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Alexander Monro, primus

Born  1698
Died  1767

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    Scottish physician, born September 8, 1698, London; died July 10, 1767, Edinburgh.

    Biography of Alexander Monro, primus

    Alexander Monro primus, as he is usually called, was the first in the long line of the Monro family who held the chair of anatomy at Edinburgh for 126 years. Alexander Monro, primus, was the son of John Monro, a military surgeon who moved to Edinburgh, where Alexander received his degree. His mother was Jean Forbes, granddaughter of Duncan Forbes of Culloden. John Monro - who was the youngest son of Sir Alexander Monro, advocate, of Barcroft, Sterlingshire - retired from the army in 1700 and took up private practice in Edinburgh.

    Alexander entered Edinburgh University in 1710, where he remained for three years, studying Latin, Greek, and Philosophy. He also learned French, arithmetic, and bookkeeping under private teachers and received instruction in fencing, dancing, music, and painting. He did not graduate in arts, but, having decided on a medical career, was formally apprenticed to his father in 1713. He also attended such medical courses as were available locally, but these did not amount to much. He says «the dissection of a human body was showed once in two or three years by Mr. Robert Elliot, and afterwards by Messrs. Adam Drummond and John Macgill, Surgeon-Apothecaries,» who, he ads pointedly, «had the Title of Professor of Anatomy.»

    John Monro had studied at Leiden University under Archibald Pitcairne (1652-1713), whose idea of founding a medical school of repute in Edinburgh seems to have fired his imagination, and once his son’s aptitude became apparent, he spared no efforts preparing him to play a major role in the scheme. In 1717 Alexander was sent to London, where he studied physics under Whiston and Hauksbee and attended demonstrations by the great anatomist William Cheselden (1688-1752). With the encouragement of their master, Cheseldon’s students had formed a scientific society; and a paper read by Monro on «the bones in general» was a forerunner of his own important work on that subject. He also made a number of anatomical preparations, which he sent home and which were so admired by Adam Drummond, one of the professors of anatomy at Edinburgh, that he offered to resign in Monro’s favour when he should return to Scotland.

    In the spring of 1718 Monro went to Paris, where he attended a course in anatomy by Bouquet and frequented the hospitals. He performed operations under the direction of Thibaut, was instructed in midwifery by Grégoire, and bandaging by Cesau, and in botany by Pierre Jean Baptiste Chomel (1671-1748). In the autumn if 1718 he went to Leiden, where he won the favourable attention of Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738), his fathers old fellow student.

    In the fall of 1719 he returned to Edinburgh, where he became prosector at the schools of surgery and was appointed professor of anatomy and surgery, beginning his lectures in the winter of 1720. He was appointed professor of anatomy in 1721, but was not formally inducted into the professorship until 1725. Alexander primus came to be known as an interesting lecturer who never used notes. Monro was named secretary to the newly established medical society.

    Monro had come to realize the value of the history of anatomy in the academic teaching of the subject, and with his customary thoroughness he enrolled as a student in Charles Mackie’s newly inaugurated class of universal history. On November 20, 1719, he was admitted as a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, after passing the usual tests. On January 29, 1721, even though he was still only twenty-two years of age, the town council appointed him professor of anatomy. On Cheselden’s recommendation he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1723.

    In 1724 and 1725 there was a popular outcry against grave robbing in Edinburgh. Surgeons’ Hall was beset, and there were threats to demolish it. In 1725 the town council accordingly provided Monro with an anatomy theatre and museum for his preparations, and thereafter he undertook all the duties of a professor. One of these was to take his turn in delivering the public oration that inaugurated each session, and the subject of his first, delivered on November 3, 1725, was «De origine et utilitate anatomes,» which he later incorporated into his course on the history of anatomy.

    On January 3, 1725, Monro married Isabella MacDonald, daughter of Sir Donald MacDonald of Sleat, Isle of Skye. They had three sons and five daughters. Only one of his daughters survived infancy, and for her Monro wrote an «Essay on Female Conduct,» which included a section on «The Laws of Nature, the Mosaical Institution and the Christian System.» John, the eldest son, became an advocate; Donald, his second son, graduated M.D. in 1753 and was physician to St. George’s Hospital, London. Alexander, the youngest, succeeded his father in the chair of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh.

    In 1726 Monro published his major work, The Anatomy of the Human Bones. In the second (1732 and later editions there is added An Anatomical Treatise of the Nerves, and Account of the Reciprocal Motions of the Heart and a Description of the Human Lacteal Sac and Duct. Her he observes that the nerves consist of «a great many threads lying parallel to each other,» and seems to anticipate Müller’s law of specific nerve energies, noting that «when all light is excluded from the eyes an idea of light and colour may be excited in us by coughing, sneezing, rubbing or striking the eyeball.» The work continued to be reprinted as late as 1828, by which time it had gone through nineteen English editions and appeared in several translations, the most notable being the large, illustrated French editions of 1759 by Jean-Joseph Sue.

    The Edinburgh Medical School had now a nucleus of medical professors, but thee was still no hospital for clinical teaching. It was not until 1725 that the matter was seriously pursued with the help of George Drummond, lord provost of Edinburgh. In 1729 a small hospital for the sick poor was opened, and it was from its case register that much of the material was derived for the Medical Essays and Observations, 6 volumes (1732-1744), edited by Monro for the Society for the Improvement of Medical Knowledge, of which he was secretary. The Medical Essays became a standard work of reference, went through five editions, and was translated into several languages.

