John Thomson (1765–1846), FRCSEd (1793)

John Thomson

  • Roll Number
  • 287
  • Surname
  • Thomson
  • Forenames
  • John
  • Date of Admission
  • 12th August 1793
  • Surgeon Database
  • Fellow
  • Other Information
  • To be described by a contemporary as the most learned physician of his time in Scotland was an accolade not given lightly, but John Thomson seems well worthy of that description.. As the holder successively of chairs of surgery, military surgery and pathology, he went on to practice medicine, and came close to being appointed to a chair of physic. He had appreciated early on the value of political support for academic advancement.

    Despite his father’s wish that he should enter the Church, Thomson decided to pursue a medical career. After an apprenticeship of 3 years to Dr. White of Paisley, he entered the University of Glasgow during the winter session of 1788-9 and in the following year he transferred to Edinburgh. After several junior appointments in the Infirmary in 1790 and 1791, he became a Member of the Royal Medical Society, and in 1791-2 was elected one of the Presidents.

    He resigned from the Infirmary in July 1792, due to ill health, and proceeded to London where for a short period he attended the Hunterian School of Medicine. While in London, he made many influential Whig friends. Returning to Edinburgh in 1793, he became a Fellow of the College of Surgeons, and was then eligible to attend the Infirmary as a surgeon, and in 1800, he was selected to become the most junior of the six surgeons appointed to the Infirmary by the Managers. This was at the suggestion of Professor James Gregory, ostensibly to improve continuity of patient care in that institution, but the decision caused concern among the members of the College of Surgeons, the majority of whom found themselves excluded from that institution.

    In 1804, he was elected the first Professor of Surgery in the Edinburgh College of Surgeons, in the face of considerable reservations and anxiety in the College, and much hostility in the Faculty of Medicine and the Senatus of the University. In 1806, with the support of Earl Spencer, the Whig Home Secretary, he was appointed the first holder of the Regius Chair of Military Surgery in the University. He resigned from these two posts in 1821 and 1822, respectively. He had earlier resigned from his surgical appointment in the Infirmary because he felt that the Managers had failed to support him when John Bell(qv) questioned his surgical competence. Bell had been for many years one of the leading operating surgeons in Edinburgh, and one of those who had been excluded from the Infirmary in 1800.

    Thomson visited Brussels in 1815 to see the treatment of the British and French wounded following Waterloo, where his advice on their treatment was much valued. His lectures on Military Surgery in Edinburgh were attended by both medical students and experienced military medical officers. These were extremely popular, particularly after Waterloo, and were attended by an audience of almost 300 individuals.

    In 1808, he gained the M.D. degree from Aberdeen, and in February 1815 he was admitted a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians. He acted as both a consulting physician and consulting surgeon. In September 1815, he was instrumental in the establishment of the New Town Dispensary. His lectures on Diseases of the Eye in 1819 were said to have paved the way for the establishment of the first eye infirmary in Edinburgh in 1824. He later taught Practice of Physic and General Pathology in the Extra-mural School and, on the death of James Gregory , was an unsuccessful candidate for the chair of Physic.

    In 1831, following a request to Lord Melbourne, then Secretary of State for the Home Department, he was appointed the first holder of the Regius Chair of General Pathology in the University, but resigned from this post in 1841 due to ill health. While he, at various times, held three Chairs, his two sons each held university chairs. William, his son from his first marriage, was professor of Practice of Physic in Glasgow, and Allen, (qv), son from his second marriage successively held chairs of Anatomy, Aberdeen, (then Institutes of Medicine), Edinburgh, and later Anatomy, Glasgow. Not surprisingly, Dr. Robert Knox referred to him as “the old chair-maker,” and “the Medical Commissioner of the Whigs.”

    He died in 1846. According to Lord Cockburn, in his Memorials of his Time, Thomson had the reputation of being “in his time the most learned physician in Scotland … he was for forty years the most exciting of all our practitioners and of all our teachers.”
  • Further reading
  • Monthly Journal of Medical Sciences; 1846; p361-99
    Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh; 2009; v39(2); p190