Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pitcairne, Archibald
PITCAIRNE, ARCHIBALD (1652–1713), physician and poet, was born in Edinburgh on 25 Dec. 1652. His father, Alexander Pitcairne, a merchant and magistrate of Edinburgh, claimed descent from the old family of Pitcairne, Fifeshire; and his mother, whose name was Sydserf, was connected with a family in Haddingtonshire descended from the Sydserfs of Rutlaw. After attending the school of Dalkeith, he in 1668 entered the university of Edinburgh, wherein 1671 he graduated M.A. The intention of his father was that he should study for the church, but ultimately he was permitted to enter on the study of the law, which he did, first in Edinburgh, and afterwards in Paris. At Paris he made the acquaintance of several medical students; and, becoming interested in their studies, began to attend the hospitals along with them. Returning to Edinburgh, he was induced by Dr. David Gregory (1661–1708) [q. v.], his intimate friend, to begin the study of mathematics, in which he acquired exceptional proficiency. His mathematical studies did not divert his attention from medicine, but his mathematical bent more or less influenced his medical theories and investigations. About 1675 he resumed his medical studies in Paris, and in August 1680 he obtained the degree of M.D. from the faculty of Rheims. Shortly afterwards he commenced practice as a physician in Edinburgh, and he was one of the original members of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, incorporated in 1681. When an attempt was made to found a medical school in the university of Edinburgh in 1685, Pitcairne and Dr. Halkett were chosen soon after the appointment of Sir Robert Sibbald [q. v.] (Lauder of Fountainhall, Historical Notices, p. 660), but it is supposed that Pitcairne never delivered any lectures.
In 1688 Pitcairne published, at Edinburgh, ‘Solutio Problematis de Historicis; seu de Inventoribus Dissertatio,’ of which an enlarged edition appeared at Leyden in 1693. This pamphlet, in which he vindicated the claims of Harvey to the discovery of the circulation of the blood, gained him so high reputation that in 1692 the council of the university of Leyden invited him to fill the chair of physic there. As his extreme Jacobite sympathies were proving somewhat prejudicial to his success in Edinburgh, he accepted the invitation, his inaugural lecture being delivered on 26 April. It was published, under the title ‘Oratio, qua ostenditur Medicinam ab omni philosophandi secta esse liberam,’ Leyden, 1692; Edinburgh, 1713. He also published, at Leyden, ‘De Sanguinis Circulatione in animalibus genitis et non genitis,’ 1693. At Leyden he delivered a course of lectures on the works of Bellini; but, according to Bayle, their abstruse and mathematical character detracted from their popularity (Œuvres, iv. 737). Partly, perhaps, on this account, as well as owing to the fact that the lady who was about to become his second wife was disinclined to settle at Leyden, he in 1693 resigned his chair there, and returned to Edinburgh.
Soon after his return to Edinburgh Pitcairne became involved in various medical controversies, the bitterness of which was as much owing to political as to scientific antipathies. In 1695 he was severely attacked in a volume entitled ‘Apollo Mathematicus, or the Art of curing Diseases by the Mathematics, a work both profitable and pleasant; to which is added a Discourse of Certainty according to the Principles of the same Author.’ The work was supposed to have been written by Dr. (afterwards Sir Edward) Eyzat. The same year there appeared ‘Tarrago unmasked, or an Answer to a late Pamphlet entitled “Apollo Mathematicus, by George Hepburn, M.D., and Member of the College at Edinburgh,” to which is added by Dr. Pitcairne “The Theory of the Internal Diseases of the Eye demonstrated mathematically.”’ For this pamphlet Dr. Hepburn, a pupil of Pitcairne, was suspended from the exercise of his right to sit and vote as a member of the College of Physicians. On 18 Nov. Pitcairne tendered a protest against the admission of certain fellows, including Dr. Eyzat, as having been irregularly elected; but on the 22nd the committee to whom the matter had been referred reported that the protestation given in and subscribed by Pitcairne was ‘a calumnious, scandalous, false and arrogant paper,’ and he was suspended ‘from voting in the college or sitting in any meeting thereof.’ Several others who had adhered to the protest of Pitcairne were also suspended. One object of this procedure was said to have been to influence the election of president for the ensuing year. Dr. Trotter was elected, but Pitcairne and his party withdrew to the house of Sir Alexander Stevenson, and there proceeded to elect Stevenson president. The quarrel led to the publication of a pamphlet entitled ‘Information for Dr. Archibald Pitcairne against the appointed Professor, or a Mathematical Demonstration that Liars should have good Memories, wherein the College of Physicians is vindicated from Calumnies,’ &c., 1696. Ultimately, however, an act of oblivion was passed on 4 June, and confirmed on the 11th and 12th, after which Pitcairne resumed his seat in the college.
