William Cullen, the first Professor of Chemistry at Glasgow University, died on the 5th of February, 1790.
William Cullen was yet another of that merry band of men who contributed to the Scottish Enlightenment. That band comprised a large body of intellectuals, spanning all the arts and sciences, and its contribution to the enlightenment of its fellow man was considerable. Cullen isn't as famous as some of his mates and peers, nor even several of his students, but nevertheless, he was a weel kent figure in his day. Cullen is variously described as a physician, chemist, agriculturalist and author. However, it was as a professor of medicine and chemistry that Cullen made his name and that, in particular, because of his innovative teaching methods. A claim to fame for William Cullen, the tutor, is that he was the first man to deliver a series of independent lectures on chemistry and medicine in Great Britain. Of course, he delivered his lectures in Scotland, in Glasgow and in Edinburgh, where the medical school was then considered to be the leading centre of medical education in the English speaking world.
Cullen's “forceful, inspiring lectures” drew medical students to Edinburgh from far and wide and he was one of the first to teach in English rather than in Latin, which made his lectures eminently more accessible. Cullen was a practical man, who delivered his clinical lectures in the infirmary, lecturing from his own notes and with hands-on demonstrations for his students. Notwithstanding his own method of teaching, Cullen's book, 'First Lines of the Practice of Physic', was used as a textbook by his students. That textbook of his became popular for a time in Britain, throughout Europe and in the American colonies.
Cullen was a bit of an evangelist for the teaching of chemistry and for its becoming an academic subject in its own right. In 1747, after persuading Glasgow University to give him the thirty pounds salary that was saved during the time the Professor of Oriental Languages was abroad and getting them to top it up with a further twenty-two pounds, Cullen was able to get his laboratory and the first ever chemistry lectures up and running. According to the 'Senate Minutes' of the 26th of June, 1749, Cullen explained that “he had expended a much greater sum himself in purchasing cucurbits, boltheads and a great many other instruments.” The University duly acknowledged that “he has just right to these instruments and may dispose of and use them as he thinks fit.”
In terms of Cullen's overall contribution, there is a bit of a contradiction in that some folks have written that he was considered a “progressive thinker, for his time,” whilst others indicate that he was “unoriginal, but enlightened” and his work “derivative.” Cullen did, in fact, produce an influential 'ology'; a nosology, or classification of disease, which he described in 'Synopsis Nosologiae Methodicae', in 1769. The saving grace is that Rosalie Stott, PhD, Hannah Fellow in the History of Medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, suggests that Cullen's name is generally linked with that of Herman Boerhaave as one of “the two great teachers of clinical medicine in the 18th Century.” Stott's paper also quotes Lester S. King as having written that Cullen could confidently be called the “leading British physician of the 18th Century” and that W. F. Bynum points to Cullen as being “undoubtedly the most significant figure” in British medicine, in the second half of that Century.
Cullen also became famous as a scientist when he became the first to demonstrate in public the phenomenon of the refrigeration effects of evaporative cooling. Basically, in Edinburgh, in 1756, William Cullen invented the refrigerator, when he froze water, using a pump to create a partial vacuum over a container of diethyl ether, which then boiled and absorbed heat from its surroundings, leaving behind a small amount of ice. Earlier, at the University of Glasgow, in 1748, Cullen had made the first known, non-public demonstration of artificial refrigeration. What Cullen proved was that the previously postulated principles of artificial refrigeration worked.
Cullen wrote up his experiment in a notable paper entitled 'Of the Cold Produced by Evaporating Fluids and of Some Other Means of Producing Cold' that was published in 'Essays and Observations Physical and Literary Read Before a Society in Edinburgh and Published by Them, vol. II'. Unfortunately for Cullen, despite statements like “the cold that accompanies evaporating fluids could be useful,” he didn't pursue any commercial application. It was left to the American inventor, Oliver Evans, to design the first refrigeration machine, which he did in 1805. Three decades later, in 1834, Jacob Perkins built the first practical refrigerating machine, using ether in a vapour compression cycle.
A name dropping list of Cullen's cronies, peers and pupils includes so many names that are of significance that you cannot fail to be impressed. Think of it this way, though, not that Cullen knew these folks, but that they knew him. They had reason to thank Cullen for the education and instruction he imparted. He had their friendship and respect in return. Enlightenment Scots associated with Cullen include: David Hume and Adam Smith, to both of whom Cullen was physician; Joseph Black and William Hunter, to both of whom he was mentor; John Millar; Adam Ferguson; William Smellie; and Alexander Monro (Primus). Cullen's weel kent students also included several influential Americans, notably Benjamin Rush, signatory to the Declaration of Independence, John Morgan, who founded the Medical School at the College of Philadelphia, the first in the American Colonies.
William Cullen was born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, on the 15th of April, 1710. Wee Willie attended Hamilton Grammar School, before, in 1726, starting a course at the University of Glasgow. Willie developed an interest in medicine and got himself apprenticed as surgeon apothecary to John Paisley at the University. After that, during 1729, Mr. Cullen was surgeon aboard a merchant vessel trading between London and the West Indies. The next two years Cullen spent in London as assistant apothecary to a Mr. Murray, of Henrietta Street. In 1732, Cullen went back to Scotland, where he established his own general medical practice near Shotts. Between 1733 and 1736, Cullen was also able to study medicine at Edinburgh University and, in 1736, he went back to Hamilton. In 1740, after eight years in private clinical practice, combined with studies in Edinburgh, Cullen was awarded a Doctor of Medicine degree from Glasgow University.
In 1743, Cullen moved to Glasgow, which is where his interest in teaching chemistry was encouraged by Dr. Johnstone, the Professor of Medicine. In 1751, Cullen got Johnstone's job, but, in 1755, he switched to Edinburgh, where, in 1766, he succeeded to the Chair of the Institutes (theory) of Medicine. In 1773, William Cullen became sole Professor of Physic, the position he held until shortly before his death, which occurred in Edinburgh, on the 5th of February, 1790.