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Alexander Monro, secundus

Born  1733
Died  1817

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Scottish physician, born May 22, 1733, Edinburgh; died October 2, 1817, Edinburgh.

Biography of Alexander Monro, secundus

Alexander Monro, secundus, trained in anatomy by his father, was perhaps the greatest of the three Monros and, like his father, was a gifted and popular teacher as well as a distinguished physician. He was educated first at James Mundell’s private school, Edinburgh, and then at the University of Edinburgh. His name appears in his father’s account book for his anatomy class in 1744, when he was only eleven years of age. In the following year he matriculated in the Faculty of Arts and studied Latin, Greek, philosophy, mathematics, physics, and history. Like the majority of arts students in the university at that time, he did noe graduate, individual professors’ certificates being then more highly valued than the official diploma. In 1750 he began the serious study of medicine under Andre Plummer (died 1756) (chemistry), Charles Alston (1683-1760) (botany), John Rutherford (1695-1779) (practice of physic), Robert Whytt (1714-1766), (institutes of medicine), and Robert Smith (midwifery).

His father encouraged his natural bent for medicine, making for him in 1750 a manuscript commentary on his Anatomy of Human Bones, and entrusting him in 1753 with the teaching of the evening anatomy class necessitated by the growing numbers of students. Secundus was then in his second year of medical study. After only one session of this arrangement Monro primus petitioned the town council, the patrons of the university, to appoint his son joint professor of anatomy, and his request was backed by a certificate from the students of his son’s evening class testifying to their satisfaction with his teaching. One of them was Joseph Black (1728-1799), discoverer of carbon dioxide and of latent heat, professor of Medicine and Chemistry, 1766-1795. On July 12, 1755, he was appointed coadjutor to his father. In that same year he became doctor of medicine.

Edinburgh M.D. theses were printed at this period, but most were essayss based on secondary seources. Monro’s thesis extended the knowledge of the seminiferous tubules by some original research. He injected the tubules with mercury and showed their connection with the epididymis, observing that semen has a close relationship with blood and lymph, although his later lectures show that his notions about the real nature of the substance were quite fanciful. Whereas his father considered that the spermatozoa alone formed the embryo, Monro secundus taught that «these animalcules are no more essential to generation than the animals found in vinegar are to acidity.»

Soon after graduating Monro went to London, where he attended the lectures of William Hunter (1718-1783), an old student of Monro primus. He then went on to Paris but had to return hastily to Edinburgh in 1757 to deputize for his father during an illness. He returned to the Continent later in the same year, spending several months in the home of the famous Berlin anatomist Johann Friedrich Meckel the Elder (1724-1774), with whom he performed the operation of paracentesis of the thorax. While there, he published his treatise De venis lymphaticis valvulosis (Berlin, 1757), in which he showed that the lymphatics were absorbents and distinct from the circulatory system. There was a counterclaim for priority in this discovery from William Hunter, which sparked off an acrimonious exchange of pamphlets. Monro secundus replied to Hunter’s claim in his Observations, Anatomical and Physiological, Wherein Dr. Hunter’s Claim to Some Discoveries is Examined (1758). Hunter retorted in Medical Commentaries, Part I: Containing a Plain and Direct Answer to Professor Monro, Jun., Interspersed with Remarks on the Structure, Functions and Diseases of Several parts of the Human Body (London, 1762-1764). Monro seems to have been ahead of Hunter in the matter of the lymphatics, but their mutual jealousy blinded them to the earlier discoveries of Friedrich Hoffman (1660-1742) in this field.

Monro extended his attacks to include Hewson, his own former pupil and a colleague of Hunter, who in 1767 had recommended the operation of paracentesis of the thorax in traumatic pneumothorax and at the same time had published his own discovery of the existence of lacteals and lymphatics in non.mallaians. Monro asserted his own priority in both fields in A State of Facts Concerning the First Porposal of Performing the Paracentesis of the Thorax and the Discovery of the Lymphatic Valvular absorbent System of Oviparous Animals. In Answer to Mr. Hewson. Edinburgh, 1770). There is no doubt that Monro had preceded Hewson in performing the operation of parecentesis of the thorax. Although he had earlier shown injections of the lymphatics and described them to his class, Hewson was the first to publish a full and accurate account of them in nonmammalian animals.

From Berlin, Monro went to Leiden, where he met the anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (1697-1770), once a fellow student of Monro primus and Peter Camper (1722-1789), professor of anatomy at Amsterdam. In January 1758, his father again being taken ill, Monro, now in his twenty-fifth year, had to cut short his European tour in order to conduct the anatomy class at Edinburgh. His father recovered and delivered the opening lecture of the session (1758-1759), but thereafter Monro secundus undertook the main work of the chair, of which he was sole holder for the next fifty years. On May 1, 1759 he became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. His course started with a detailed history of anatomy and proceeded to anatomy itself, beginning with the bones; then came physiology, and finally the operations of surgery. His clear informal style of lecturing was even more effective than his father’s. The official records of the Faculty of Medicine give him 228 students in 1808.

Like his father, Monro secundus was a sociable man, He was a member of Harveian Society of Edinburgh, which cultivated conviviality as well as oratory, in both of which fields Monro shone brilliantly. He was joint secretary of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh along with David Hume (1760-1763) and sole secretary (1763-1783) when it became the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was also a district commissioner for cleansing, lighting, and watching the streets, a manager of the Royal Infirmary, and a member of the committee of defense for Midlothian during the Frech invasion scare of 1794.

