Contact us

Andrew Plummer (1697-1756)

by W. P. Doyle

Andrew Plummer

Andrew Plummer was of Borders stock, his paternal grandfather being Andrew Plummer of Middlestead in Selkirkshire. His father Gavin Plummer was apprenticed to an Edinburgh merchant and, on the latter's death, became a burgess and guild-brother of Edinburgh. Gavin Plummer married Elisabeth Clark, whose father had been a bailie (a town councillor serving as a magistrate). They had four children within four years, Joannet, Elisabeth, Andrew, born on 23 September 1697, and Jean. Gavin Plummer was a fairly prosperous merchant and was elected a Merchant Councillor in 1707 and served as Treasurer to the Town Council in 1708 and 1709. His civic spirit extended to the adjoining Burgh of Canongate which in 1703 made him a Burgess "for most generous and good deeds done by him to the burgh".

Andrew Plummer attended the Arts curriculum of the University of Edinburgh from 1712 to 1717 but did not graduate, graduation in Arts having almost ceased early in the eighteenth century. Plummer matriculated in the University of Leyden on 5 September 1720, and the register of the University of Leyden for 1721 includes the names of Andrew Plummer, Andrew St. Clair and John Innes all of whom were elected professors of medicine at Edinburgh in 1726; while in Leyden Plummer and St. Clair lodged together for a time.1 Plummer graduated M.D. at Leyden on 23 July 1722. His graduation thesis, entitled 'de phthisi pulmonali a catarrho orto', was dedicated to John, Duke of Roxburgh; such dedications were usually either acknowledgements of thanks for help to the student or tokens of respect. He returned to Scotland and on 25 February 1724 he passed the Licentiate examination of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, this qualification being essential in order to practice medicine in Edinburgh and its environs. On 3 November 1724, he, together with Andrew St. Clair, John Innes and John Rutherford, was elected a Fellow of the Royal College.

The story of the founding of the Medical School in the University of Edinburgh in 1726 by the simultaneous appointments of Plummer, Rutherford, St. Clair and Innes as Professors of Medicine has been told often. Here the preliminary steps, and the foundation and the development of the Medical School are described primarily through the changing nature of newspaper advertisements relating to the teaching of medicine; at this period advertisements in the Edinburgh newspapers were the common means of publishing both University and non-University courses, other than the courses of the Arts curriculum, and often give information not found in other sources. The necessity of advertising is illustrated by James Craig, appointed Professor of Civil Law in 1710, who advertised his lectures in several successive issues of the Edinburgh newspapers in each of the years from 1710 to 1723 in which year his advertisement concluded:

"and these stated Times of Mr. Craig's beginning his Colleges, being now so often advertis'd. Tis presum'd they are sufficiently known; therefor no Intimation of this kind is to be expected hereafter",2

in 1724 there is a single advertisement on 20 October, approximately the final date of Craig's series of advertisements in previous years:

"Mr. Craig, Professor of Law at Edinburgh, thinks fit once more to advertise, That the stated Times of opening his Colleges, are the first Tuesdays of November and March"2

and in subsequent years he reverted to advertising several times in each year; clearly the enrolment in 1724 showed that even Craig's well-established course needed to be advertised annually.

Plummer's father died in the early 1720s and in April 1724, Plummer was declared his lawful heir; in the author's view, the capital thus acquired by Plummer was an important factor hitherto overlooked in making possible subsequent developments. Also, by right of his father, on the latter's death he became a burgess and guild-brother of Edinburgh.

In 1724, beginning on 29 September, three issues of the 'Caledonian Mercury' contained the following advertisement:

"About the Middle of February next, some Gentlemen of the Royal College of Physicians, who have lately erected an Elaboratory, will begin a complete course of Chymistry, with variety of Experiments on vegetables, Animals and Minerals, according to the method of the celebrated Herman Boerhaave; where likewise all the Chymical Processes in the New Edinburgh Dispensatory, will be shown as they shall fall most naturally into the Order. The same Gentle-men, begin to give publick Lectures, on different Parts, both of the Institutions and Practice of Physic on Tuesday the 10th of November next".

