Whytt, Robert (DNB00)

WHYTT, ROBERT (1714–1766), president of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, second son of Robert Whytt of Bennochie, advocate, and Jean, daughter of Antony Murray of Woodend, Perthshire, was born in Edinburgh on 6 Sept. 1714, six months after his father's death. Having graduated M.A. at St. Andrews in 1730, he went to Edinburgh to study medicine. Two years before this he had succeeded, by the death of his elder brother George, to the family estate. Whytt devoted himself in particular to the study of anatomy under the first Monro. Proceeding to London in 1734, Whytt became a pupil of Cheselden, while he visited the wards of the London hospitals. After this he attended the lectures of Winslow in Paris, of Boerhaave and Albinus at Leyden. He took the degree of M.D. at Rheims on 2 April 1736. On 3 June 1737 a similar degree was conferred on him by the university of St. Andrews, and on 21 June he became a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. On 27 Nov. 1738 he was elected to the fellowship, and commenced practice as a physician.

In 1743 Whytt published a paper in the ‘Edinburgh Medical Essays’ entitled ‘On the Virtues of Lime-Water in the Cure of Stone.’ This paper attracted much attention, and was published, with additions, separately in 1752, and ran through several editions. It also appeared in French and German. Whytt's treatment of the stone by limewater and soap is now exploded.

On 26 Aug. 1747 Whytt was appointed professor of the theory of medicine in Edinburgh University. In 1751 he published a work ‘On the Vital and other Involuntary Motions of Animals.’ The book attracted the attention of the physiologists of Europe. Whytt ‘threw aside the doctrine of Stahl that the rational soul is the cause of all involuntary motions in animals,’ and ascribed such movements to ‘the effect of a stimulus acting on an unconscious sentient principle.’ He had a vigorous controversy with Haller on the subject of this work.

On 16 April 1752 Whytt was elected F.R.S. London, to the ‘Transactions’ of which he contributed several papers. In 1756 he gave lectures on chemistry in the university in place of John Rutherford (1695–1779) [q. v.] In 1764 he published his greatest book, ‘On Nervous, Hypochondriac, or Hysteric Diseases, to which are prefixed some Remarks on the Sympathy of the Nerves.’ This work was also translated into French by Achille Guillaume Le Bègue de Presle in 1767. In 1761 Whytt was made first physician to the king in Scotland—‘a post specially created for him’—and on 1 Dec. 1763 he was elected president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh; he held the presidency till his death at Edinburgh on 15 April 1766. His remains were accorded a public funeral, and were interred in Old Greyfriars churchyard. He was twice married. His first wife, Helen, sister of James Robertson (1720?–1788) [q. v.], governor of New York, died in 1741, leaving no children. In 1743 he married Louisa, daughter of James Balfour of Pilrig in Midlothian, who died in 1764. By his second wife Whytt had six surviving children.

Besides the works mentioned, Whytt was the author of:

  1. ‘An Essay on the Virtue of Lime-Water in the Cure of the Stone,’ Edinburgh, 1752, 12mo; 3rd edit. Dublin, 1762, 12mo.
  2. ‘Physiological Essays,’ Edinburgh, 1755, 12mo; 3rd edit. 1766, 12mo.
  3. ‘Observations on the Dropsy of the Brain,’ Edinburgh, 1768, 4to.

An edition of his ‘Works’ was issued by his son in 1768, and was translated into German by Christian Ehrhardt Kapp in 1771 (Leipzig, 8vo). A complete list of his detached papers will be found in Watt's ‘Bibliotheca Britannica.’

Whytt's son John, who changed his name to Whyte, became heir to the entailed estates of General Melville of Strathkinness, and took the name of Melville in addition to his own. He was grandfather of Captain George John Whyte-Melville [q. v.]

[Life and Writings of Robert Whytt, M.D., by William Seller, M.D., in Trans. of Royal Soc. of Edinb., xxiii. 99–131 (which obtained the Macdougall Brisbane Prize); Grant's Story of the University of Edinburgh, ii. 401–2; Anderson's Scottish Nation; Scots Mag. 1766, p. 223; Brown's Epitaphs in Greyfriars Churchyard; Burke's Landed Gentry, 1868; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Wood's Hist. of Royal Coll. of Phys. Edinb.]

G. S-h.