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James Crawford, M.D. (1682 - 1731)

by W.P. Doyle

William Carstares, Prinicipal of the University

In the second half of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the University of Edinburgh was pre-eminent in Britain in the teaching of Chemistry. Joseph Black, Professor of Chemistry from 1766 to 1797, had in the 1790s, classes of about 225 students and during his tenure of the Chair must have taught Chemistry to about 5,000 students. Black's successor, Thomas Charles Hope, who held the Chair until 1843, was the most popular ever teacher of Chemistry in Britain; from 1815 to 1828 he had classes of about 500 and the total number of students taught by Hope at Edinburgh was about 15,000. Such success does not come without a long period of growth, and here the very different story of the first Professor of Chemistry in the University of Edinburgh, James Crawford, is told and is designed to show how his, by comparison, modest achievements were necessary prerequisites to the flowering of chemistry at Edinburgh.

From its foundation in 1583 to 1708 the University of Edinburgh taught a four-year Arts curriculum and many graduates then studied Divinity. Its transformation by the middle of the eighteenth century into one of the leading universities in Europe began with the work of William Carstares, Principal from 1703 to 1715, who, among other important changes, developed and partly instituted the teaching of Law, Medicine and Science. Through the initiative and influence of Carstares, the Edinburgh Town Council controlling the University established, on 9 December 1713, a Chair of Physick (medicine) and Chymistry and Dr James Crawford was appointed to it, but without salary: a condition which was to apply to most of the medical and scientific chairs. Recently Ashworth Underwood, a distinguished historian of medicine, has commented that there is no doubt that Crawford's activities have, in the past been greatly minimised.

Carwford's thesis title page

James Crawford, the son of Alexander and Mary Crawford, was born in North Leith in 1682. Another son, David, was born in 1689 and a daughter, Christian, circa 1690. Nothing is known about Crawford's schooling; around 1702 he attended for a time some of the Divinity classes in the University of Edinburgh. He then studied medicine, it is not known where, and then spent five weeks in the University of Leyden to prepare the thesis necessary for graduation. He duly graduated M.D. there in July 1707. His thesis (of which there are copies in the British Library and in the University of Leyden) was entitled "de scorbuto" and dedicated to Sir William Nisbet, Bart. of Dirleton; such dedications were usually either acknowledgements of thanks for help to the student, or tokens of respect. On the title page Crawford, conscious of his birthplace, describes himself as "Letha-Britannus ". While not impossible, it seems unlikely that during his five weeks in Leyden Crawford would have attended lectures of the celebrated Herman Boerhaave, who during his teaching career (1701-1738) made Leyden the most prestigious medical school in Europe, and the oft-repeated statement that Crawford had been one of Boerhaave's students is an assumption based on the fact that Crawford graduated at Leyden.

Crawford returned to Scotland and, in 1708, was admitted to the Degree of Doctor of Medicine at King's College Aberdeen, without study because he had been awarded the same Degree at Leyden. Crawford's next association was with the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, and the story is told in full in the Minute Book of that institution. To practice medicine in Edinburgh it was necessary to be licensed by the Physicians, and in accordance with the usual procedure Crawford submitted a petition to the College requesting

"May it therefore please your honours to take the ordinary tryall of my qualifications to practise Medecin and being found by you qualified do Lecentiat me to practise Medecin within ye City of Edinburgh and Liberties thereof".

Crawford qualified as a Licentiate of the College in December 1710 and in February 1711 was elected as a Fellow. He must have impressed the Physicians because in December 1711 he was appointed Secretary and Librarian, a post which he held for three years.

Announcement of Crawford's appointment

In 1713, he was appointed Professor of Physick and Chymistry. The appointment was announced in 'The Scots Courant':

"Edinburgh Dec. 22. Dr James Crawford was admitted, this day, Professor of Medicine in the University, being chosen by the Magistrates and Town-Council, Patrons thereof, at the Desire of the Principal and Professors, and upon the unanimous Recommendation of the Royal College of Physicians".