    The scope of this society was widened in 1737 at the suggestion of Monro’s friend Colin Maclaurin (1698-1746), professor of mathematics, and was renamed the Society for Improving Philosophy and Natural Knowledge, or the Philosophical Society, but Maclaurin’s death and the rebellion of 1745 caused its decline. In 1752 it was revived and Monro was elected joint secretary with David Hume the philosopher, contributing six medical papers to their Essays and Observations, Physical and Literary¸ (1754-1756). This society became the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783. Monro belonged to several other societies: the Honourable Society of Improvers of the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland (disbanded in 1745); the Select Society, founded by Allan Ramsay the Younger; and the Edinburgh Society for Encouraging Arts, Sciences, Manufactures and Agriculture in Scotland, an offshoot of the Select Society. He was also a manager of the Royal Infirmary and a director of the Bank of Scotland. In addition he was a justice of the peace, a manager of the Orphans Hospital and of the Scheme for the Widows of Ministers and Professors, although he was less active in these roles.

    In politics Monro was a staunch Hanoverian but no bigot. After the battle of Prestopans in 1745, which went against his cause, he impartially assisted the wounded of both armies.

    Monro actively fostered the career of his gifted youngest son, Alexander, with the parental concern characteristic of the family. For his benefit he wrote a «commentary» on his Anatomy of the Human Bones and in 1754 persuaded the town council to admit him as joint professor of anatomy with himself, although he had not yet graduated. After his son Alexander, secundus as he was thenceforth designated, had taken his M.D. in 1755, Monro primus, to use the father’s new epithet - was granted the degree of M.D., honoris causa on January 1, 1756. The system of joint professorship was to provide emoluments for the retiring professor, but Monro primus, having secured the succession for his son, continued to share the duties of the chair until 1758, after which he confined himself to his favourite clinical lectures in the new Royal Infirmary, which had been completed in 1741. The infirmary was designed by William Adam under the supervision of Monro and Lord Provost Drummond.

    Monro primus was of medium height, strongly built, and energetic, but subject to periodical inflammatory fevers. He continued to take an active part in university business until the end of 1765, although by 1762 he was beginning to feel the symptoms of cancer of the rectum, which caused his death on July 10, 1767, at his home in Covenant Close, Edinburgh. He was buried in Greyfriars Churchyard, Edinburgh.
    Monro was not ambitious as an author. His great work on the human bones was published rather as a teaching aid, and many of his important contributions to Medical Essays and Observations were anonymous. His last publication was An Account of the Inoculation of Smallpox in Scotland (1765). It contains the answers conscientiously gathered by Monro to a questionnaire sent to him by the Faculty of Medicine in Paris about the efficacy of inoculation, of which Monro himself was a strong advocate.

    In his lifetime he published two books and 53 separate papers. His writings were collected in one volume as Works (1781) by Alexander secundus. His anatomical preparations were outstanding. Though not a surgeon, he was greatly interested in surgery and advanced many new ideas in surgical instruments and dressings.

    Of his eight children, four of whom died, Donald (1727-1802) and Alexander secundus entered medicine. Alexander primus resigned his professorship in 1764 (he left his chair to his son Alexander in 1759 and satisfied himself with clinical lectures. His practice of lecturing in English was then a novelty.

    Monro was not a great innovgative genius (eighteenth-century anatomy indeed was marked more by advances in the field of description than by new discoveries), but his extraordinary industry, his wide reading, his accuracy of observation, and his open, original mind sometimes led him to correct conclusions that could be only be verified by the more refined equipment of later times. He was a supreme teacher and demonstrator. A gifted technician, Monro improved methods of injecting minute vessels and preserving anatomical preparations.

    In 1720 his class numbered fifty-seven, but by 1749 he had 182 students, and by 1751 it had outgrown the anatomy theatre and had to be taught at two separate meetings daily. His reputation attracted students from all parts of Europe, so that his father’s dream of Edinburgh as a medical centre rivalling Leiden began to come true. The advance guard of students from America also began to appear, and the influence of the Edinburgh Medical School was carried to the New World. The inspiration of Monro’s teaching was frequently acknowledged in grateful dedications in the M.D. theses of his students, among whom were such distinguished names as William Hunter (1718-1883), Robert Whytt (1714-1766), John Fothergill (1712-1780), Andrew Duncan (1744-1828), and, of course, his own son, Alexander Monro (secundus).

    His chief work, on the anatomy of human bones, continued to be in use in successive editions for more than fifth years.

    See also:
    Alexander Monro, secundus, 1733-1817.
    Alexander Monro, tertius, 1773-1859.


    • The Anatomy of the Human Bones.
      1726. 2nd (1732) and later editions as:
      The Anatomy of the Human Bones. To which are added, An Anatomical Treatise of the Nerves, an Account of the Reciprocal Motions of the Heart and a Description of the Human Lacteal Sac and Duct.
      Edinburgh, 1732, 1758, 1763. French Translation (only osteology) by Jean Joseph Sue (1710-1792), Paris, 1759. German translation by von Karl Christian Krause (1716-1793):
      Alexander Monro’s Knochenlehre . . . nebst der Nervenlehre eben dieses Verfassers, wie auch eine Erklärung von der abwechselnden Bewegung des Herzens und einer Beschreibung des menschlichen Milchsaftbehälters u. s. w. Leipzig, 1761.
    • Essay on comparative anatomy.
      London, 1744; new edition, 1783. French translation, 1786; German, Göttingen, 1790.
    • An account of the inoculation of small-pox in Scotland.
      Edinburgh, 1765. French and German translations 1866.
    • The works of Alexander Monro published by his son Alexander Monro. To which is prefixed the life of the author.
      1781. Collected edition in one volume by Alexander secundus.

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