William Cullen (1710-1790)

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Occupation, Sphere of Activity

William Cullen was born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland, 15 April 1710. His father was a lawyer, on special retainer to the Duke of Hamilton; his mother was of the Roberton family of Whistlebury. He attended the Hamilton Grammar School, and in 1726 began an arts course in general studies in the University of Glasgow. Following an interest in medicine, he apprenticed himself as surgeon apothecary to John Paisley of Glasgow, spent 1729 as surgeon to a West Indies merchant vessel, and 1730 and '31 as assistant apothecary to Mr Murray of Henrietta Street, London, and in 1732 he started general medical practice in Shotts, Lanarkshire. A small legacy in 1733 financed more private study in general literature and philosophy and sent him to Edinburgh University for formal medical classes. He returned to Hamilton in 1736, a physician and surgeon, and by 1740 held a Glasgow medical degree at last. He married in 1741, started his family, and settled into terms as a town councillor and magistrate. He also became ordinary medical attendant to James, 5th Duke of Hamilton (1703-43), and his family, and his livestock.

Cullen had been interested in chemistry since Edinburgh, and the Duke intended to equip a laboratory for him, and to make him superintendent of the Palace gardens. But the Duke died in 1743, and in the next year the Cullens moved to Glasgow, where father practised physic and lectured extramurally in physiology, botany, and materia medica. Dr Johnstone, Professor of Medicine, let him teach chemistry as its own subject, a novel idea, and by 1747 there was money for the first independent lectureship in chemistry, occupied by Cullen and one John Carrick, assistant to Robert Hamilton, Professor of Anatomy; Carrick died soon after, and was not replaced. In 1751 Cullen took the chair of medicine vacated by Johnstone, continuing with chemistry lectures as best he could, then leapt to Edinburgh in 1755, when Andrew Plummer (1697-1756), his old chemistry lecturer, died. In 1766 he succeeded Robert Whytt (1714-1766) in the Edinburgh chair of the Institutes (theory) of Medicine, later sharing lectures with John Gregory (1724-1773) in alternate years in the practice of physic, into whose chair he moved in 1773. Cullen was a fine administrator, who helped found the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Medical Society (Edinburgh). For all his academic leadership he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London 1777, though he never signed the roll attesting formal admission. He died in Edinburgh on 5 February 1790, and lies interred nearby in the village of Kirknewton.

Cullen the chemist was unoriginal but enlightened. His papers, none ever published, show that he was willing to distinguish acids and alkalies from "salts", to acknowledge the legitimacy of Boyle's atoms, and to give symbolic precision to the affinity tables then in widespread use. Cullen the man of medicine, who published only marginally, was reasonably forward-thinking as well, especially in matters of nosology. It was Cullen the teacher who shone brightest. He was deeply entrenched in Lockean empirical philosophy, and his practical lectures, in accessible English, with student-led, hands-on demonstrations, made his courses famous as far away as Philadelphia. He evangelized for chemistry as its own academic subject, and stressed its practical applications to mining, agriculture, and manufacture. Cullen's empirical practicality finally made him famous as a general scientist too. His only important paper was the writeup of his 1756 demonstration of someone else's postulated usefulness of the cold that accompanies evaporating fluids. He froze water to prove that the principles worked.


Two most important academic mentors in Cullen's life were Robert Simson (1687-1768), the Glasgow mathematician who helped foster his interest in science and who supported him later as a young professor, and Andrew Plummer (1697-1756), experimental chemist in the medical school in Edinburgh and disciple of the influential Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738).

His great non-faculty patrons were Archibald Campbell, 3rd Duke of Argyll (1682-1761), lawyer and politician, who got him his Edinburgh chemistry chair; Henry Home, Lorde Kames (1696-1782), judge, agriculturalist and philosopher, who enticed him to Edinburgh; and George Drummond (1688-1766), financier and politician, responsible for the building of the Royal Infirmary and the medical school.

Cullen's favourite colleagues included young Lanarkshire friend William Hunter (1718-83), who became a celebrated anatomist and obstetrician; he was surgeon apothecary apprentice to Cullen for three years in Hamilton, and boarded in his house. Cullen later introduced him to another Lanarkshire friend, William Smellie (1697-1763), master of British midwifery, who helped set Hunter up in his London practice. There were also John Carrick, fellow lecturer in chemistry at Edinburgh, and John Rutherford (1695-1779), Alexander Monro (1697-1767), and Robert Whytt (1714-1766), all fellow teachers in clinical medicine. A fellow practical scientist was Francis Home (1719-1813), Professor of Materia Medica at Edinburgh; like Cullen, he worked on the chemistry of linen bleaching.

Numerous Cullen students went on to become important scientists in their own right. Joseph Black (1728-1799) discovered carbon dioxide. A true procedural protégé of his master, he was first to use a balance in a planned set of experiments, in the manner of a modern quantitative chemist. Other luminaries were Robert William (1757-1812), William Withering (1741-1799), John Rogerson (1741-1823), Sir Gilbert Blane (1749-1834), John Haygarth (1740-1827), John Coakley Lettsom (1744-1813), and Dr John Brown (1735-1788). There was also unfortunately Dr James Graham (1745-1794), a famous quack, who ran a sumptuous Temple of Health in London. One of his scantily-clad goddesses of health was Lady Emma Hamilton (1765-1815), née Emma Noble, more famous as Lord Nelson's mistress. Legitimate enthusiasts of Cullen's teaching methods overseas were prominent Americans like John Morgan (1753-89), Benjamin Rush (1745-1813), Thomas Parke, Wiliam Shippen (1736-1808), Adam Kuhn (1741-1817), and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).

Dr Cullen had famous acquaintances outside the sciences. One of them was another new appointment in Glasgow, an economist named Adam Smith (1723-1790). Another in Glasgow was one David Hume (1711-1776). In 1773 Dr Cullen dined with Dr Johnson, who found him very entertaining.

Mrs Cullen was born Anna Johnstone, daughter of the Reverend Robert Johnstone of Kilbarchan.

Notable publication

"Of the Cold Produced by Evaporating Fluids and of Some Other Means of Producing Cold," in Essays and Observations Physical and Literary Read Before a Society in Edinburgh and Published by Them, II (Edinburgh, 1756)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

  • 1740: Awarded Doctor of Medicine degree from Glasgow University
  • 1747: Awarded Britain's first independent lectureship in chemistry
  • 1747: Elected President of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow
  • 1751: Appointed to the chair of Medicine at the University of Glasgow
  • 1755: Appointed Professor of chemistry and medicine, Edinburgh
  • 1766: Appointed to the chair of Institutes (theory) of Medicine in Edinburgh
  • 1773: Becomes sole Professor of Physic in Edinburgh
  • 1773: Appointed First Physician to the King in Scotland
  • 1773: Elected President of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh
  • 1777: Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London (without signing the roll)
  • 1783: Helps found the Royal Society of Edinburgh


  • Doig, A, et al, eds, William Cullen and the Eighteenth Century Medical World , (, Edinburgh University Press, 1993)
  • Gillespie, CC, ed, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, (New York, Scribner's, 1970-1990), s.v. "Cullen, William" by William P.D. Wightman