The Minutes and Me; or, Another Day of Research


That one word precisely sums up everything I did at the Sibbald Library today. I went back over some of the minutes, as I said I would in my last post, and then finished typing up my notes for Iain to use in a paper he’s presenting at the International Cullen Symposium in April. Last weekend I attended a conference in York about the body in eighteenth century medical thought – I don’t say “medicine” because the range of topics was sort of all around medicine, with only a couple landing within the definition of medicine. Anyway, it was a long train journey there and back and I had ample time to type up notes while on the train. So typing today only consisted of adding what I uncovered today.

Badge and program from the conference last weekend.

Badge and program from the conference last weekend.

During the eighteenth century there was a deep divide between physicians and surgeons, with physicians taking on the role of the thinking man, while the surgeons were assigned more of a manual laborer type of role. The physicians were the elite, they examined patients and gave diagnoses; the surgeons were the ones who did the cutting and sewing. This divide was played out within the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE), and in 1764 the College approved an act to separate the practices of “physick” and surgeon, and banned anyone who practiced surgery in any of its various iterations (for example, midwifery was considered surgery) from being licensed by the RCPE. The act was contested by a group of physicians, including Cullen, and was eventually repealed and replaced with a less severe version of itself. I am glad that I went back over some of the minutes because I had totally missed this string, which followed through for over a decade, my first time round. I think when I went over the minutes last week I didn’t notice this topic early on, and then just skimmed over any reference to it because it wasn’t on my radar.

And again. The Minutes and Me.

And again. The Minutes and Me.

Another surprising fact is that Cullen was appointed to a committee that was to figure out how to prevent plague in Edinburgh, and at the very next meeting Cullen, who was involved in so many different things, asked if he could leave the committee. I don’t know why, but I have a hunch that it was because he just wasn’t as interested in the project. It doesn’t really fit in with other things he was doing, such as being on a committee tasked with getting a new Physicians Hall built, or arranging for the RCPE to donate money to build a new grammar school, or acquiring books for the library. I almost get the impression that preventing plague was too narrow, too academic. He seems to have always wanted to be a part of things that drew various groups of people in, like the textbooks he wrote or his epistolary practice where he got to think about all sorts of varied conditions.

But this is all just speculation and I can’t really claim to know the mind of Cullen.


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