Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Watt, Robert

WATT, ROBERT (1774–1819), bibliographer, son of John Watt (d. 1810), was born at Bonnyton farm in the parish of Stewarton, Ayrshire, on 1 May 1774. At an early age he was sent to school, but when about thirteen worked as a ploughboy to a neighbouring farmer. A love of adventure gave him the desire to be a chapman. With some others he made a trip into Galloway to work on stone-dyking and road-making. At Dumfries they boarded on the farm of Ellisland, in the possession of Robert Burns, and lived for some days in the old house which he and his family had recently occupied. ‘During the summer I spent in Dumfriesshire I had frequent opportunities of seeing Burns, but cannot recollect of having formed any opinion of him, except a confused idea that he was an extraordinary character’ (Autobiographical Fragment in Biographical Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen, 1856, p. 433). Even while carting stones he found opportunities for reading. His elder brother, John, who had been a cabinet-maker in Glasgow, returned home and persuaded Watt to join him in business as carpenter and joiner. His devotion to study became stronger, and young Watt in October or November 1792, having been prepared by an hour's tuition each morning in Greek and Latin by Duncan Macfarlane, schoolmaster in Stewarton, entered the classes for those languages at Glasgow University in 1793, and for the Greek and logic classes the following year. He gained a prize bestowed by Professor John Young (d. 1820) [q. v.] for Greek, and in 1795 and 1796 attended the moral and natural philosophy classes at Edinburgh. During the summer recesses he supported himself by teaching, and in 1796 had a school in Kilmaurs parish, where he became acquainted with the Rev. John Russel [q. v.] of Kilmarnock—Burns's ‘Rumble John.’ In 1796 and 1797 he studied anatomy and divinity at Edinburgh, and obtained a prize of 10l. for an essay on ‘Regeneration,’ highly praised by Professor Hunter. He acted as parochial schoolmaster in Symington, near Kilmarnock, in 1797 and 1798, but resolved to give up the study of divinity for that of medicine, which he followed at Glasgow in 1798 and 1799. He was not, however, apprenticed to a surgeon, although Peter Mackenzie states that in 1793 Watt ‘got into the apothecary shop of old Moses Gardner’ in Glasgow (Reminiscences, vol. iii.).

Having secured the license of the Glasgow Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons on 6 April 1799, Watt commenced as a general practitioner at Paisley, contributed to the ‘Medical and Physical Journal’ (London, March and August 1800, and May 1801), and published his first book, ‘Cases of Diabetes, Consumption, &c., with Observations on the History and Treatment of Disease in general’ (Paisley, 1808, 8vo), a work long held in esteem. His practice and reputation increased, and he became a ‘member’ of the Glasgow faculty on 5 Jan. 1807. Two years later he journeyed south to see if he could find a suitable opening in England. He received the degree of M.D. from King's College, Aberdeen, on 20 March 1810, took a large house in Queen Street, Glasgow, practised as a physician, and delivered courses of lectures on medicine. His system of teaching was ‘to have recourse to original authors,’ and he established a well-chosen library, described in a ‘Catalogue of Medical Books for the use of Students attending Lectures on the Principles and Practice of Medicine; with an Address to Medical Students on the best Method of prosecuting their Studies’ (Glasgow, 1812, 8vo), now extremely rare, and specially interesting as the starting point of the famous ‘Bibliotheca Britannica,’ the plan for which had been developing from the time he matriculated in 1793. The ‘Catalogue’ includes over a thousand entries; ancient and modern literature are well represented. He also had a collection of a thousand theses available for reference, and ‘manuscript catalogues, arranged alphabetically according to the authors' names and the subjects treated, may be seen in the library, and will be printed as soon as the collection is completed.’ He made some progress in the formation of a pathological museum.

In 1813 he published ‘A Treatise on the History, Nature, and Treatment of Chin-cough, including a Variety of Cases and Dissections; to which is subjoined an Inquiry into the relative Mortality of the principal Diseases of Children and the numbers who have died under ten years of age in Glasgow during the last thirty years,’ Glasgow, 8vo. The ‘Inquiry’ was the fruit of a laborious investigation of the registers of the Glasgow burial-places, and suggested that the diminution in deaths by smallpox due to vaccination was compensated by the increase in deaths by measles (cf. Baron, Life of Jenner, ii. 392; Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, April 1814, p. 177; Sir Gilbert Blane in Medical and Chirurgical Trans. of London, 1813, iv. 468; Dr. Farr in Registrar-General's Report, 1867 pp. 213–14, 1872 p. 224, and his Vital Statistics, 1885, pp. 321–2). Watt's tables were reproduced by John Thomson, Glasgow, 1888 (see W. White, Story of a Great Delusion, 1885, pp. 439–52; J. McVail, Vaccination Vindicated, 1887, p. 161; Creighton, History of Epidemics, 1894, ii. 652–60).

