William Buchan, physician and author, died on this day, 25th February, 1805.
Dr. William Buchan, unsurprisingly, maintained a medical practice and, perhaps surprisingly, he also gave lectures on natural philosophy, which were very popular and drew large classes; surprise, surprise! However, what is less surprising, but more interesting, is that Buchan devoted as much of his time as he did to medicine and science to writing. What did he write? A medical book of course! What made Buchan's book special was that it was written for the layman and not for his fellow physicians. Furthermore, Buchan’s book was destined to secure its author’s name in history, for William Buchan was the author of
the classic ‘Domestic Medicine’.
Buchan’s his great work, ‘Domestic Medicine; or, the Family Physician’, was the first truly popular work of its kind when it was first published, in Edinburgh, in 1769. It sold for just six shillings and its success was immediate. An edition was soon published in London and over 80,000 copies, in 19 English language editions, were sold during Buchan's lifetime. That must've pleased him a great deal, even if he didn't find it surprising. What Buchan might've been surprised about, after selling his copyright for seven hundred pounds, is learning that the publishers, Balfour, Auld and Smellie, made as much from it yearly – or so it has been said. There's a reference to that very suggestion on the Boston Medical Library website, in an article by Dr. Adam G. N. Moore.
Buchan's tome proved to be a remarkably accessible work and rapidly became the foremost ‘home’ medical book. Now that was surprising as it wasn't the first of its kind, but there's no question that it became a 'best seller'. It's popularity was due to the author's style, which was direct and easily understood by the layman for whom it had been intended. Buchan's book was widely read in the American Colonies, where it appears to have been first printed, in Philadelphia, in 1774. In America, after independence, Buchan's book became ubiquitous on the wild frontier and his name a household word. Dr. Buchan's book was also translated into all the main European languages.
Contrastingly, it has been written that Buchan’s book got him into serious professional trouble. In those days, apparently, it was simply not acceptable for a respectable doctor to reveal trade secrets. Somewhat similar to the 'rules' of the magic circle, you might say. Many of his colleagues and fellow physicians were ostensibly angry at the publication, but that seems to have had more to do with them being jealous of his success. In the preface to his book, Buchan wrote that “...it would draw on me the resentment of the whole faculty” and “[that] By the more selfish and narrow minded part of the Faculty, the performance was condemned.”
As it happens, Buchan's book was preceded by several others from as far back as the mid-1500s, when Sir Thomas Elyot published 'Castel of Helthe' and, in the 1600s, there had been books such as Nicholas Culpeper's 'The English Physician'. There was also a French contemporary of Buchan's, called Samuel Auguste David Tissot, who wrote 'Avis au Peuple sur sa Sante' around the same time.
Incidentally, one of Buchan's publishers was another Scot, William Smellie. Of course, Smellie is better known as the man who compiled and launched his own famous publication, which also had an extraordinarily long history (Buchan's book averaged about one edition per year for over a hundred years). That voluminous book of Smellie's, published in 1771, was the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica'. Buchan brought medicine to the layman and Smellie gave him knowledge of all else. Wikipedia's outlaw, Jimmy Wales, has a Scotsman to thank for paving the way in answering questions about everything.
The 6th edition of Buchan's book, published in 1779, ten years after its first appearance, was entitled, 'Domestic Medicine: or a Treatise on the prevention and cure of diseases by Regimen and simple medicines with an appendix, containing a dispensatory for the use of private practitioners'. They were fond of long titles in those days and a later edition had an even longer one: 'Domestic Medicine: or , The family physician: being an attempt to render the medical art more generally useful, by showing people what is in their own power, both with respect to the prevention and cure of diseases.'
The first chapter of the 6th edition notes that, in 1779, almost half the children born in Britain died before their twelfth birthday. Buchan's first published work was a thesis on that point, entitled 'Infantum Vita Conservanda'. Typhus and cholera had declined, but smallpox remained the worst killer of small children. You've only got to read a Charles Dickens to find out what it was like and sadly, it was true of any European city, from Glasgow to London and onwards to any continental destination you'd care to name. More people should've paid attention to Buchan's advice, such as “On the proper management of children depends not only their health and usefulness in life, but likewise the safety and prosperity of the state to which they belong.”
William Buchan was born in Ancrum in Roxburghshire, in 1729. Early on, during his school days, Wee Wullie is said to have developed an aptitude as a physician, acting as an amateur village doctor. In any case, destined for the church, Wullie went to Edinburgh University, in about 1749, where he studied Divinity and supported himself by teaching mathematics to fellow students. Later, having spent more time on botany and medicine, he changed to the study of the latter – perhaps he divined a better future. Dr. Buchan qualified around 1758 and, about 1759, he went south to England. Buchan was appointed as the first surgeon and apothecary to a branch of the Foundling Hospital in Ackworth, in Yorkshire. The doctor's salary was £42 a year – exclusive of his board and his horse!
That Yorkshire post provided Buchan with great experience in the care of children and, while there, he wrote his 1761 dissertation ‘On the preservation of infant life’. After Parliament discontinued its financial support for the Foundling Hospital, Buchan practiced in Sheffield, before returning to Edinburgh, in 1766. During Buchan's twelve years in Edinburgh, prior to moving to London, he was face to face with the poverty and the ignorance of people about such simple things as hygiene. There was the ground work for his famous book. In 1778, with a growing reputation and list of publications to his name, Buchan moved to London. Dr. William Buchan died on the 25th of February, 1805, and a grateful nation recognised his achievements by granting him a burial in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.