Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Douglas, James (1675-1742)

DOUGLAS, JAMES, M.D. (1675–1742), physician, was born in Scotland in 1675, graduated M.D. at Rheims, and settled in London about 1700. He soon attained reputation as an anatomist, and was elected F.R.S. 4 Dec. 1706. He practised midwifery, and was admitted an honorary fellow of the College of Physicians 26 June 1721. He first lived in Bow Lane, Cheapside, but ultimately settled in Red Lion Square. He was throughout life a laborious student of everything relating to his profession, but was most distinguished as an anatomist. He was continually engaged in dissection, and was occasionally permitted to make a post-mortem examination at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, though never a member of the staff (Phil. Trans. 1716, No. 345). His first publication was ‘Myographiæ Comparatæ Specimen, or a Comparative Description of all the Muscles in a Man and in a Quadruped; added is an account of the Muscles peculiar to a Woman,’ London, 1707. It shows an extensive acquaintance with comparative anatomy. This was associated with a love for natural history in general, and in 1716 (ib. No. 350) he published an account of the flamingo. Between these works he had read before the Royal Society three papers on morbid anatomy, ‘On a Tumour of the Neck’ (ib. vol. xxv.), ‘On Ovarian Dropsy’ (ib.), and ‘On an Ulceration of the Right Kidney’ (ib. vol. xxvii.). In 1715 he published a general bibliography of anatomy, a work requiring extraordinary industry, and published for use without any attempt on the author's part to take credit to himself. It is entitled ‘Bibliographiæ Anatomicæ Specimen, sive Catalogus omnium pene Auctorum qui ab Hippocrate ad Harveium rem Anatomicam ex professo vel obiter scriptis illustrarunt, opera singulorum et inventa juxta temporum seriem complectens.’ In 1716 he published three papers in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ (vol. xxix.), on glands in the spleen, on fracture of the upper part of the thigh-bone, and on a case of hypertrophy of the heart. In the paper on the spleen he described accurately the condition elucidated in our own time by Virchow as amyloid degeneration of the Malpighian bodies; though, of course, without appreciating its true pathological nature. In that on the heart it is clear that he actually heard in a ward of St. Bartholomew's Hospital the murmur produced by disease of the aortic valves, and needed but one more step forward to have anticipated the discovery of auscultation by Laennec. Both papers show how acute an observer Douglas was.

He had begun his anatomical studies on the widest possible basis, and had first, by repeated dissection, made himself thoroughly acquainted with all forms of normal structure and all books about them. He next devoted himself to the study of the anatomy of disease, and his latest works were directed to points of anatomy bearing directly on questions of medical and surgical practice. His brother John, who practised surgery in London, had revived the high operation for stone in the bladder, and in connection with this and with the question of tapping in dropsy Douglas investigates the difficult subject of the arrangement of the peritoneum in relation to the several viscera of the abdomen. His ‘Description of the Peritoneum and of the Membrana Cellularis which is on its outside,’ beautifully printed by Roberts, in the medical region of Warwick Lane, is dedicated to Dr. Mead, who had reintroduced the custom of tapping the peritoneum in dropsy of the abdomen. Douglas instituted the method of demonstrating the relations of the peritoneum by removing it as a whole with the contained viscera from the body. He describes a particular fold which always goes by his name: ‘where the peritonæum leaves the foreside of the rectum, it makes an angle and changes its course upwards and forwards over the bladder; and a little above this angle there is a remarkable transverse stricture or semi-oval fold of the peritonæum which I have constantly observed for many years past, especially in women’ (Description, p. 37). Douglas supported all his statements by carefully dissected anatomical preparations which he preserved in his house and allowed any one to see. Freind, writing at the time, says of them (History of Physick, 1725, i. 172): ‘One ought to see the curious preparations of that diligent and accurate anatomist, Dr. Douglas, who is the first who has given us any true idea of the peritonæum.’

As part of the same subject he published a paper ‘On the New Lithotomy’ in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ (vol. xxxii.), and in 1726, with an enlarged edition in 1731, ‘The History of the Lateral Operation for the Stone.’ In this the author mentions that he had in his house a complete collection of preparations showing every possible surgical method of reaching the interior of the human bladder, and the advantages and inconveniences of each method, so far as these depend on the structure of the parts.

In 1726 Douglas took part in the exposure of the imposture of Mary Tofts, who professed to give birth to rabbits at Guildford. He visited the woman, demonstrated the fraud at once, and issued his observations in 1726 as ‘An Advertisement occasioned by some passages in Sir R. Manningham's Diary, lately published.’ He was interested in botany, and besides papers ‘On the Flower of Crocus Autumnalis’ (‘Phil. Trans.’ vol. xxxii.), ‘On Saffron Culture in England’ (ib. vol. xxxv.), ‘On the Kinds of Ipecacuanha’ (ib. vol. xxxvi.), and on ‘Cinchona’ (ib. vol. xxxvii.), published two folio botanical books, ‘Lilium Sarniense, or a Description of the Guernsey Lily,’ London, 1725; and ‘Arbor Yemensis fructum Cofé ferens,’ London, 1727. Besides giving a full botanical description of the coffee plant, this book contains an account of the growth of the use of coffee as a beverage in England from its introduction in the time of Charles I. Anatomy (human, comparative, and pathological), botany, and the practice of his profession, which was large, as he was physician to the queen, were not sufficient to exhaust the energy of this laborious physician. He collected editions of Horace and published in 1739 ‘Catalogus editionum Horatii,’ which enumerates all the editions in his library from that of 1476 to 1739. Pope mentions this characteristic of his library in a note to a couplet (Dunciad, book iv. 393), in which the physician is named:—

There all the learn'd shall at the labour stand,
And Douglas lend his soft obstetric hand.

Douglas's ‘Catalogus’ contains a text of the first ode printed from a fourteenth-century manuscript in Douglas's possession, with the text of the ‘editio princeps,’ the latest amended version, and a very flat translation by the editor in English verse. A long series of critical notes follows.

He died in Red Lion Square, and was buried in the church of St. Andrew, Holborn, 9 April 1742. Douglas's name is mentioned nearly every day in English schools of medicine in connection with the fold of peritoneum first described by him. No full account of his work has before been published, and when the first living authority on midwifery in London, the latest writer on the anatomy of the peritoneum, and two of the best known teachers of human anatomy, were lately asked where his description of the peritoneum was to be found, none knew, nor whether it was he or his brother, the surgeon, whom they daily commemorated.

[Munk's Coll. of Phys. ii. 77; Freind's Hist. of Physick, 1725; Works.]

N. M.