Gairdner, John (DNB00)

GAIRDNER, JOHN, M.D. (1790–1876), eldest son of Captain Robert Gairdner of the Bengal artillery, was born at Mount Charles, near Ayr, on 18 Sept. 1790. When he was only five years old his father was killed by the kick of a horse, and the care of five sons and a daughter fell upon his widowed mother, who lived to see them all grow up, and was regarded by them with deep and reverent affection. He received his school education at Ayr academy, but, he and his brother William [q. v.] having chosen a professional career, his mother removed with her family to Edinburgh in 1808, and there he took his degree of M.D. in 1811. He spent the winter of 1812 in London, studying anatomy under Mr. (afterwards the celebrated Sir Charles) Bell, and in 1813 commenced practice in Edinburgh in partnership with Dr. Farquharson, one of the leading physicians there. In the same year he became a fellow of the College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, and four years later began to act as examiner for that body, a duty which he continued to discharge till within a few years of his death. He always took a most lively interest in the affairs of the college, of which, besides being for many years treasurer, he was president from 1830 to 1832. This appointment, occurring at that particular date, brought him into connection with politics more than he would otherwise have been drawn, for it gave him a seat in the unreformed town council of Edinburgh as ‘deacon of the chirurgeon barbers.’ The election for the parliament of 1831 was entirely in the hands of the town council, and Gairdner, being a staunch reformer, seconded the nomination of the popular candidate, Francis Jeffrey [q. v.], then lord advocate under Earl Grey's government. The majority of the council, however, disregarding the popular fervour and a monster petition presented to them in Jeffrey's favour, elected Mr. Dundas, and had immediately to consult their own personal safety by escaping through back streets, while an infuriated mob attacked the lord provost and threatened to throw him over the North Bridge. It required all the personal influence of Jeffrey himself and his supporters to keep the popular excitement from proceeding to worse extremities.

The reforms, however, in which Gairdner took a most efficient part were those connected with his profession. With the zealous co-operation of Mr. William Wood, a lifelong friend, though of an opposite school of politics, he powerfully aided a movement for obtaining for medical students for the degree at Edinburgh University the right to receive some part of their professional training from extra-academical lectures, a change which, instead of weakening the university, as was apprehended by some, has very greatly strengthened it in the country at large, as well as in the colonies. He also gave evidence before parliamentary committees in London on behalf of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons in regard to the efforts made for many years to secure by act of parliament a legal status for duly licensed practitioners of medicine and surgery extending throughout the three kingdoms, an object finally attained by the Medical Act of 1859. He contributed largely to the literature of his profession by many valuable and some very elaborate memoirs in the ‘Transactions of the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Edinburgh,’ and in the medical journals, extending down to only a year or two before his death. He also published independently two interesting lectures, the first on the history of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons, the second on the early history of the medical profession in Edinburgh. Historical subjects had always a great attraction for him, and as an aid to chronological research he published in his later years a ‘Calendar’ printed on cardboard, with a cardboard slide, for the verification of past or future dates as regards the correspondence of days of the week and month. He was also the author of some letters published anonymously at the time in the ‘Scotsman’ newspaper in answer to certain statements that had appeared elsewhere relative to the poet Burns and the society in which he moved. Gairdner's family ties and personal recollection of Ayrshire in his early days made him an important witness on this subject, and the letters were accordingly reprinted after his death and privately published, though still anonymously, in 1883, under the title ‘Burns and the Ayrshire Moderates.’

Gairdner's independence of mind and deep religious convictions led him to join a small body of unitarians at a time when that sect was very unpopular, especially in Scotland. There is no doubt that, although he had a fair professional practice, this step was a considerable bar to his progress, yet personally he was universally respected. He took an active part in the setting up of a new unitarian chapel in Edinburgh; but after many years, failing to find in that sect what he considered to be pure christianity and freedom, he returned once more to the church of Scotland. His revolt against the established religion in his youth had been mainly owing to the prevalence of a narrow Calvinism; but in his later years he was more inclined to look for breadth and freedom to national churches than to sects. He married in 1817 his cousin Susanna Tennant, a grand-daughter of Dr. William Dalrymple of Ayr [q. v.], whom he survived sixteen years. He died on 12 Dec. 1876, at the age of eighty-six, survived by three sons and two daughters. One of the former writes this notice.

[Scotsman newspaper, 14 Dec. 1876; Edinburgh Courant of same date; Caledonian Mercury, May 1831; personal recollection.]

J. G.