The Gentlemen Physicians were Drs. Plummer, Rutherford, St. Clair and Innes, who had purchased a house at the head of Robertson's Close, about 100 yards from the University, in which they were to lecture and establish a laboratory. The fitting up and equipping of the laboratory necessitated the chemical lectures and demonstrations beginning some months after the start of the medical lectures. The new Edinburgh Dispensatory was the Pharmacopoeia of the Royal College of Physicians of which a new edition had recently been produced. A feature unknown in any other such advertisement is the anonymity of the teachers; this could have arisen either from uncertainty about the success of the course or from the wish to avoid disputes. Within the University James Crawford, appointed in 1713, was still Professor of Physick and Chymistry and in August 1724 the Town Council had elected William Porterfield Professor of Medicine in the University. The chemistry course promised in the first advertisement duly took place as shown by advertisements beginning in the issue of 21 January 1725 of the 'Caledonian Mercury' -

"On Thursday the 18th of February next, will begin a complete college of CHYMISTRY, with Variety of Experiments on Vegetables, Animals and Minerals according to the Method of the celebrated HERMAN BOERHMVE; where likewise all the Chymical Processes in the new EDINBURGH DISPENSATORY, will be shown as they shall fall most naturally into the Order, by four Physicians Fellows of the Royal College at Edinburgh".

In the following academic year the scope of the course was widened by cooperation with Charles Alston and Alexander Monro and the following advertisement appeared2 in early October 1725:

A complete System of MEDICINE to be taught and continued yearly at Edinburgh, begins on Wednesday the Third of November next as follows
The usual Colleges on the MATERIA MEDICA, and Methodus Prescribendi, by Dr Charles Alston, P.B.R. And
Of ANATOMY, Humane and Comparative, Chirurgical Operationsand Bandages, by Alexander Monro, Pr. An. & F.R.S.
On CHYMISTRY, being a complete Course, according to the Method of the celebrated Herman Boerhaave, at Leyden, including all the Chymical Processes in the new Edinburgh Dispensatory, by John Rutherford, Andrew St. Clair, Andrew Plummer and John Innes, M.M.D. Colleg. Reg. Med. Edin. S.S. who advertised and gave that College last Year, and publick Lectures on the different Parts of the Institutions and Practice of Physick.
On the THEORY of Medicine in which Dr Boerhaave's Institutions will be explained after his own Method, by two of the said Gentlemen, viz. Drs. St. Clair and Rutherford.
On the PRACTICE of Medicine, being the Explication of Dr Boerhaave's Apherisms, to be performed in the same Manner, by Drs. Innes and Plummer".

Three points of interest are the widening of the curriculum, the naming of those who gave the previous course, and that the course is to be 'continued yearly'; thus the presumption is that the previous course had been a success.

The developing organisation of the course is shown by details of the times and locations of the lectures being given 2 in October 1726 -

"On the first Wednesday of November 1726, the Colleges of Medicine formerly advertised, begin in the following Order, viz -the INSTITUTIONS by Dr St. Clair, at ten forenoon; -the PRACTICE by Dr Innes at eleven;-CHEMIE by Dr Innes at Twelve: These three in the Chemical Elaboratory at the Head of Robertson's Close: -MATERIA MEDICA, by Dr Alston at two afternoon, in the Physician's Hall; -ANATOMY by Mr. Monro at three, in the Anatomical Theatre of the College of Edinburgh".

The reason why Plummer and Rutherford appear not to have taken part in this course is not known.

On 9 February 1726 the Town Council considered a petition by Rutherford, St. Clair, Plummer and Innes requesting that they be allowed to teach medicine in the University; the Council, under an enlightened and far-seeing Lord Provost, George Drummond, granted the petition and effectively constituted a School of Medicine by appointing Rutherford and St. Clair Professors of the Theory and Practice of Medicine, and Plummer and Innes, Professors of Medicine and Chemistry; none were to receive salary, a condition which was to apply to most of the medical and scientific chairs. Of the four appointees only two were allowed at any one time to deliberate and vote with the other Professors in University affairs and this privilege, which was to alternate annually, was for the first year allotted to Sinclair and Plummer. 3

The Minute of a University meeting on 12 October 1726 records all four Professors of Medicine as being present but the names of Rutherford and Innes have been stroked out obviously so that the Minute rather than be a true record should accord with the condition that only two should be present. This restriction was removed by the Town Council on 26 February 1729 on a petition from the four professors. 3 An important result of the foundation of the Medical Faculty was that candidates for the Degree of M.D. could now be examined solely by Professors of the University and not as hitherto by collaboration between James Crawford and examiners appointed by the Royal College of Physicians. The importance attached to the first completely internal examination, that of John Monteith on 4 November 1726, is evidenced by his examination on his thesis taking place in the presence not only of the Principal and several Professors but also of "a great many gentlemen and students".

