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William Cullen and Joseph Black: chemistry, medicine, and the Scottish enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was a highly diverse intellectual movement that emerged in the first half of the 18th century. Its central theme was the move from given knowledge to rationalism. The scientific method of gaining knowledge started to permeate arts and humanities; a formalized approach to social sciences, history, and the arts was attempted (1).

The major pillar of Enlightenment thinking was Newtonian physics. It was thought that Isaac Newton (1642-1727) managed to scientifically understand and describe (completely and finally was the assumption) natural phenomena. Science was seen as a path to absolute truth. There was also the idea of linear progress, which was rather hurriedly extended to all fields, including the new social sciences. These tenets, entrenched in Enlightenment thinking, in spite of their inaccuracy, curiously still surface from time to time in contemporary thinking.

The Enlightenment started in France, where Voltaire (1694-1778) and the Encyclopedists were its major proponents. Eventually, one of its foci became Scotland after the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, and the Act of Union in 1707, which created Britain (2).

At that time, chemistry was causing increasing interest among medical people. William Cullen (1710-1790) was the holder of the chair of chemistry at the University of Glasgow, the first one in Britain (3). From 1740, Cullen lectured on medicine, materia medica, and botany, and set up the teaching of chemistry. The minutes of the University Senate from June 26,1749, read:

Dr. Cullen having received about 2 years ago fifty two pounds sterling to be laid out in building furnaces and fitting up a Laboratory and purchasing the necessary vessels for it ...acquainted the Faculty of the success of this attempt to begin Chemical Lessons in the University, and the University meeting now return him thanks for the great care and pains he has been at in giving Chemical Lessons and explaining them constantly by the most useful and necessary Chemical Processes and Experiments (4).

In 1750, Cullen became professor of medicine and in 1755 moved to the chair of chemistry and medicine in Edinburgh. Later he held the chair of the Institutes of Medicine there, which included physiology, general pathology, and therapeutics. He introduced the classification of diseases, dividing them into pyrexias, neuroses, cachexias, and local disease (5). His teaching was that the nervous system was a key to "animal economy" (a precursor term for "homeostasis"), and all pathology, he thought, originated as a disordered action of the nervous system.

His pupil was Joseph Black (1728-1799) (6). Black entered the University of Glasgow in 1746 intending to study law and philosophy, but he eventually studied medicine and attended Cullen's chemistry classes. Cullen was interested in gravimetric analysis, which Black learned. In his later doctoral research, carried out in Edinburgh, Black used gravimetry to investigate the behavior of limestone (calcium carbonate) and the white of magnesia (magnesium hydroxide). This study led to a discovery of the "fixed air"--carbon dioxide--and to the seminal observation that air was in fact a mixture of gases.

Later, Cullen recommended Black to the chair of medicine at Glasgow, where his lectures became widely known. He began attracting students from Europe and America. In his later investigations, Black focused on the nature of heat; he was assisted in some experiments by James Watt, the instrument maker at the university and later the inventor of the revolutionary steam engine.

Black left Glasgow in 1766 to succeed Cullen as professor of chemistry in Edinburgh. There he joined the circle that included such luminaries as the economist Adam Smith, philosophers David Hume (1711-1776) and Thomas Reid (1710-1796), and the pioneering geologist James Hutton (1726-1797) (7). Black's portrait presented in Fig. 1 is from this period.

The Enlightenment arts had several strands. In France, the playful rococo represented by Francois Boucher (1703-1770) and Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) was on the wane. The Oath of the Horatii, painted by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) in 1785, changed the predominant style completely by introducing stern, high-minded neoclassicism. In Britain, portraiture flourished. The style was originally rather severe, and later, under the influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds (17231792), it became increasingly neoclassical. The most prominent portraitist based in Scotland was Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) (8). Raeburn had no academic training: He had trained as an apprentice to a jeweler goldsmith and at some point painted miniatures. He did, however, go to Rome after 1754. On his return, he settled in Edinburgh and, like Black, became a member of the Edinburgh circle of intellectuals. He achieved artistic prominence: He was knighted, and in 1823 George IV made him King's Limner and Painter in Scotland (a member of the royal household). In his portrait of Joseph Black (Fig. 1), Raeburn delightfully mixes the formality of the pose with soft line and a calm color palette. He beautifully renders the textures of clothing and the chair, and creates an atmospheric tonal ambience. Raeburn's technique shows relatively loose brushwork. This departure from strictly defined contours would become a characteristic of painting styles toward the end of the 19th century, culminating with Impressionism.


DOI: 10.1373/clinchem.2011.173609

Acknowledgment: The author thanks Jacky Gardiner for excellent secretarial assistance.

Author Contributions: All authors confirmed they have contributed to the intellectual content of this paper and have met the following 3 requirements: (a) significant contributions to the conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; (b) drafting or revising the article for intellectual content; and (c) final approval of the published article.

Authors' Disclosures or Potential Conflicts of Interest: No authors declared any potential conflicts of interest.


(1.) Gribbin J. Science: a history 1543-2001. London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press; 2002. p 241-9.

(2.) Herman A. The Scottish Enlightenment. The Scots' invention of the modern world. London: Fourth Estate; 2001. p 37-103.

(3.) Complete dictionary of scientific biography, s.v. "Cullen, William." http:// (Accessed October 2011). 2008. (Accessed October 2011).

(4.) University of Glasgow, School of Chemistry. William Cullen, M.D. http:// (Accessed July 2011).

(5.) Porter R. The greatest benefit to mankind. A medical history of humanity from antiquity to the present. London: Fontana Press; 1999. p 245-62.

(6.) University of Glasgow, School of Chemistry. Joseph Black, M.D. http:// (Accessed July 2011).

(7.) Herman A. The Scottish Enlightenment. The Scots' invention of the modern world. London: Fourth Estate; 2001. p 305-14.

(8.) Dominiczak MH. On painting and philosophy: Sir Henry Raeburn. Clin Chem Lab Med 2001;39:1287-90.

Marek H. Dominiczak *

College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK.

* Address correspondence to the author at: Department of Biochemistry, Gart-navel General Hospital, Glasgow G12 0YN, UK. Fax +44-141-211-3452; e-mail
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Title Annotation:the Clinical Chemist: International Year of Chemistry 2011
Author:Dominiczak, Marek H.
Publication:Clinical Chemistry
Date:Nov 1, 2011
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