Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 01.djvu/305

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
Alison
Alison
291

controversy in biology, whether life precedes organisation, or is the result of organisation, and one not yet decided. But the vortex of dispute has drifted away from the standpoint of Alison, and it would be impossible here to discuss the bearings of his views on modern controversies. These topics, and inquiries arising out of them, occupied Alison's mind and pen for many years, during which time, and indeed during the whole tenure of his professorship of institutes of medicine, he made few contributions to practical medicine.

The record of his strictly professional life will he completed by saying that in 1842 he was promoted to be professor of the practice of medicine, and held this office till 1856. In 1844 he published a text-book, ‘Outlines of Pathology and Practice of Medicine,’ which was rather intended for his own students than for general use, and is not, among text-books of medicine, very noteworthy. He was appointed first physician to her majesty for Scotland, and in 1850 received the honorary degree of D.C.L. from the university of Oxford.

His academical position and his own personal qualities gradually won for him a very large practice, especially in consultation. He performed his hospital duties with the utmost conscientiousness, visiting his patients, when necessary, several times a day. He was, besides, incessantly engaged in literary and public work, especially in connection with that great philanthropic effort which we shall speak of later. By these unremitting labours, which only great bodily as well as mental energy could have rendered possible, he had established himself as the unquestioned head of the medical profession in Scotland, when he was seized with the first attack of the malady, epilepsy, to which he was subject for the rest of his life, and to which he ultimately succumbed.

In the winter session of 1855–6 he was two or three times attacked by fits while lecturing, and in 1856 he resigned his chair, and retired almost entirely from practice. In 1858, however, he presided at the meeting of the British Medical Association at Edinburgh, but died on 22 Sept. 1859, at Colenton, near Edinburgh.

During the thirty-six years that Dr. Alison was a professor in the university of Edinburgh his influence and success deserved a higher name than popularity. Several generations of students went away impressed by his devotion to duty and grandeur of character. Such were the qualities which led him to undertake the task by which, more than by professional success, his name will be known, that of ameliorating the condition of the poor in Scotland through a reform in the system of public relief.

From the beginning of his medical experience among the poor, Alison had been penetrated with a sense of the way in which poverty and unfavourable social conditions assisted in the spread of disease. The epidemic of cholera in 1831–32, and subsequent epidemics of fever, confirmed him in the belief of the momentous importance to national health of this question. In the years 1832–40 he thought he traced an increase in the prevalence and in the mortality of fevers, which was directly connected with the spread of pauperism, especially in great towns. To attack disease it was necessary first, he thought, to attack the conditions favouring disease. Imbued with these ideas it became to his philanthropic and conscientious nature a religious duty to express them, as he did, in the pamphlet, ‘Observations on the Management of the Poor in Scotland, and its Effects on the Health of the Great Towns’ (Edinburgh. 1840).

The system for the relief of the poor in Scotland at that time differed widely from that of England, in being almost entirely dependent on voluntary benevolence, no legal claim for relief being recognised except on the part of such persons as were actually disabled, and these claims being met in most cases only by voluntary contributions. There was also, it would seem, little or no provision for the occasional distress arising from vicissitudes of trade, famine, and the like. Alison, profoundly acquainted with the terrible destitution of the lower classes in Scotland, sought a remedy in some approach to the English system, involving a legal provision for the relief of the poor by assessment. The alteration had, indeed, been proposed before, but had been opposed by those who were tenacious of the Scotch system, and had been unfavourably reported on to the general assembly so lately as 1839. Alison's pamphlet, being virtually an attack on the Scotch poor-law system, excited vehement opposition. The principles advocated were opposed to the prevalent doctrines of political economy, and extremely distasteful to Scottish national feeling. Among other eminent persons, the Rev. Dr. Chalmers offered a vigorous opposition. But Alison, or the principles he advocated, gained a considerable if not complete success. After prolonged agitation a royal commission of inquiry was issued in 1844, on the report of which an act was passed in 1845 which embodied much of that for which Alison had contended. This victory was not gained without repeated efforts. The fever of 1843 furnished Alison with fresh proof of the con-

u 2