At this period 'The Scots Courant' rarely contained any news relating to Edinburgh so that Crawford's appointment was regarded as very important, but it was the institution of a Chair of Medicine that was considered significant; as Chemistry was not mentioned.

Presumably after being licenced by the Royal College Crawford did practice as a physician, but there is evidence that he was not very successful. Little is known about his ability and activities as a physician; in a paper read about a year after Crawford's death, the City Professor of Midwifery referred to Crawford's 'consummate medical knowledge', and Crawford contributed one unremarkable paper to the celebrated 'Medical Essays and Observations'. In 1721 he was appointed a member of the Committee of the Royal College of Physicians set up to produce a new edition of the College Pharmacopoeia. From 1718-1725 he acted as principal examiner in Medicine for twelve external candidates for the M.D. Degree of the University of Edinburgh, but there were no internal candidates until the foundation of the Medical Faculty in 1726.

Advertisement for chemistry lectures

During his tenure of the Chair Crawford gave only one course in medicine. That medicine was not being taught in the University is emphasised by the terms used by the Town Council in the appointment in 1724 of William Porterfield as Professor of Medicine -

"Considering that hitherto the Institutes and practice of Medicine, though the principal parts thereof, have not been profest or taught. ...  and the said Doctor William Porterfield by his acceptation also binds and obliges him to give Colleges [courses] regularly in order to the instructing of students in the said science of medicine".

Thus the Town Council knew that Crawford had not taught Medicine and was attempting to ensure that Porterfield did so, and did so regularly (that Porterfield did not in fact teach is irrelevant here). Crawford appears to have lost interest in medicine. It was obligatory for Fellows to attend the quarterly meetings of the Royal College of Physicians, and those absent without good reason were fined. From 1716 he attended very few of the quarterly meetings and from 1728 he did not attend any; the Minute Book of the Royal College records in 1729 that "Doctor Crawford was fyned for absence from this and seven quarterly former meetings". His absences could not have been due to ill-health because this would have excused his non-attendance.

Notes of Crawford's lectures, by Alexander Monro

As far as chemistry is concerned, Crawford did not lecture annually, and from 1713 to 1726 he gave a full course of lectures three or four times. If he were to teach chemistry effectively, some basic facilities were essential. The only provision made by the Town Council in appointing him was the allocation of two rooms for teaching within the University. Not until 1715 was a laboratory provided, and the total cost of establishing the laboratory and providing stills and other necessary apparatus was not to exceed £10. Two sets of notes of Crawford's lectures on chemistry survive, one by Alexander Monro [shown opposite - click on image for larger version], the future Professor of Anatomy, and the other, which appears to be a verbatim version, by John Fullerton, a student. William Cullen, Professor of Chemistry at Edinburgh from 1755 to 1766, is often said to have been the first in Britain to assign to chemistry its proper position as an independent science of fundamental importance and not, as it had hitherto been conceived, a mere appendage to medicine This claim may be exaggerated, because the notes of Crawford's lectures show that he held similar attitudes towards building up a science of chemistry. Early in his first lecture he says that he will "shew by what methods and upon what principles, I judge a System of Chymie is to be raised, that it may deserve a place among the Sciences". Ashworth Underwood is of the opinion that 'These notes show that Crawford was well acquainted with the literature of chemistry, and that his practical processes, though slightly slanted towards the medical and pharmaceutical aspects, were well chosen for the instruction of students.'