As a result of their University appointments the advertisements in September 1727 state that

"the Professors of MEDICINE will open their Colleges",

it also includes the statement -

"A complete Systeme of CHEMISTRY Theoretical and Experimental demonstrated by the said four Professors".2

The gradual establishment of the Medical School is reflected in the changing nature of the annual advertisements.2 From 1728-1733 they are substantially the same as those quoted above with in 1729 and subsequently the addition of -

"Where all sorts of Chymical Medicines thus publickly prepared are sold to Apothecaries".

In 1734 there is a marked change -

"The usual Colleges of Materia Medica, Chemie, Anatomy, Surgery, Theory and Practice of Physick; Are to be opened by the PROFESSORS OF MEDICINE in the University of Edinburgh, the Sixteenth of October next".

and in 1739 there is the simple statement -

"On the 17th of October next, the usual Colleges on all the branches of Physick begin at Edinburgh".

Soon after the establishment of the Faculty of Medicine, the four Professors formed what was effectively a business partnership, the terms of which were embodied in a legal contract, and Plummer was the executive secretary. They met regularly and the Minutes of their meetings from 1731-34 survive. These Minutes4 give an excellent picture of the work of the partnership which comprised three main aspects -firstly their private practice, secondly the teaching of the medical students and their work here rapidly established a viable School of Medicine, and thirdly the pharmaceutical laboratory which they ran so as to combine the instruction of students with the sale of medicines to other medical men and to apothecaries. The second and third aspects are considered in detail below.

According to the advertisements from 1725 to 1733 (except in 1726) chemistry was to be taught by all four Professors.2 Innes died in December 1733 and at a meeting in August 1734 it was minuted that Plummer would teach Chemistry, St. Clair the Institutions of Medicine and Rutherford the Practice of Medicine4 and this arrangement continued throughout the remainder of their professorial careers so that there is no doubt that Plummer was from 1734 effectively Professor of Chemistry only. The Professors discussed methods of teaching, e.g., the relative merits of examinations and disputes. In 1732 they fixed the fee for each course at three guineas for the year and the fee for graduation at 10 guineas; the total class fees in the session 1731-32 were £149 and in 1733-34 £189. It was the class-fee system that from the middle of the eighteenth century amply compensated Professors with large classes for appointment without salary. The fee of three guineas remained the normal fee for medical classes until 1812 when it was increased to four guineas and in 1889 the class-fee system was replaced by salaries.

In the development and running of the pharmaceutical laboratory the four physicians showed considerable business acumen. It was essential to have a ready supply of medicinal plants. The house acquired by the physicians adjoined the University Physick Garden that had for some years been neglected. On 11 November 1724, the Town Council, in response to a memorial from the four physicians allowed them a ten-year rent-free use of the ground which they had requested "for the better Carrying on their design of furnishing the Apothecary Shopes with Chymical Medicines, and Instructing the Students of Medicine in that part of the Science". 3 For ready access an entry was made from the house into the garden.

On 10 May 1738, the Town Council in response to a similar petition granted a twelve-year rent-free use of the garden. On both occasions the Council made the condition that the Councillors, the ministers of Edinburgh, and the Professors of the University be allowed"to Resort to and Walk in the forsaid Garden at their pleasure".3 In 1745 the partnership petitioned the Town Council for the feu of a ruinous house adjoining their laboratory so that they could enlarge the laboratory and improve its amenities 'that so they might teach with more ease and convenience".5 At the meetings of the partnership the professors discussed the administrative aspects of running the laboratory, deciding what stock was required, from whom it should be ordered, reviewing the accounts, and occasionally deciding to raise a process against bad debtors; after the death of Innes there was a most scrupulous accounting, to twelfths of a penny, to determine the sum due to the widow of Innes for his share in the total assets of the laboratory. The sale of medicines must have been on a considerable scale because in 1732 a new impression of 500 copies of the Catalogue was printed.4

Although their professional activities were conducted outwith the University the partners participated fully in the relatively few University administrative duties such as attending University meetings, giving an annual lecture to the whole body of the students, and on Sundays supervising the students in church. The development of the administrative aspect of the growing University is reflected in the fact that from 1733 Minutes of the Meetings of Senatus were systematically recorded in bound volumes. At this period the Minutes of the relatively infrequent meetings consisted only of four or five lines and one of the two minutes relating to Plummer is his report, at a University meeting on 7 March 1749, that the Faculty of Medicine was after examination, satisfied with the progress of three students, one of whom was John Moultrie the first American to graduate in medicine at Edinburgh.