Watt published anonymously at Edinburgh in 1814 a small octavo volume entitled ‘Rules of Life, with Reflections on the Manners and Dispositions of Mankind,’ containing a thousand and one aphorisms. At this period he was leading a very active professional life. He was a member of the Medical and Chirurgical Society of London, and contributed papers to that body; he was a founder and first president of the Glasgow Medical Society; and in 1814 was elected president of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons, and physician to the Royal Infirmary of Glasgow. From 1816 to 1817 he was president of the Glasgow Philosophical Society. But the continuous labour of preparing the ‘Bibliotheca’ impaired his health, and he withdrew from practice about the beginning of 1817. He retired to Campvale, a suburb of Glasgow, where he remained until his death. In the compilation of the ‘Bibliotheca,’ which he directed from a sick bed, he was assisted by his sons John and James, William Motherwell [q. v.], and Alexander Whitelaw. A sea voyage to London and a tour in England failed to restore his vigour. ‘Proposals’ for the publication of the work by subscription were circulated; the first part was advertised on 1 Dec. 1818 as ready to be issued in February 1819, but Watt ‘died when only a few of its sheets were printed off’ (Preface, p. v), on 12 March 1819 (Glasgow Herald, 22 March 1819).

He married Marion Burns (d. 1856), who bore him nine children, of whom John, the eldest, died in 1821, and James in 1829, both, like their father, victims to their devotion to bibliography. A daughter is said to have died in the workhouse at Glasgow in 1864 (London Reader, 28 May 1864).

Two portraits of Watt are preserved in the hall of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons at Glasgow, one as a young man; the other, in mature age, is said to be painted by Raeburn. A third portrait, of a date between the two, was exhibited at the Old Glasgow Exhibition in 1894. Watt was a tall and handsome man, and very robust in early life.

A month after Watt's death Dr. Thomas Chalmers [q. v.] and some others issued a circular to assure the subscribers that the manuscript of the ‘Bibliotheca’ had been left by the author in an advanced state of readiness, and that his son would see it through the press. The work was finally completed in 1824, under the title of ‘Bibliotheca Britannica; or a general Index to British and Foreign Literature, by Robert Watt, M.D. In two parts, Authors and Subjects’ (Edinburgh, 4 vols. 4to). It came out in parts, of which Nos. 1 to 4 had the imprint of Glasgow, 1819–20, and 5 to 9 that of Edinburgh, 1821–4. The publication brought nothing but evil fortune to the Watt family. The author and his two sons were killed by it, and the Constables failed before they paid to Mrs. Watt a sum of 2,000l. which had been agreed upon for the compilation. Watt was ‘a practitioner of great sagacity and a philosophical professor of medicine’ (Farr in Reg.-Gen. Report, 1867, p. 214), but it is as a bibliographer that his fame will live. His industry and perseverance under difficulties were remarkable. The plan of a catalogue of authors, followed by an index of subjects, grew from the arrangement of his own medical collection; he enlarged this to include all medical works published in England, then to law and other subjects, and finally to foreign and classical literature. Articles from periodicals and the productions of famous printing presses were also included. In spite of many imperfections and the increase of modern requirements, the book is still one of the handiest tools of the librarian and bibliographer. After the death of Watt's last surviving daughter in 1864 the original manuscript was discovered, consisting of two large sacks full of slips. It is now preserved in the free library at Paisley, arranged in sixty-nine volumes.

[The chief sources of information are Dr. James Finlayson's Account of the Life and Works of Dr. Robert Watt, 1897, 8vo (with a portrait and bibliography); Dr. Finlayson's Medical Bibliography and Medical Education; Dr. Robert Watt's Library for his Medical Students in 1812 (Edinb. Medical Journal, October 1898). See also Chambers's Biogr. Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, Glasgow, 1855–6, 4 vols. 4to (with autobiographical fragment not in 1870 edition, which, however, contains some family information); Macfarlane's Parish of Stewarton (New Statistical Account of Scotland, Edinb. 1845, v. 730–1); Duncan's Memorials of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, 1896; Allibone's Dict. of English Lit.; Mackenzie's Old Reminiscences of Glasgow, iii. 633–640; Mason's Bibliographical Martyr (The Library, 1889, i. 56–63); Proc. of the Philosophical Soc. of Glasgow, 1860, iv. 101–17; Memorial Cat. of the Old Glasgow Exhib. 1894, Glasgow, 1896.]

H. R. T.