The financial terms of Crawford's appointment were that he was to receive no salary. Possible sources of income open to him would be firstly fees from students attending his courses, but with few students and infrequent courses, he received little such income; and secondly, private practice as a physician (and the evidence suggests that Crawford did little private practice). Thus he was financially very in-secure. His colleagues did a little to relieve his financial difficulties.  At a meeting of the Professors in 1718 it was agreed that a candidate for the M.D. Degree was to give in ten guineas "which sum is to be bestowed on Dr Crawford during his want of salary". His financial difficulties were eased in 1719 when the Chair of Hebrew fell vacant.  Crawford was a candidate and in his support a broadsheet testimonial was published. It shows that Crawford's claim to be learned in Hebrew rested on the statement that while he was a student in the class of Hebrew in Edinburgh the then Professor "gave an extra-ordinary character of Dr Crawford, and declared to some of the Professors in the College, That he was the best Hebrew scholar ever he taught". Nonetheless, the Town Council "being sufficiently in-formed of the literature, piety and good qualifications of Mr. James Crawfoord" elected him Professor of Hebrew at an annual salary of about £100. The Minute of appointment notes the dissent of three members of the Town Council, one of whom was George Drummond, then Treasurer, who was to become perhaps the most influential citizen of Edinburgh in the eighteenth century. Crawford continued as Professor of Chemistry and, it is said, gave little attention to the class of Hebrew.

In 1726 Crawford's position was radically altered through the effective institution of a University School of Medicine by the simultaneous appointments of Drs. Plummer, Rutherford, St. Clair and Innes. This was the end of his association with the teaching of medicine or chemistry, though at a University meeting later that same year among those present was 'Dr Crawfurd, Prof. of Hebrew.'

After his death in February 1731, the Town Council, on a petition authorised the payment to his sister Christian of £50, the salary due to him " at Lammass last".

Broadside memorial for James Crawford

Concerning the personal character of Crawford, two posthumous estimates are that of Woodrow in his Analecta -

"Doctor James Crawford, Professor of the Hebreu tongue at Edinburgh -a man of piety, of excellent solid sense, but a recluse, modest man" , and that of Joseph Gibson, City Professor of Midwifery - "Dr James Crawford late Professor of Hebrew and Medicine in the University of Edinburgh, whose universal Literature, and consummate medical knowledge, joined to all those amiable Qualifications which made up the beautiful Character of a good Man, and sincere Friend, must make all who had the happiness to know him best, to bemoan with me their own private, and regrete the publick loss of him".

It is easy to minimise the importance of Crawford, but a number of factors were not favourable to success. He professed two subjects that had not previously been taught in the University, and there may have been at least indifference to the teaching of chemistry.  The only colleague with whom he might have common professional interests was the Professor of Natural Philosophy, and thus Crawford would not have had that support which arises from community of intellectual interests. Further, general scientific equipment was scarce, and in particular very inadequate provision was made for setting up and equipping a chemical laboratory. That in such circumstances Crawford accomplished relatively little is not surprising, but what he did was important. Irregular though his courses were, chemistry teaching in the University was born, and his examining for the degree of M.D. meant that medicine, though not taught, was accepted as an appropriate University discipline. Thus when in 1726 Plummer, Rutherford, St. Clair and Innes were appointed, the ground had already been broken and the seed sown. They were able to give each other mutual support, and were not (as Crawford may have been) isolated, their laboratory facilities were not inadequate, and through private medical practice and other activities, they did not suffer Crawford's long period of being poor.


  1. Horn, D.B., A Short History of the University of Edinburgh (Edinburgh,1967).
  2. Underwood, E. Ashworth, Boerhaave's Men at Leyden and After (Edinburgh, 1977).
  3. Minutes of the Town Council of Edinburgh.
  4. Minutes of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.
  5. "A Memorial concerning Doctor Crawford". (National Library of Scotland, S. 302.b. in Broadsides 1638-1719 No.64).
  6. William Carstares (1649-1715), by William Aitchman (reproduced by kind permission of the Medical lllustration Department, University of Edinburgh.) Photograph by W .Hurt.
  7. Notes of Crawford' s lectures, taken by Alexander Monro (reproduced by kind permission of the Trustees of the National Library of Scotland).
  8. Title page of Crawford's thesis, 'De Scorbuto' (reproduced by kind permission of the British Library, London).