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How many people today would recognize the name and face of Dr. William Buchan?

Probably only a few scholars, and others acquainted with eighteenth and nineteenth century medicine. But a hundred years ago…well, it was a very different story then ! Although Dr. Buchan was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, and merited about a page and a half in Great Britain’s Dictionary of National Biography, he has been overlooked in many of the larger medical history books, such as Stubbs & Bligh, Castiglioni, and Garrison. Although the gentleman never so much as set foot on North America, he certainly earned a solid place in American medicine.

Buchan (1729-1805) was born in Roxburghshire in southern Scotland and in time he entered Edinburgh University as a Divinity student. However, after spending some nine years there, mostly studying medically related subjects, he entered practice in Yorkshire, soon thereafter becoming physician to a Foundling Hospital. Next, he was in Sheffield. He returned to Edinburgh in about 1766, but eventually settled in London. Although Dr. Buchan maintained a medical practice, he devoted easily as much time to writing a book of medical advice for the lay public. The book he was working on was similar to a successful one of the period by a French physician, Samuel Auguste David Tissot (1728-1797).

Buchan’s book (as indeed Tissot’s) was destined to secure the author’s name in history. Dr. Buchan and his publisher - Balfour, Auld and Smellie - called it Domestic Medicine; or, the Family Physician. Smellie (William Smellie 1740-1795) was a Scottish printer, naturalist, and antiquary. [There had been another William Smellie (1697-1763), a popular Scots-born London physician accoucheur who wrote mostly in his field.] Domestic Medicine first appeared in Edinburgh in 1769, and it proved to be a remarkable work for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it rapidly became the foremost "home" medical book not only in England, but also in New England, and in the United States. It was soon republished in London, and in Norwich, and by 1774 in Philadelphia. Before 1800 there were editions from Hartford and Boston as well, and within another generation there appeared more, from Charleston SC (1807), Exeter NH (1828), New York, and elsewhere.

There had been many books of this type before Buchan’s. Sir Thomas Elyot’s Castel of Helthe dates from the mid 1500s. In the next century English language readers had those by Humphrey Brooke, Owen Wood, George Hartman, Nicholas Culpeper and others. In addition to Tissot’s Avis au Peuple sur sa Sante, Paul Dube’s Poor Man’s Physician and Surgeon was widely available in many languages throughout Europe. The 1700s saw a profusion of these books intended largely for the use of the lay reading public: by Cheyne, Strother, Eliza Smith, and Dr. Lynch for example.

While Americans had fairly good access to British and Continental books, there was nothing both popular and "home grown" for them as it were, until after Buchan had become a fixture in our homes, on our farms & plantations, and at sea on our ships. Prior to the American Revolution, copies of Domestic Medicine were imported by individuals and booksellers alike; naturally they became more readily available after the Philadelphia and subsequent American editions.

Henry Wilkins, Shadrach Ricketson, John Williston, William M. Hand, Samuel Curtis, Usher Parsons and Thomas Ewell, John Williams, Josiah Richardson, James Rishel, and Joseph Smith are but some of those who offered works addressing (in widely varying degree) the American public about American illnesses and American resources.

It was not until 1830 that John C. Gunn (1800-1863) saw his own Domestic Medicine ( or Poor Man’s Friend) published in Knoxville, Tennessee. It, like Buchan’s, was well-received, though it probably enjoyed greater popularity in the South and central states than along the East coast. There was an extremely bulky edition from Cincinnati in 1864, by which time yet another hands-on work [Francis Porcher (1825-1895): Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests] had come out offering medical and other advice for households (as well as Civil War soldiers, camping far from home). However, Willie Buchan’s little book continued to hold sway.

At least two factors contributed to its eventual decline. One of these was that for all its occasional textual revisions, "Buchan" was getting old and out of date. It was the book everybody’s grandmothers had used –and their great grandmothers too ! America was growing: different customs & daily routines, climates & geography introduced new problems. Medical practices were changing, as were the very means available to treat illnesses and injuries. The Massachusetts Medical Society had developed their own Pharmacopoeia (based on Edinburgh’s venerable one) and it had grown (with outside input) to become that of the United States. Ether was available to surgeons, as was much, much more –both to the medical profession and to the public in general.

Evolving equally significantly, were the methods of marketing books. As more roads were built connecting people, traveling book-salesmen began to take advantage of these roads. At the same time, traveling "cure" salesmen began to take advantage of these people, often selling cheap little books along with their "snake oil". Following the introduction of rail passenger service (in Maryland in 1830), both salesmen and their books could travel more conveniently and more widely than ever before. Accordingly, more (and fatter) books appeared than ever before ! By then, there were even a few serial publications, such as Philadelphia’s Journal of Health, offering medical advice to the public as did many almanacs.

In 1867, from Boston, along came Ira Warren’s Household Physician (about 800 pages, plus plates). Warren (1806-1864) was a Fellow of the Massachusetts Medical Society. Other thick books became available. These included E. B. Hammack’s Family Physician, which was published in St. Louis; and J. H. Pulte’s Homeopathic Domestic Physician (from Cincinnati). Bigger must have seemed better then as now ! Mail-order techniques helped sales of such titles as The Peoples Common Sense Medical Adviser in Plain English by Ray Vaughn Pierce, which appeared in 1875 from his "Worlds Dispensary" in Buffalo. In its first decade or so, Ira Warren’s book gained popularity, and a homeopath co-author (A. E. Small) after his death, (and a hundred more pages too). Eventually its authorship expanded and the work appeared in German for immigrants. The sales of books by Drs. Pierce and Warren can be thought of as having galloped into the new century, leaving Buchan’s in their dust.

