CULLEN, WILLIAM (1710-1700), Scottish physician and medical teacher, was born at Hamilton, Lanarkshire, on the 15th of April 1710. He received his early education at the grammar-school of Hamilton, and he appears to have subsequently attended some classes at the university of Glasgow. He began his medical career as apprentice to John Paisley, a Glasgow surgeon, and after completing his apprenticeship he became surgeon to a merchant vessel trading between London and the West Indies. On his return to Scotland in 1732 he settled as a practitioner in the parish of Shotts, Lanarkshire, and in 1734-1736 studied medicine at Edinburgh, where he was one of the founders of the Royal Medical Society. In 1736 he began to practise in Hamilton, where he rapidly acquired a high reputation. From 1737 to 1740 William Hunter was his resident pupil, and at one time they proposed to enter into partnership. In 1740 Cullen took the degree of M.D. at Glasgow, whither he removed in 1744. During his residence at Hamilton, besides the arduous duties of medical practice, he found time to devote to the study of the natural sciences, and especially of chemistry. On coming to Glasgow he appears to have begun to lecture in connexion with the university, the medical school of which was as yet imperfectly organized. Besides the subjects of theory and practice of medicine, he lectured systematically on botany, materia medica and chemistry. His great abilities, enthusiasm and power of conveying instruction made him a successful and highly popular teacher, and his classes increased largely in numbers. At the same time he diligently pursued the practice of his profession. Chemistry was the subject which at this time seems to have engaged the greatest share of his attention. He was himself a diligent investigator and experimenter, and he did much to encourage original research among his pupils, one of whom was Dr Joseph Black. In 1751 he was appointed professor of medicine, but continued to lecture on chemistry, and in 1756 he was elected joint professor of chemistry at Edinburgh along with Andrew Plummer, on whose death in the following year the sole appointment was conferred on Cullen. This chair he held for ten years his classes always increasing in numbers. He also practised his profession as a physician with eminent success. From 1757 he delivered lectures on clinical medicine in the Royal Infirmary. This was a work for which his experience, habits of observation, and scientific training peculiarly fitted him, and in which his popularity as a teacher, no less than his power as a practical physician, became more than ever conspicuous. On the death of Charles Alston in 1760, Cullen at the request of the students undertook to finish his course of lectures on materia medica; he delivered an entirely new course, which were published in an unauthorized edition in 1771, but which he rewrote and issued as A Treatise on Materia Medica in 1789.
On the death of Robert Whytt (1714-1766), the professor of the institutes of medicine, Cullen accepted the chair, at the same time resigning that of chemistry. In the same year he had been an unsuccessful candidate for the professorship of the practice of physic, but subsequently an arrangement was made between him and John Gregory, who had gained the appointment, by which they agreed to deliver alternate courses on the theory and practice of physic. This arrangement proved eminently satisfactory, but it was brought to a close by the sudden death of Gregory in 1773. Cullen was then appointed sole professor of the practice of physic, and he continued in this office till a few months before his death, which took place on the 5th of February 1790.
As a lecturer Cullen appears to have stood unrivalled in his day. His clearness of statement and power of imparting interest to the most abstruse topics were the conspicuous features of his teaching, and in his various capacities as a scientific lecturer, a physiologist, and a practical physician, he was ever surrounded with large and increasing classes of intelligent pupils, to whom his eminently suggestive mode of instruction was specially attractive. Living at the time he did, when the doctrines of the humoral pathologists were carried to an extreme extent, and witnessing the ravages which disease made on the solid structures of the body, it was not surprising that he should oppose a doctrine which appeared to him to lead to a false practice and to fatal results, and adopt one which attributed more to the agency of the solids and very little to that of the fluids of the body. His chief works were First Lines of the Practice of Physic (1774); Institutions of Medicine (1770); and Synopsis Nosologicae Medicae (1785), which contained his classification of diseases into four great classes (i) Pyrexiae, or febrile diseases, as typhus fever; (2) Neuroses, or nervous diseases, as epilepsy; (3) Cachexiae, or diseases resulting from bad habit of body, as scurvy; and (4) Locales, or local diseases, as cancer.
Cullen's eldest son Robert became a Scottish judge in 1796 under the title of Lord Cullen, and was known for his powers of mimicry.
The first volume of an account of Cullen's Life, Lectures and Writings was published by Dr John Thomson in 1832, and was reissued with the second volume (completing the work) by Drs W. Thomson and D. Craigie in 1859.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)