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Experimental medicine and the Monro dynasty

Juan Gomez writes…

Following Peter Anstey’s post on 17th-century experimental medicine I want to continue shedding light on the topic, but I will be focusing on 18th-century experimental medicine. In particular, I want to examine the Monro dynasty and the role they played in the instruction of medicine in Edinburgh for more than a hundred years.

From 1726 until 1846 the chair of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh was held by the members of the Monro family. Alexander Monro Primus (1697-1767) held it from 1726 until 1754; his son Alexander Monro Secundus (1733-1817) succeeded him in 1758; and Alexander Monro Tertius (1773-1859) held the chair from 1817 until 1846. While Tertius’ relevance lies on the fact that he continued the work of his father and grandfather, Primus and Secundus are one of the main reasons why the medical school at Edinburgh was considered the best of its time. Of course, the experimental method applied by the Monro’s was one of the reasons for their success.

Monro Primus studied at Leiden under Herman Boerhaave in 1718, and by in 1720 he was back at Edinburgh giving public lectures on anatomy. In 1726 he published his Anatomy of the Humane Bones, which was widely read throughout the eighteenth century. The book was intended to be used by those students attending Monro’s lectures, where he demonstrated on corpses to illustrate the theory. In fact, the Professor’s insistence on the importance of performing dissections on corpses for his lectures was such that it was suspected that Monro and his students were grave robbing. In the preface to the second edition of his book Monro claims that all the facts included in his book, even those he has taken from other authors have been confirmed by experiments:

    In executing these [parts I and II of his book], I have taken all the assistance I could from Books, but have never asserted any anatomical Fact on their Authority without consulting the Life, from which all the Descriptions are made; and therefore the Quotations from such Books, serve only to do Justice to the Authors… Besides anatomists, I have also named several other Authors [for example Boyle] to confirm my reasoning by practical Cases.

Monro Primus was a very active figure in the Edinburgh enlightenment. As the editor of the volumes of essays published by his Medical Society of Edinburgh, he calls for the emphasis on facts and observation of the experimental method to be applied in Medicine. He tells us that he ‘principal part of medicine is:

    The Knowledge and Cure of Diseases, which chiefly depend on Observations of Facts that ought to be frequently repeated before any certain Axiom in Physick can be built on them.

Monro Primus’ work was continued by his son. Though Secundus continued using the text written by his father in his anatomy lectures, he published and contributed to the knowledge of the brain and the nervous system. All his texts contain detailed descriptions of the experiments he performed, besides the constant use of the rhetoric of the experimental philosophy and methodological statements confirming the use of experimental methods in medicine. A lot of his work stems from experiments performed on animals, notably a number of essays published in the collection of essays of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and his 1793 book Experiments on the nervous system, with opium and metalline substances, made chiefly with the view of determining the nature and effects of animal electricity. The way such book is structured is typical of experimental philosophy. Monro begins by giving some observations on the nervous system of frogs (which he used for his experiments); this is followed by a detailed description of the experiments and then he deduces “Corollaries from the above Facts and Experiments.”

In an earlier book, where he describes in some detail his main claim to fame (the discovery of the interventricular foramen of the brain), he calls for a stop to speculation and focus instead on facts and experiments. He refers to an experiment carried out by Dr. Albrecht von Haller which he describes and then tells us:

    But instead of speculating farther, let us learn the effects of experiments and endeavour from these to draw plain conclusions.

The contrast between speculative and experimental approaches is also stated in his last major work, Three Treatises. On the Brain, the Eye and the Ear (1797):

    An anatomist, reasoning a priore, would be apt to suppose, that the Water, in the Hydrocephalus Internus, should be as often found immediately within the Dura Matter, between it and the Outer-side of the Brain, Cerebellum, and Spinal Marrow, as within the Ventricles of the Brain. Experience, however, proves that it is generally collected within the ventricles; and, as I have not met with a single instance in which the Water was entirely on the Outer-side of the Brain, (although I am far from doubting the possibility of the fact), I cannot help suspecting that this happens much more rarely than it is supposed by Authors.

We can see then that the call for the application of the experimental method in medicine that started in the seventeenth century was characteristic of the medical school at Edinburgh in the eighteenth century. With the Monro dynasty in charge, the methodology promoted by Herman Boerhaave (Primus’ teacher) became the preferred for the training and practice of physicians in Scotland, with the Edinburgh medical school rising to its reputation of the best school in the world.

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