Alexander Monro (Primus), physician, anatomist and co-founder of Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, was born on the 8th of September, 1697.
Alexander Monro or Alexander Primus, as he is usually called, was the first in a long line (as long as three) of the Monro family who held the Chair of Anatomy at Edinburgh for one hundred and twenty-eight years. He became the first Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at the newly founded University of Edinburgh in 1720 and, along with Lord Provost Drummond, was a founding father of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, which was designed by William Adam. He was responsible for fulfilling his father’s dream of establishing Edinburgh as a major centre of medical teaching and research to rival Paris and Leiden (Leyden). Alexander Primus did much to make medicine accessible by lecturing in English, rather than in Latin as was the norm at the time. He was a brilliant teacher and demonstrator who never used notes in his lectures, and his international reputation attracted students from all parts of Britain, Europe and the North American Colonies.
18th Century anatomy was a bit of a ‘grey area’ and marked more by advances in the field of description than by major new discoveries. Funnily enough, anatomy was seen as more academic than surgery, which suffered from the effects of prejudice. Surgery was perceived to be a manual craft (I’m sure Sweeney Todd would agree) rather than an intellectual discipline and consisted of just a few lectures grudgingly appended to the University’s Anatomy course. Alexander Primus was the pre-eminent character in the furtherance of anatomy. His extraordinary industry, remarkable accuracy of observation, and inquiring mind often led him to conclusions that were correct, but which were only verified by later sophistications. He was also a gifted technician who advanced many new ideas in surgical instruments and dressings, including the use of preserving fluid, which secret he had learned from the Dutch anatomist, Frederik Ruysch. Monro’s major work was ‘The Anatomy of the Human Bones’, which remained a standard reference for over a century as it continued to be reprinted until as late as 1828. By that time it had been given the extremely long title of ‘The Anatomy of the Human Bones with an Anatomical Treatise of the Nerves, and Account of the Reciprocal Motions of the Heart and a Description of the Human Lacteal Sac and Duct’ – pause for breath. It went through nineteen English editions and appeared in several translations. In his lifetime he published two books and fifty-three separate papers, all of which were collected in a single volume by his son, Alexander Secundus (the third Alexander was called Tertius, just in case you were wondering). Primus also edited the six volumes of ‘Medical Essays and Observations’ for the ‘Society for the Improvement of Medical Knowledge’. These too became a standard work of reference in many editions and several languages.
Alexander Monro, Primus, was born on the 8th of September, 1697. He was the son of a military surgeon, John Monro, who settled in Edinburgh in 1700. Alexander entered Edinburgh University in 1710, where he studied classics (Latin and Greek) and Philosophy for three years. He also learned French, arithmetic, and bookkeeping, under private tuition, and received instruction in fencing, dancing, music, and painting. Ah, the life of a gentleman. Thankfully, for posterity, he didn’t graduate in arts, but decided on a medical career. He was apprenticed to his father in 1713 and also attended local medical courses, which, frankly, didn’t amount to much. Between 1717 and 1719, Alexander went to London, Paris and Leiden, where he studied all manner of disciplines associated with medical science. He attended lectures and demonstrations by a raft of eminent personages of the day on many subjects such as physics and anatomy. He also performed operations and was instructed in midwifery and bandaging; all very practical. Monro captured some of the flavour of his time in London in his ‘commonplace book’ and used that in the writing of his autobiography. He claimed that he was "furnished with more [bodies] than with the utmost Application he could make use of." He did not explain the source of such abundance, but you should realise that this was the era of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company and the practice of grave robbing.
In 1719, Alexander Monro went back to Edinburgh, where soon after his return he was admitted to the Incorporation of Surgeons of Edinburgh. On the 29th of January, 1721, as a result of strenuous politicking, particularly by his father, he was named Professor of Anatomy in the University. He began teaching in the winter of 1721, but it wasn’t until 1725 that he was given a room at the University. That room, where he lectured for nearly forty years, was on the ground floor sunk below street level, with poor light, which Monro complained was never adequate. His duties included a yearly public dissection before the College of Surgeons and his course on anatomy and surgery, which consisted of over one hundred lectures between October and May. Monro developed an ‘Edinburgh manner’ of anatomy, using few cadavers and relying on other methods such as the use of animals, dead and alive. Perhaps that was because of the continuing suspicions of body snatching, which were probably justified. He once wrote that there was "a general Prejudice of the People to dissections of human Bodies, who foolishly believed that he [Monro] stole living People to dissect them alive." As a matter of fact, his move into the University in 1725 was triggered by a violent mob having attacked the Surgeons’ Hall. It seems that in delivering a lecture on anatomy, the aesthetics of the presentation were critical. Monro’s instructions emphasise the "Prettyest preparation", rather than the most practical and ghoulishly wrote that "a little fresh blood rubbed on a part naturally red but too pale in the particular Subject we are then dissecting has frequently wonderfull good Effect."
Notwithstanding how Monro’s life and times might be perceived today, the Faculty of Medicine in the University of Edinburgh was responsible for the rapid development of systematic medical teaching on a sound scientific basis and Alexander Monro was the prime mover. But that wasn’t why he was called ‘Primus’. After Monro’s son Alexander had taken his M. D. in 1755, the father was given the epithet of ‘Primus’ to make the distinction between the two and the dynasty was established. Alexander ‘Primus’ Monro died from cancer on the 10th of July, 1767, at his home in Covenant Close, Edinburgh, and he was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard.