Sir John Pringle of Pall Mall, Bart., MD, Scots-born physician and President of the Royal Society, died on the 18th of January, 1782.
Plain John Pringle from Roxburghshire rose to become a man of letters and a friend of Benjamin Franklin. He hobnobbed with Dukes and Kings and Queens, and because of his reputation and achievements as a physician, the King rewarded him with a Baronetcy, in 1766. For someone who was supposed to embark upon a mundane, mercantile career, he certainly led a varied life and having chosen medicine, ended up becoming widely known as the ‘father of modern military medicine’. His medical abilities earned him his entitlements and praise, but it was through the books that he wrote that his expertise was brought to a wider audience and which contributed to his lasting fame. He was a physician and philosophical enquirer of the first order.
Pringle is famous as a sanitary pioneer – nothing to do with drains and plumbing – and it was he who first coined the term ‘influenza’. He was also one of the first to make a study of epidemiology and the prevention of infection and improvement of care in army hospitals. His key theory was that prevention was better than cure and he understood that typhus (also known as ‘gaol’ or ‘putrid’ fever) and dysentery killed more soldiers than actual battle. He also pioneered the idea of field hospitals being classed as neutral territory; something that the International Red Cross may thank him for conceptualising. At one time, he had as patron the Duke of Cumberland, who gave him a long title in appointing Pringle ‘Physician General to His Majesty’s Forces in the Low Countries and beyond the seas’, but the latter part of that label didn’t prevent him witnessing the butchering of his countrymen by said Duke at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
When he was physician to the Military Hospital in Flanders, Pringle was able to study a wide range of medical problems and it was during such time that he began to research and collate information for future use. In 1749, he settled in London and carried out various scientific experiments on putrefaction, adding to his store of knowledge and particularly that of diseases of people living in close quarters. In 1750, the public outcome was his first book, ‘Observations on the Nature and Cause of Hospital and Jayl Fevers’ [sic]. Later, he contributed three papers on ‘Experiments on Septic and Antiseptic Substances’ to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ of the Royal Society, which gained him the Sir Godfrey Copley Gold medal.
Then, in 1752, Pringle’s ‘Meisterwerk’ was published as ‘Observations on the Diseases of the Army in Camp and Garrison’. The work is now regarded as a medical classic and is what entitles him to be regarded as the founder of modern military medicine. Pringle identified hospitals as a major cause of sickness and expanded his ideas on septic and antiseptic matters. He felt that fevers, dysentery, and ‘Jayl fever’ were the three most prevalent and fatal diseases affecting armies and although he was wrong to blame putrid air for their transmission, his recommendations for prevention through a clean medical environment for the treatment of all, not just wounded soldiers, certainly helped to control epidemics.
John Pringle was born in Stitchel House, in Roxburghshire, on the 10th of April, 1707. He received a rudimentary education at home from a private tutor and then went to the University of St Andrews, where he studied under the direction of his uncle, the professor of Greek. He then studied for a year in Edinburgh and, intent upon a career in commerce, off he went to Amsterdam. He might have been lost to posterity had he not chanced to attend a lecture in Leiden by the inspirational Dutch physician, Herman Boerhaave, an early proponent of ‘total medicine’. He arranged to remain in Holland and enrolled in Beorhaave’s lectures on the 30th of September, 1728. Two years later, on the 20th of July, 1730, he emerged as a Doctor of Medicine. He tarried a while in Paris to polish off his medical education and when he arrived back in Edinburgh, he commenced to practice as an MD.
Dr. Pringle was also to be an accomplished academic and, on the 28th of March, 1734, was appointed Professor of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy, at Edinburgh University. That was kinda apt as his later portraits do show him to have a bit of an inflated profile. Soon after, in 1742, Dr. Pringle was appointment physician to the Earl of Stair, Commander of the Army in Flanders, and as one biography quaintly has it “Thither he proceeded” on the 24th of August, to take up command of the military hospital. In 1745, his obligations under Cumberland led to his giving up his Professorship at Edinburgh, but eventually, after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, he returned to London where he became Physician in Ordinary to the Duke of Cumberland and commenced private practice. In 1761, he was appointed Physician to Queen Charlotte’s household and two years later, to the Royal Personage of the Queen herself. In 1768, he became Physician in Ordinary to the King’s mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales. Finally, in 1774, he got the full set, when he was appointed Physician Extraordinary to King George III.
Pringle was President of the Royal Society from 1772 until 1778, a period that Munk’s Roll describes as “a fortunate epoch of natural knowledge: a taste for experimental investigation was diffusing itself through every part of the civilised world, and the genius of Pringle found a happy occupation in cherishing this spirit. An universality of knowledge, and a singular liberality of spirit, united to very considerable experience, both of active and studious life, seem to have peculiarly fitted him for his difficult post.” In addition, he received recognition from a host of ‘societies’ and ‘colleges’ at home and abroad, including in Edinburgh, London, Paris, Haarlem, Gottingen and Madrid. In 1778, old age forced him to resign his Presidency of the Royal Society and he went back to Edinburgh, but he couldn’t suffer the climate and promptly returned to London. Sir John Pringle, Bart., MD, didn’t long survive his return as he died of a seizure, which took him on the 18th of January, 1782. He was buried in St James’ Church, in Piccadilly and is remembered by a monument in Westminster Abbey, despite not being interred there.