures and organs, is long, intricate, and difficult of reference. Morgagni's method, which is also that of the other predecessors of Baillie, is to state in full the history and symptoms of cases, with a minute account of all the appearances found on opening the body after death. Baillie's was the first book in which morbid anatomy was treated as a subject by itself. He followed the plan of treatises on normal anatomy, going through the morbid appearances of each organ. This system, without any loss of exactitude, enabled him to set forth a great collection of observations in a few words. What was common was confirmed by the statement of many observations, without wasting space on the details of each; and what was rare was placed near the more frequent conditions to which it was related. The great majority of the observations are Baillie's own, some made in his examinations of bodies, others in the specimens preserved by his uncles, William and John Himter. He sometimes mentions the descriptions of Morgagni, of Lieutaud, and of a few of his own contemporaries; but he does so to fill up gaps in his own series, and does not profess to reduce into order the mass of details contained in their pages. His work is limited to the thoracic and abdominal organs and the brain. He leaves untouched the morbid changes observable in the skeleton, muscles, nerves, and spinal cord. A short paper ('Observations on Paraplegia,' 1822), published elsewhere, shows that he had begun to pay attention to diseases of the spinal cord, of which very little was then known, but that he had not advanced far into the subject. The pathology, or explanation of morbid appearances, necessarily changes with the advance of knowledge, but accurate descriptions of them never become obsolete or useless. Baillie shows remarkable acuteness in perceiving the uncertainty of the pathology of his time. He restricts himself to precise descriptions of what he had seen, and little is to be found in his pages which is not of permanent value. He was the first to define exactly the condition of the liver now known as cirrhosis, and to distinguish the common renal cysts from the rare cysts of parasitic hydatids of the kidney. He demolished the prevalent opinion, that death was often due to a growth in the heart, and showed that the polypus, as it was called, was in reality a mass of coagulated fibrin formed after death. He described simple ulcer of the stomach and the ulcers of typhoid fever, though the full meaning of these appearances was not made out till some years after his death. The book was dedicated to his friend. Dr. David Pitcairn, whose fatal illness and autopsy a few years later gave Baillie the opportunity of describing a morbid condition before unknown. Two additions were afterwards made to the book. In 1797 a few notes were added on the anatomy found in relation to particular symptoms, and in 1799 a fine series of engravings by Mr. Clift. Baillie's practice soon began to increase, and in 1799 was so great that he resigned his post of physician at St. George's Hospital and gave up lecturing. He went to live in Grosvenor Street, and became physican extraordinary to George III. From this time forth his labours were only useful to his own generation. He was not of a robust constitution, and his health was ruined by a practice beyond his strength. For several years he saw patients or wrote letters for sixteen hours a day, and after a few years he ceased to enjoy an annual holiday. In consultation he was famed, for the clearness with which he expressed his opinion in simple terms. He despised every way of obtaining professional eminence except that of superior knowledge, and while he treated the opinions of others with consideration was firm in his own. There are many proofs of his kindness to patients, but he sometimes gave sharp replies to foolish questions when suffering from the irritation of overwork.
He married Sophia, daughter of Dr. Denman and sister of the law lord, and he left two children. During the period of his great practice Baillie made a few contributions to clinical medicine. These, and some others which he left unpublished, are to be found in the collected edition of his works ('The Works of Matthew Baillie, M.D.,' to which is prefixed an Account of his Life by James Wardrop, 2 vols., London, 1825). They are not of the same value as his morbid anatomy, for he had no time to think out the general results of his bedside observations. In a short essay on 'Pulsation of the Aorta in the Epigastrium,' he was the first to show that this symptom is often present without any internal structural change.
Baillie died of phthisis on 23 Sept. 1823. He bequeathed his collection of specimens of morbid anatomy, of books and of drawings, to the College of Physicians with a sum of money. The gold-headed cane which Baillie had received from Dr. David Pitcairn, to whom it had descended through William Pitcairn, Askew, and Mead from Radclifte (The Gold-headed Cane, London, 1827, and new edition by Dr. Munk, 1884), was presented by Baillie's widow to the College of Physicians, and is there preserved, with the arms of its successive possessors engraved upon it. Baillie died at his country house, and was buried in the parish church of Duntisbourne, Gloucestershire, and he is commemorated in Westminster Abbey by a bust and inscription,
[Collected Works; Lectures and Observations on Medicine by the late Matthew Baillie, M.D., privately printed, 1825.]