John Abercrombie

Born 1780-10-10
Died 1844

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Scottish physician, born October 10, Aberdeen 1780; died 1844.

Biography of John Abercrombie

John Abercrombie was a member of the famous Edinburgh School of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The first to treat neuropathology as a separate entity, he is best known through his Pathological and Practical Researches on Diseases of the Brain and Spinal Cord (1828), the first textbook of neuropathology.

The son of an Aberdeen clergyman, Abercrombie received his doctorate in 1803. Following a six months stay in London he settled in Edinburgh as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. At first he had a conventional practice as a general practitioner. However, his superb qualities, particularly the unusual care he showed his patients, soon gained him an exceptional reputation - and an extensive consultative practice, which was still growing when he became a member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1821. From that year he was reckoned the number one consultative authority in Edinburgh. Rivals and enemies were not absent, however, but even they were more or les disarmed by his friendly manners - most of them instead becoming his friends.

A strong religiosity and charitability were basic traits of Abercrombie's characters; to his professional colleagues he was a sample of collegiality, bedside he was a man of silence. He became royal life physician in Scotland, in 1834 doctor of honour of medicine at the University of Oxford and vice president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, in 1835 Lord Rector of the Marishal College and the University of Aberdeen. His inaugural address on the latter occasion was published under the extended title of Culture and discipline of the mind.

In 1841 Abercrombie suffered an attack of paralysis, but recovered and resumed his practice. On November 14, 1844, he was found dead, lying stretched out with his face down in his room. He had been on his way out to visit patients. The autopsy showed rupture of a coronary artery with haemopericardium as the cause of death. The conspicuously large brain weighed 46 ounces.

Abercrombie was never a physician with a hospital or ambulatorium. His numerous and instructive observations of disease are thus exclusively taken from his private practice. He was a strong advocate of medicine based on experience, maybe too much so, but this may also be seen as a protest against the rampant system building in the medicine of his time.

To Abercrombie, the noblest task of the medical writer is the exact observation and exact report of the pathological facts and their reciprocal relation. To him all theories and systems were of lesser value in these contexts, and neither did he believe that medicine could be enriched by other scientific methods, like experiments.

General principles in the natural sciences are no more than common knowledge, or facts common to all individuals in a class; and only when they are deduced from an exact observation of each and all of these individuals, can they lay claim of truth or usefulness. If, on the other hand, they are deduced from a limited observation, they are usually useless in science, and dangerous in medicine.

Abercrombie's written work was large, comprising not only medicine, but also moral philosophy.

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