On 2 Aug. 1699 Pitcairne received the degree of M.D. from the university of Aberdeen, and on 16 Oct. 1701 he was admitted a fellow of the College of Surgeons, Edinburgh. In 1695 he published at Edinburgh, ‘Dissertatio de Curatione Febrium, quæ per evacuationes instituitur;’ and in 1696, also at Edinburgh, ‘Dissertatio de Legibus Historiæ Naturalis.’ In 1701 his medical dissertations appeared at Rotterdam in one volume, under the title ‘Archibaldi Pitcarnii Scoti Dissertationes Medicæ,’ dedicated to Lorenzo Bellini, professor at Pisa, who had dedicated to him his ‘Opuscula.’ A new and enlarged edition appeared at Edinburgh in 1713, under the title ‘Archibaldi Pitcarnii Scoti Dissertationes Medicæ, quarum multæ nunc primum prodeunt. Subjuncta est Thomæ Boeri, M.D., ad Archibaldum Pitcarnium Epistola, qua respondetur libello Astrucii Franci.’
Chiefly on account of his mockery—often by somewhat indecorous jests—of the puritanical strictness of the presbyterian kirk, Pitcairne became strongly suspected of being at heart an atheist; a suspicion which, if verified, would have entailed on him social ostracism. His religious opinions seem to have differed considerably from those dominant in Scotland at that time; but, although accustomed to ridicule both the calvinism of the kirk and current notions as to the inspiration of scripture, he demurred to be classed as an unbeliever. ‘He was,’ says Wodrow, ‘a professed deist, and by many alleged to be an atheist, though he has frequently professed his belief of a God, and said he could not deny a providence. However, he was a great mocker at religion, and ridiculer of it. He keeped no public society for worship, and on the Sabbath had his set meeting for ridiculing of the scriptures and sermons’ (Analecta, ii. 255). He was the supposed author of an anonymous pamphlet, entitled ‘Epistola Archimedis ad regem Gelonem Albæ Græcæ, reperta anno æræ Christianæ 1688,’ which was made the subject of a lecture by Thomas Halyburton in 1710, published in 1713 at Edinburgh, under the title ‘Natural Religion insufficient and Revealed necessary.’ While at a book-sale, Pitcairne, commenting on the difficulty of obtaining offers for a certain copy of the scriptures, jocularly remarked that it was no wonder it remained on their hands, for ‘verbum Dei manet in æternum.’ On account of the jest he was denounced by a Mr. Webster as an atheist, whereupon he raised an action against his libeller in the court of session, but the matter was finally settled by an arrangement (ib. iii. 307). Pitcairne is the supposed author of ‘The Assembly, or Scotch Reformation: a Comedy as it was acted by the Persons in the Drama, done from the original Transcript written in the year 1692,’ London, 1722; and of ‘Babel, a satirical Poem, written originally in the Irish tongue, and translated into Scotch for the benefite of the Leidges, by A. P., a well-wisher to the Cause,’ 1692. Both are of some historical interest, from their witty, if occasionally ribald, satirical sketches of the leading Scottish divines of the period. His antipathy to the presbyterian ministers is partly to be traced to his strong Jacobite sympathies. In a private letter to a physician in London he made some unguarded remarks in reference to a petition for assembling a parliament, and, the letter having been intercepted, he was on 25 July 1700 brought before the council; but, on acknowledging his fault in writing the letter, which he said he had done in his cups, and without any design of ridiculing the government, he was absolved, after a reprimand from the lord chancellor.
