Medicine in the 1700s: Dr. William Cullen's Letters Now Online

Thinkstock/Steven Wynn

What was it like to practice medicine in the late 1700s? Now you can find out, in the words of a famous eighteenth century physician himself. Dr. William Cullen’s correspondence from the Enlightenment era—which includes letters regarding English writer Samuel Johnson and a Russian princess—are now available to anyone through the Cullen Project online archive (www.cullenproject.ac.uk). Until recently, the several thousand letters were only accessible at the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, Scotland. But a four-year effort by experts at Glasgow University has succeeded in copying, cataloging, and digitizing the correspondence so that anyone with an internet connection can now freely read through it for such (now) curious medical treatment as cold showers, leeches, and “blistering” (medically inducing a blister to draw bad or poisonous “humours” to the surface of the body).

Dr. Cullen was one of the most respected physicians of his era, becoming a professor at Edinburgh University where he popularized his classes by lecturing in English rather than Latin. Over the course of his career he was President of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, and First Physician to the King in Scotland (a title he held until his death in 1790). He was the author of the popular medical textbook First Lines of the Practice of Physic. His influence lasted long after his death, since some of his students went on to become noted physicians in their own right. These included John Morgan, who founded the first medical school in the American colonies: the Medical School at the College of Philadelphia.

In March 1784, Samuel Johnson’s biographer James Boswell wrote to Dr. Cullen, asking his advice on treatment for the elderly writer who had “been ill for some time.”

Dr. Cullen’s answer begins: “It would give me the greatest pleasure to be of any service to a Man the Public properly esteem and whom I esteem and respect so much as I do Dr. Johnson. I have considered the account of his Case you have been pleased to honour me with and I am sorry to find there is so little in the power of Physic at least in my power to be done for him.  At the age of 74 Asthma and Dropsy are very insurmountable distempers. For the first I have found the most useful remedies to be Blistering, issues and especially gentle Vomits.”

Dr. Cullen then goes on to say he’s glad Johnson is using Laudenum and recommends “The Vinegar of Squills I judge to be a medicine very well suited to both his Asthma and Dropsy.” But ultimately Dr. Cullen is pessimistic about Johnson’s chances of surviving another year, because “I suspect he has not only water in his limbs but also in his breast.”

Samuel Johnson died in December of that year.

Interested readers can sort through the correspondence by searching for conditions (including gout, nervousness, fever, weakness), symptoms (costiveness, pulse, swelling), treatments (blistering, bleeding, vomiting, purging), and medicines (Peruvian bark, opium, cinnamon, and more). Between the mid-1750s and his death in 1790, Dr. Cullen received and sent around five thousand letters as he conducted a successful medicine-by-mail business.

Dr. Cullen’s services were highly esteemed, and he charged accordingly. He charged a standard fee of two guineas for a consultation, equivalent to almost $400 today. (But he offered discounted rates to widows, students, and clerics.)

Not all of Dr. Cullen’s advice seems dated. In response to a woman weighing 224 pounds and suffering from a persistent cough, he said, “Corpulence certainly disposes to violent diseases…You must take a great deal of bodily exercise.”


Thinkstock/Steven Wynn

What was it like to practice medicine in the late 1700s? Now you can find out, in the words of a famous eighteenth century physician himself. Dr. William Cullen’s correspondence from the Enlightenment era—which includes letters regarding English writer Samuel Johnson and a Russian princess—are now available to anyone through the Cullen Project online archive (www.cullenproject.ac.uk). Until recently, the several thousand letters were only accessible at the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, Scotland. But a four-year effort by experts at Glasgow University has succeeded in copying, cataloging, and digitizing the correspondence so that anyone with an internet connection can now freely read through it for such (now) curious medical treatment as cold showers, leeches, and “blistering” (medically inducing a blister to draw bad or poisonous “humours” to the surface of the body).

Dr. Cullen was one of the most respected physicians of his era, becoming a professor at Edinburgh University where he popularized his classes by lecturing in English rather than Latin. Over the course of his career he was President of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, and First Physician to the King in Scotland (a title he held until his death in 1790). He was the author of the popular medical textbook First Lines of the Practice of Physic. His influence lasted long after his death, since some of his students went on to become noted physicians in their own right. These included John Morgan, who founded the first medical school in the American colonies: the Medical School at the College of Philadelphia.

In March 1784, Samuel Johnson’s biographer James Boswell wrote to Dr. Cullen, asking his advice on treatment for the elderly writer who had “been ill for some time.”

Dr. Cullen’s answer begins: “It would give me the greatest pleasure to be of any service to a Man the Public properly esteem and whom I esteem and respect so much as I do Dr. Johnson. I have considered the account of his Case you have been pleased to honour me with and I am sorry to find there is so little in the power of Physic at least in my power to be done for him.  At the age of 74 Asthma and Dropsy are very insurmountable distempers. For the first I have found the most useful remedies to be Blistering, issues and especially gentle Vomits.”

Dr. Cullen then goes on to say he’s glad Johnson is using Laudenum and recommends “The Vinegar of Squills I judge to be a medicine very well suited to both his Asthma and Dropsy.” But ultimately Dr. Cullen is pessimistic about Johnson’s chances of surviving another year, because “I suspect he has not only water in his limbs but also in his breast.”

Samuel Johnson died in December of that year.

Interested readers can sort through the correspondence by searching for conditions (including gout, nervousness, fever, weakness), symptoms (costiveness, pulse, swelling), treatments (blistering, bleeding, vomiting, purging), and medicines (Peruvian bark, opium, cinnamon, and more). Between the mid-1750s and his death in 1790, Dr. Cullen received and sent around five thousand letters as he conducted a successful medicine-by-mail business.

Dr. Cullen’s services were highly esteemed, and he charged accordingly. He charged a standard fee of two guineas for a consultation, equivalent to almost $400 today. (But he offered discounted rates to widows, students, and clerics.)

Not all of Dr. Cullen’s advice seems dated. In response to a woman weighing 224 pounds and suffering from a persistent cough, he said, “Corpulence certainly disposes to violent diseases…You must take a great deal of bodily exercise.”