There are very few medical titles –perhaps only a dozen or two- which have actually remained in print and in use for a century or more. Buchan’s Domestic Medicine is one of these, averaging perhaps one edition per year for more than a hundred years. Although it was not the first work of its kind to appear in Britain, its success was immediate. It was translated into the principal European languages, including Russian. It was as universally popular on the continent and in America as it was in England. In a sense, it was the "Dr. Spock" of its day, used by countless families as their primary medical resource. Here in North America, it was ubiquitous, and naturally it was carried into the frontier settlements where the name "Buchan" continued to be a household word.

With the acquisition of many personal and institutional libraries over the last century, the Boston Medical Library has come to own many dozens of editions of Domestic Medicine – more than most other libraries in the world. These volumes continue to be consulted to this day, admittedly primarily by students, scholars and researchers, rather than by mothers and their families. There may be no better way quickly to gain reliable insight into nineteenth century domestic medical care than by turning to Dr. Buchan’s descriptions and recommendations. Furthermore, indexes and an appendix on medicinal preparations (included from within a decade of the first edition) render Domestic Medicine of considerable use to those researching approaches to treatment as well as the materia medica itself. Collections of editions of this work, like back issue files of important newspapers, are valuable chronicles. As such, they continue to speak authoritatively (and in Buchan’s case, very pleasantly) from the past.

Buchan’s book was significant in another way, too. From the outset it got him into serious professional trouble ! Two centuries ago, it was simply not acceptable for a respectable doctor to reveal "trade" secrets. Buchan was hardly the first to do this, but it caused a great many of his colleagues to be absolutely furious with him about his book. Their furor may well have been as much a reaction to its success as to its candor !

Buchan, again like Benjamin Spock, had acquired a great reputation (apparently based skills gained in his Foundling Hospital days) in treating diseases of children. One of the appealing aspects of both these physicians’ works is that they wrote in ways that were both direct and easily understood. Willie Buchan himself could have been just sitting right there at the kitchen table with the reader, chatting away. "Young people are particularly liable to catch infection," he observed, "and therefore ought to be kept at the greatest distance from the diseased." He also mentioned that everybody knows that tuberculosis can be got by sharing the bed with a consumptive, and that other kinds of diseases can also be infectious (this, in a period before infection was clearly understood). He devoted text to the importance of ventilation. He explained that convulsions are a symptom and not a primary disease, recommending seeking out the underlying problem, if possible, before embarking on a course of treatment. Hand washing, he felt, was important in terms of good health. Buchan offered all sorts of ideas about locally available materia medica, many of them obviously quite useful in their day as even now.

It has been said that William Buchan sold his copyright for seven hundred pounds and that the publishers made as much from it yearly. In 1778, he moved to London where he gained a considerable practice. He was known for his convivial and social habits, one of which was to frequent the Chapter Coffee House, a haunt of authors and the publishing trade. Full of anecdote, of agreeable manners, benevolent and compassionate, he was unsuited to make or keep a fortune, for a tale of woe always drew tears from his eyes and money from his pocket. It’s little wonder that the Doctor, by then a handsome and genial white-haired Tory, often served as moderator for the "Wet Paper Club". This band of early morning paper readers assembled daily at the "Chapter", as it was familiarly known, to discuss the news of the day. The men, as they all were, grabbed the papers as soon as they were delivered, still wet from the printing process, before the coffee house waiters could dry them. It is easy to imagine Drs. Gower, Fordyce and Buchan meeting there with writers published by the nearby and venerable Longmans House, enjoying jokes at each other’s expense. These three doctors, incidentally, were said rarely to agree with each other’s medical opinions.

So, back to all these editions of Buchan, and why collect them ? [Many do, you know !] Even a cursory reading of some of these volumes is worthwhile. Be they Edinburgh imprints, or London, Philadelphia, New York, Halifax or Hartford ones published in 1769 or ‘89, 1823 or ’63 or even 1913 – each edition offers its own special window, showing what was probably the commonest form of domestic practice of its place and day. That the work was useful and highly respected is attested to by the sheer number of copies extant. Further silent testimony is seen in well-thumbed pages (often bearing notations by previous owners), smooth-worn covers, and rounded corners characteristic of nearly all of them.

If you ever spot a "Buchan" on a shelf somewhere, don’t pass up the opportunity to take it into your hands and become better acquainted with a marvelous doctor, his worldwide practice, and home-based medicine of earlier days.

In closing, there’s an interesting footnote to add to this tale. You may or may not have recognized the name of Buchan’s publisher, William Smellie. While he was indeed active in helping to prepare, and in launching Domestic Medicine, he is better known as the person who compiled, and launched (in 1771), another publication with an exceptionally long and active history. Its name is Encyclopaedia Britannica. Not a bad record for a thirty-one-year-old !


Buchan, William
Domestic Medicine, or the Family Physician
Edinburgh: Balfour, Auld and Smellie, 1769

Hamilton, David
The Healers a History of Medicine in Scotland
Edinburgh: Canongate, 1981; bibliog, references, index

Lawrence, C. J.
William Buchan: Medicine Laid Open
In Med. Hist. (1975) 19:20-25

Thornbury, Walter
Old and New London a Narrative of its History, its People, and its Places [6 vols]
London, Paris & New York: Cassell Petter & Galpin, c1882; illus, index

View this interesting web site on the American Revolution for more information on William Buchan

Prepared by Dr. Adam G. N. Moore agnm@massmed.org