On September 25,1762, Monro married Katherine Inglis, daughter of David Inglis, treasurer of the Bank of Scotland, and by her had three sons and two daughters. He lived first in a flat in Carmichaels land in the Lawnmarket, Edinburgh. In 1766 he moved to a house with a garden in Nicolson Street, near the university, where he stayed until 1801, when he took up residence in the New Town, in St. Andrew Square. In 1773 he bought a property of 271 acres at Craiglockhart on the outskirts of the town, not as a residence but purely to indulge his passion for gardening.

In 1798 he persuaded the town council to appoint his elder son, Alexander, thereafter known as Monro Tertius, to be joint professor of anatomy with him. He himself continued to share the duties of the chair until 1808, when he retired at age seventy-five. He died of apoplexy on October 2, 1817, at age eighty-four. He had bequeathed his fine collection of anatomical and pathological specimens for the use of his son and his successors in the chair of anatomy.

Monro secundus was a kindly man in family and social life but perhaps overjealous of his professional reputation. He used his powerful influence, for instance, to prevent until almost the end of his teaching career the establishment of a separate chair of surgery, a clear necessity as Monro, although officially professor of anatomy and surgery, was not himself a practicing surgeon. His medical ability had been proved in the most testing of situations, having to follow a great father and work with colleagues as William Cullen (1710-1789), Joseph Black, Daniel Rutherford, James Gregory (1758-1822), and Andrew Duncan.

Monro secundus’ earlier publications were largely polemical, and it was not until he had been teaching for twenty-five years that his three main contributions to medical literature appeared. Monro’s Observations on the Structure and Functions of the Nervous System (Edinburgh, 1783), a massive text and atlas on human and comparative neurology, is Monro's greastest work.

His A Description of All the Bursae Mucosae of the Human Body . . . was a practical manual for direct use in surgery. Although next to nothing was known of germ life at that time, Monro’s acute observation and independent empirical judgment led him to the conclusion that the chief danger of infection in surgery of joints lay in exposure to the air.

«For, as the substance of the brain, like that of the other solids of our body, is nearly incompressible, the quantity of blood within the head must be the same, or very nearly the same, at all times, whether in health or disease, in life or after death.»
Observations on the Structure and Functions of the Nervous System.
Chapter. 1, Section. 4.

See also:
Alexander Monro, primus, 1698-1767.
Alexander Monro, tertius, 1773-1859.


  • An Essay on the Dropsy and its Different Species. London, 1756.
    French translation by Savary, 1760; German 1762.
  • De venis lymphaticis valvulosis. Berlin, 1757.
    In this work Monro secundus showed that the lymphatics were absorbents and distinct from the circulatory system.
  • Observations, Anatomical and Physiological, Wherein Dr. Hunter’s Claim to Some Discoveries is Examined.
    Edinburgh, 1758.
  • A State of Facts Concerning the First Porposal of Performing the Paracentesis of the Thorax and the Discovery of the Lymphatic Valvular absorbent System of Oviparous Animals. In Answer to Mr. Hewson. Edinburgh, 1770.
  • Microscopical Inquiries Into the Nerves and Brain.
    Edinburgh, 1780.
  • Observations on the Structure and Functions of the Nervous System. Edinburgh, 1783. German translation; Leipzig, 1787.
    Contains his discovery of the «Foramen of Monro.»
  • Bemerkungen uber die Struktur und Verrichtungen des Nervensystems / durch Alexander Monro.
    Leipzig : Schwickertschen, 1787. 96 p.
  • The Structure and Physiology of Fishes Explained and Compared With Those of Man and Other Animals. Edinburgh, 1785.
    The first important Edinburgh textbook on comparative anatomy. German translation by J. G. Schneider, Leipzig, 1787.
  • A Description of All the Bursae Mucosae of the Human Body; Their Structure Explained and Compared With That of the Capsular Ligaments of the Joints, and of Those Sacs Which line the Cavities of the Thorax and Abdomen: With Remarks on the Accidents and Diseases Which Affect Those Several Sacs, and on the Operations Necessary for Their Cure.
    London, 1788.
    German translation by Johann Christian Rosenmüller (1771-1820), Leipzig, 1799.
    Contains the first full anatomical description of the sacs between the tendons and bones which Albinus had named the bursae mucosae.
  • Experiments on the Nervous System With Opium and Metallic Substances; Made Chiefly With the View of Determining the Nature and Effects of Animal Electricity. Edinburgh, 1793.
  • Observations on the Muscles and Particularly on the Effects of Their Oblique Fibres: With an Appendix, in Which the Pretension of Dr. Gilbert Blane, That He first Demonstrated the Same Effect to Be Produced by Oblique Muscles as by Straight Ones, With a Less Proportional Decurtation of Fibres is Proved to Be Quite Unfounded. Edinburgh, 1794.
    Refers to Gilbert Blane's (1747-1834) papers on muscular action, later collected in: Select dissertations on several subjects of medical science. Now first collected etc. London, 1822.
  • Three Treatises on the Brain, the Eye and the Ear.
    Edinburgh, 1797.
  • Alexcander Monro, tertius:
    ays and heads of Lectures on Anatomy, Physiology, and Surgery. With a memeoir of his Life . . . by His Son.
    Edinburgh, 1840.
  • Duncan, Senior:
    An Account of the Life, Writings and Character of Alexander Monro, Secundus. Edinburgh, 1818.

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