Plummer published two chemical papers, "Remarks on Chemical Solutions and Precipitations" and "Experiments on Neutral Salts, compounded of different acid Liquors, and alcaline Salts, fixt and volatile".6 In the second paper he studied the neutralisation of potassium carbonate by sulphuric, nitric and hydrochloric acids and found that 960 grains of potassium carbonate gave the following quan-tities of salts, 982 grains of potassium sulphate, 1200 grains of potassium nitrate and 1080 grains of potassium chloride.7 From modern data the weights of salts formed should be respectively 1210, 1405 and 1036 grains; the difference between these and Plummer's results reflects the state of the art of quantitative chemistry in the 1730s and does not impugn Plummer's experimental ability.

The 'Scots Magazine' of August 1741 lists the Edinburgh Professors and the courses taught. Plummer, listed under Professors of Medicine, but described simply as Professor of Chemistry, "gives a course of Chemistry, Theoretical and Experimental". The course began about the middle of October and ended about the beginning of April. Plummer lectured from two to three in the afternoon, presumably Monday to Friday, because when Rutherford, Plummer and St. Clair decided on their teaching arrangements in 1734 they fixed the subjects and times but did not specify particular days.4 Plummer was a poor lecturer; John Fothergill (M.D. Edinburgh 1736) in a paper read in 1769 said of Plummer -

"He knew chemistry well. Laborious, attentive and exact had not a native diffidence veil'd his talents as a praelector he would have been among the foremost in the pupils esteem: such was the gentleness of his nature, such his universal knowledge, that in any disputed point of science, the great Maclaurin always appealed to him, as to a living library; and yet so great his modesty that he spoke to young audiences upon a subject he was perfectly master of, not without hesitation".

Oliver Goldsmith who attended some medical classes in Edinburgh wrote that "Plumer (sic) Professor of chymistry understands his busines (sic) well but delivers himself so ill that he is but little regarded". A manuscript set of notes of Plummer's lectures survive but cannot presently be located. What may be another set of notes of Plummer's lectures survives in the library of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh; entitled 'Opera Chemica A. Plummer' it consists of four volumes describing, in Latin, 213 pharmaceutical preparations. Opinions differ as to the nature of this work; some regard it as notes of Plummer's lectures on chemistry but the present author believes it to be a record of that part of the curriculum dealing with the pharmaceutical preparations; two reasons are firstly that the fourth volume of "Opera Chemica" contains two lectures in English, "Of Essential Oils" and "Of Fermentation", which were from the chemistry course and secondly that from Plummer's published chemical work it seems improbable that he took so narrow a view of chemistry as to limit his lectures to descriptions of pharmaceutical preparations.

As a physician, Plummer was successful in private practice. He was the formulator of Plummer's pill, a preparation of antimony and mercury, which was used for over a century. He published an analysis of Moffat spring water8 which resulted in many patients resorting to Moffat as a spa; he also published a paper describing the symptoms and attempted cure of a patient suffering from rabies who had come under his care.8 In the early days of the Medical School he lectured on clinical medicine.4

"Laborious, attentive and exact" said Fothergill. Plummer used these characteristics to good effect in the diffusion of medical and scientific knowledge in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. He was co-editor with Alexander Monro of the celebrated "Medical Essays and Observations " and he was secretary of the Philosophical Society, the immediate forerunner of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1743 the 'Scots Magazine' reported that the Philosophical Society, judging it advantageous to encourage the search for natural resources, had advertised inviting those who discovered unfamiliar ores, minerals and soils to send samples to the secretary of the Philosophical Society and the Society would examine the samples at its own expense and advise the sender if the materials could be put to practical use. One known result of this scheme, mentioned in a letter from Black to Cullen in 1745, was that Plummer did some experiments on the analysis of pit-coal. As was obligatory for Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians, Plummer was very regular in his attendance on the quarterly meetings of the College; early in 1731 the College was in financial difficulties which were resolved by a loan from Plummer of £100 and, it is then not surprising, that he was elected Treasurer in December 1731 a post which he held for four years.

About 1750 Plummer ceased to practice as a physician and was considering giving up teaching; he had in mind as his successor Dr Thomas Elliot an Edinburgh physician who had graduated at Edinburgh in 1746. However Elliot died suddenly in July 1751. With the passing of the years the situation of Plummer's medical colleagues had changed; St. Clair ceased teaching in 1747 and from 1746 Rutherford lectured in the Royal Infirmary. Not unnaturally Plummer now the sole teacher in the laboratory and aged over 50 wanted to come in from the cold. On 18 March 1752 he petitioned the Town Council for a laboratory wherein to teach Chemistry within the University 5 ; the petition was not granted as Plummer continued to teach in his existing laboratory.

