Coincidentally: A Cornucopia of Pharmacopoeia

The Scots are famously reserved in their habits and modest demeanor, but this has not restrained their substantial claim to be the world’s most intelligent people. In the catalogue of certifiable evidence is this curiosity: Although the Scots comprise less than one-half of 1 percent of the world’s population, 11 percent of all Nobel prizes have been awarded to Scotsmen.

The world’s first university faculty of engineering and technical science was in Glasgow. Scotsmen have shown particular genius in medicine, as we have seen recently in the cloning of sheep by Dr. Ian Wilmot, whose wife is a Presbyterian elder.

Scotland, the home of famous preachers, is also the home of anesthesia. Samuel Guthrie, a Scottish-American, codiscovered chloroform in 1831. Sir James Young Simpson first used it in surgery in 1847 in Scotland, the year after the Scottish-American William Thomas Morton demonstrated the uses of ether as an anesthetic in Boston. Before any of them, in 1829, James Esdaile used hypnosis in surgery while in India, having been inspired by charmed cobras.

David Livingston, who secured the abolition of slavery in Zanzibar in 1873, was a physician, as was John Brown who in 1780 had argued successfully against bloodletting. Charles Maitland beat William Jenner in using vaccinations, albeit leaving Scotland to experiment on eighty-five Londoners; and in 1913 William Leishman perfected the typhoid vaccine. It may be that more lives have been saved by Sir Patrick Manson, who traced parasitic diseases to biting insects, and Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin in 1928, than by any other two men in history.

If one rejects the influences of environment and race, one must attribute all this to coincidence.

Among problematic coincidences is the fact that almost all the pioneers in modern gynecology have been Scots Presbyterians. The influence of Presbyterianism on gynecology has been subtle, perhaps their only connection is the Greek of their names. The Calvinism of Scotland advertised a lack of sympathy for women in 1558 when John Knox published his First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. So it is not to be supposed that any single doctrine of Presbyterianism guided the Scottish penchant for gynecology.

It was a Scots Presbyterian, William Smellie (1697-1753), who first involved professional physicians in midwifery. Dr. Smellie also researched the putrefaction of corpses, but he is known to medical history as the inventor of the “long obstetric forceps” used on Queen Charlotte by the Scottish founder of modern obstetrics, William Hunter (1718-1783), whose brother John (1728-1793) was the father of scientific surgery. The ovum in mammals was discovered by William Cruickshank (1745-1800) and Matthew Bailey (1761-1823) invented treatment for dermoid cysts in the ovary. All of them were devout Scots Presbyterians, as was Alexander Skene (1837-1900) who emigrated from Aberdeen and founded the American Gynecological Society.

Ephraim McDowell (1771-1830), studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and practiced his art on the American frontier, performing the world’s first ovariotomy on Jane Todd Crawford, a Scotswoman in Kentucky. The future president, Andrew Jackson, of Scottish line, once assisted Dr. McDowell in a surgical operation, remarking afterwards that he would rather fight another Indian war than repeat the experience. And another future president of Scots blood, James Knox Polk, aged seventeen, had gallstones removed from his bladder by the indefatigable Dr. McDowell, proving that the goodly physician did not confine his healing arts to the fairer sex.

Other Celtic peoples have chiefly confined their medical inventiveness to homeopathy. Underlying the phenomenal link between Calvinist Celts and female medicine may have been an unconscious desire to correct the exaggerated sentiments of John Knox. Perhaps it has had something to do with the intercessions of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was the principle audience of Knox’s trumpet blast, and whose husband, in a setback for Scottish medicine, was blown up. But even John Knox formerly had been a child, and had at least that in common with his theological opponents. Queen Victoria also passed through a period of infancy, and when affairs of nature and state conspired to oblige her to bear children, she was chloroformed by the aforementioned Scot, Dr. Simpson, whom she knighted.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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