Besides his satirical verses on the kirk, Pitcairne was the author of a considerable number of Latin verses, a selection from which was published by Thomas Ruddiman [q. v.] in a volume entitled ‘Selecta Poemata Archibaldi Pitcarnii et aliorum,’ Edinburgh, 1727. Apart from their intrinsic merit, the poems are of value from their contemporary allusions. Some of these have been explained in Irving's ‘Memoirs of Buchanan’ (App. No. xii), and by Lord Hales in the ‘Edinburgh Magazine and Review’ (i. 255). A collection of jeux d'esprit which Pitcairne occasionally printed for private circulation was made by Archibald Constable the publisher, but the collection cannot now be traced. In Donaldson's ‘Collection’ there is a poem by Pitcairne, under the assumed name of Walter Denestone, on ‘The King and Queen of Fairy,’ in two versions, Latin and English. His Latin epitaph on Graham of Claverhouse, viscount Dundee, was translated by Dryden (Works, ed. Scott, xi. 114), and Scott remarks regarding it that ‘it will hardly be disputed that the original is much superior to the translation, though the last be written by Dryden.’
Pitcairne died at Edinburgh on 20 Oct. 1713, and was buried in the Greyfriars churchyard, where there is a monument with a Latin inscription to his memory. By his first wife, Margaret, daughter of Colonel James Hay of Pitfour, he had a son and daughter, who died in infancy. By his second wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Archibald Stevenson, he had one son and four daughters. The son, before attaining his majority, engaged in the rebellion of 1715, and was confined in the Tower; but, through the intercession of Dr. Mead with Walpole, he obtained his release. He then entered the Dutch service, but died soon afterwards. The second daughter, Jane, married Alexander, fifth earl of Kellie.
Pitcairne was one of the most celebrated physicians of his time, and, on the whole, his merits equalled his reputation. He was a very successful practitioner, and acquired a large income, but spent his money freely, a considerable part of it in charity, and died poor. The statements as to his indulgence in drink are probably exaggerated, his convivial habits being at variance with the puritanism of the period. He succeeded in 1694 in persuading the town council to agree to his offer to wait without fee on the sick poor who were without relatives, on condition that he afterwards obtained their bodies for dissection. Although too much influenced by mechanical theories, he had no inconsiderable share in promoting the advancement of medical science, the popularity of his publications being enhanced by his literary style and power of clear exposition. His library, said to have been one of the best private collections of the period, was purchased after his death by the emperor of Russia. His portrait, by Medina, is in the College of Surgeons at Edinburgh. It has been engraved by Strange (cf. Bromley).
An English translation of Pitcairne's medical dissertations appeared in London in 1717, under the title ‘The whole Works of Dr. Archibald Pitcairne, published by himself; wherein are discovered the true Foundation and Principles of the Art of Physics, with Cases and Observations upon most Distempers and Medicines. Done from the Latin original by George Sewel, M.D., and J. S. Desaguliers, LL.D. and F.R.S., with some Additions.’ The same year there was also published at London ‘Archibaldi Pitcarnii, medici celeberrimi Scoto-Britanni, Elementa Medicinæ Physico-Mathematica, libris duobus, quorum prior Theoriam posterior Praxin exhibet’ (compiled from notes taken by his pupils). An edition was published at the Hague in 1718, and at Leyden in 1737, and an English translation at London in 1718 and 1727. A collection of all his Latin works, with the addition of a few poems, appeared under the title ‘Archibaldi Pitcarnii Opera omnia Medica,’ Venice, 1733; Leyden, 1737. An ‘Account of the Life and Writings of Dr. Pitcairne,’ by Charles Webster, M.D., was published at Edinburgh in 1781.[Webster's Account of Life and Writings, 1781; Wodrow's Analecta; Lauder of Fountainhall's Historical Notices (Bannatyne Club); Chalmers's Life of Ruddiman; Tytler's Life of Lord Kames; Cheyne's Essay of Health, 1724, pref. p. ii.; Biographia Britannica; Irving's Scottish Writers; Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen.]