In the early 1750s began a saga to succeed Plummer which here can only be outlined.

William Cullen who had attended medical classes in Edinburgh in the mid-1730s but appears not to have attended Plummer's lectures was in 1747 appointed Lecturer in Chemistry in Glasgow and in 1751 Professor of Medicine. He soon began planning his next move that was to succeed Plummer in Edinburgh. For three years various friends of Cullen tried to persuade Plummer to resign but Plummer remained uncooperative. In 1755 he was stricken with an illness which it appeared would force him to abandon lecturing and now other candidates as well as Cullen pressed their claims. During the struggle Cullen was described by one of his supporters as "the fittest person in Europe to fill the Chemical Chair, and as the candidate who would be most acceptable to the Duke of Argyll". The matter was resolved after several months of in-fighting when the Duke of Argyll visited Edinburgh and brought to bear the influence which resulted in Cullen being appointed joint Professor of Chemistry during the life of Plummer, with the succession on his death.

Plummer died on 16 April 1756 having, among other achievements firmly established the teaching of chemistry in the University of Edinburgh. Both the 'Caledonian Mercury' and the 'Scots Magazine' which recorded his death described him as Professor of Chemistry, no mention being made of medicine. Likewise the Minute of a Senatus meeting on 10 March 1756 admitted William Cullen as joint 'Professor of Chymistry' with Plummer. Of Plummer's personal life, little is known. In 1733 he married Marjory Plummer, daughter of William Plummer, Laird of Middlestead. In their family there was at least one son, Andrew, and he became an advocate and subsequently Sherriff-Depute of Selkirkshire.

From the records, there can be little doubt that Plummer was the organisation man of the Medical Faculty. By patience and hard work the day to day running of the medical classes was regularised by the partnership to produce an effective Medical School. Their success can be gauged from the number of medical graduates. In 1726 there was 1 graduate and in 1755, by which time only a small minority of students qualified to do so actually proceeded to graduation,9 there were 17 graduates: 4 Scots, 5 Irishmen, 7 Englishmen and 1 Barbadian. The cosmopolitan nature of the student body which was a marked feature of the second half of the eighteenth century9 began in the first half. In the session 1736-37 there were about twenty medical students of English or Irish origin. The first American to graduate M.D. from Edinburgh was John Moultrie in 1749. By the year of Plummer's death a further three Americans and three students from the West Indies had graduated M.D. Edinburgh. Thus began that tide which resulted in at least 650 American medical graduates of Edinburgh between 1765 and 1865.9 The rapid growth of the Medical School may be contrasted with the situation at its foundation as described by George Drummond in a letter to William Cullen in 1756 - "At that time we were only making a trial, and were somewhat uncertain about its success".

A number of Plummer's students made significant contributions to Chemistry. The most outstanding academically was Joseph Black part of whose classic research on alkaline substances was carried out while a student at Edinburgh; however while Black probably attended Plummer's lectures his interest in chemistry unquestionably arose from his earlier association with William Cullen in the University of Glasgow. John Roebuck (1718-1794) substituted lead chambers for glass globes in the manufacture of sulphuric acid and thus revolutionised the process reducing the cost of production to one-quarter of the former cost; in 1749 Roebuck and his partner established a sulphuric acid works in Prestonpans; they also established the famous Carron Ironworks which gave considerable impetus to Scottish industrial enterprise. James Hutton (1726-1797) in partnership with a former fellow-student manufactured sal-ammoniac from coal-soot and, more importantly, ranks as the first great British geologist. James Keir (1735-1820) played a significant part in the development of chemistry as writer, experimenter, and, most importantly, industrialist; he developed the first commercially successful process for making synthetic soda and in 1780 founded the Tipton Chemical Works for the manufacture of alkalis.

References

  1. Edinburgh & Medicine (Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, 1976).
  2. Caledonian Mercury.
  3. Minutes of the Town Council of Edinburgh.
  4. Minutes of the professors of Medicine and partners of the chemical elaboratory
    in Edinburgh 1731-4 (Edinburgh University Library MSS Gen.1959).
  5. Miscellaneous Papers of the Town Council of Edinburgh.
  6. Essays and Observations, Physical and Literary, Read Before a Society in
    Edinburgh.
  7. Partington, J.R ., A History of Chemistry (Macmillan, London, 1962).
  8. Medical Essays and Observations.
  9. Horn, D.B., A Short History of the University of Edinburgh (University Press,
    Edinburgh,1967).