Dr William Murdoch (1805 – 1866)

This post doesn’t have much to do with the topics I normally write about. The recent (and thoroughly puzzling) furore over Richard Dawkins’ fifth great-grandfather being a slave owner is probably to blame for what follows.

In today’s episode of my quotidian procrastinations, I was going through my family tree, which was prepared by my cousin Michael Bailey. Because there’s some 142 generations, I decided to start from my name and trace up to my maternal grandmother, and then to follow the her direct paternal line as far back as I could.

My grandmother is a bit of a proto-hippy (in a good way); a semi-lapsed Catholic who believes in God, ghosts and reincarnation; she’s also fun, genuinely open-minded, and very witty; and she is practically responsible for raising me when I was going to kindergarten. (So naturally, I mean no disrespect.) She has often said that I should look into her family tree because my “great, great, great, great granddad” is where my “genes must come from.” (She used the term ‘reincarnation’ before that, but curiously changed it once I told her I was an atheist.)

So I did, and I found this ‘memoir’, written by my third great-uncle about my fourth great-grandfather Dr William Murdoch, who, if there’s anything to be said for genetic homeopathy, I’m flattered to think she was talking about this guy.

Dr Murdoch was a polymath, a polyglot, a public advocate for liberal values, and other things. That’s pretty awesome, and I’m humbled to know that four of the 128 genes in my genome – about 3.1% or so – come from him, so my grandmother deserves credit for being partially correct. I’m just hoping those genes weren’t the ones that contributed to the hemorrhagic stroke that killed him at 61.

A cleaned up version of the briefish memoir is reproduced under the fold below (simply because there’s no real reason that you should be forced to sit through something as potentially self-centred as a relatively unimportant fact about my genealogy), but I’ve endeavoured to clean it up – though I tried to leave the grammar and punctuation intact – because it looks like the product of an OCR scan of a PDF document that was scanned from really old paper. You can find the original here and elsewhere. (Naturally, the page for my name and all of my living relatives is password protected.) My immediate and extended family, as well as my Google-armed distant cousins, might find this interesting.

Before we continue, I should add that Adam and Eve would be my 106th great-grandparents; and Dr Murdoch’s sins were two generations away from being visited upon me. Which is good I suppose, because from this, I gather that he wasn’t a particularly religious man.


WILLIAM MURDOCH, whose parents were of Gaelic origin, and had passed their earlier years in the Highlands of Scotland, was born in 1805. At the age of 13, he was sent to the College d’Ecossais, Paris, and afterwards to the College d’Henri IV., where he remained some years, and obtained several prizes in classics during his course of study. Later, he selected the profession of Medicine, and enrolled himself as a student in the University of Paris. In 1826 he took the degree of Bachelier es Lettres, and a few months afterwards that of Bachelier es Sciences. In 1827 he attended M. Lefranc’s course on Surgical Operations. In the year 1828 he was appointed Interne to the Hopital des Enfans malades. From ’29 to ’30he held a similar office at the Hospice de la Vieillesse (hommes) at Bicetres. In 1831 he was Interne to the Hopital du Midi (veneriens) under M. Cullerier, and in 1832 to the Hopital de la Pitie under M. Velpeau.

The following are specimens of the, certificates awarded to him :

‘Hopital de la Pitie.’
Je soussigne, chirurgien en chef du dit etablissement, membre del’Academie de Medicine, agrege a la Faculte de Medicine, operatoire et de Clinquechirurgicale, chevalier de l’Ordre Royal de la Legion d’Honneur, certifie que Mons. Murdoch, natif de Londres a suivi avec zele mes lecons de medicine operatoire pendanttoute la duree de l’annee 1827, qu’il a pratique plusieurs fois sur le cadavredevant moi touter les operations chirurgicales et qu’il a dirige d’autres elevesdans leurs etudes de la pratique des operations.
Ce ter Jan. 1827.

(signed) ‘ LISFRANC.’

‘ Hospice de la Vieillesse, (hommes)’
‘ Je soussigne, docteur es Medicine de l’etablissement, chevalier de l’Ordre royal de la Legion d’Honneur, membre de l’Ac-ademie de Medicine,ex-chirurgien en chef de la garde imperial, certifie que Mons. Murdoch ne a Londres a eteinterne dans mon service depuis ter Jan.1829,jusqu’ en 1 er Jan.1830, qu’il a suivipen-dant ce temps mes visites et lecons medicates, et qu’il a etudie avec assiduite sousmoi la pratique medicate et l’Anatomie pathologique et qu’ it a fait desrecherches special sur l’alienation mentale.
Ce ter Jan. 1830.

(signed) ‘ FIRBUS.’

The reader will bear in mind that in 1832 this country and France were simultaneously visited by that fearful epidemic of Cholera, which after having prevailed for some time in Asia on the borders of the Black and Caspian Seas, rapidly advanced into the centre of Russia, and devastated in succession all the countries of Europe. The mortality in London in 1832 was estimated at 5,000, whilst that in Paris is said to have exceeded 18,000, The hospitals were crowded to excess with, patients, whose treatment sorely taxed the physical powers of the medical attendants. We have satisfactory proof that William Murdoch did his duty at la Pitie, for we find a certificate with the celebrated Velpeau’s signature appended, stating:

‘que toute la duree de l’epidemique qu’ it a rempli ses penibles fonctions avec zele intelligence et assiduite.’

[My rough translation: ‘he worked for whole duration of the epidemic and he fulfilled his strenuous duties with zeal, intelligence and assiduity.’ -Ed]

M. Velpeau in a treatise on Cholera, describes the diligence of his interne as above all praise (au dessus de tout eloge). While William Murdoch prosecuted with vigour the more practical departments of his profession, he continued to devote considerable time to the collateral sciences, such as Botany and Zoology, and also to linguistic studies. He frequently listened to the Lectures on the ancient languages, delivered in the University, was a constant attendant at the discourses of the illustrious Cuvier, and paid almost daily visits to the Museum of the Jardin des Plantes.

In 1832 he obtained the degree of Docteur es Medicine, and returned to England in 1833, after paying a brief visit to Germany and Italy. He then studied for a year or two at Guy’s Hospital, in London, and obtained the diplomas of the College of Surgeons and Apothecaries’ Hall.

He commenced his career in Rotherhithe as a general practitioner, and soon met with considerable success. In 1839 he married Miss Harriet, daughter of Mr. David Beatson, who belonged to a distinguished Scotch family. He held for some years the appointment of Surgeon to the Thames Tunnel Works, the Royal Humane Society, and the Poor Law Board ; but as his private practice increased he was compelled to resign the last-mentioned, to the regret of the poorer inhabitants. In time he became Medical Officer of Health, and held that post till his death.

The illness which led to his untimely end came upon him very suddenly.On the morning of Sept. 3rd, 1866, he was apparently hale and robust; in the evening of the same day, he lay pale and powerless, on a sick bed from which he never arose. For a time he went through the routine of his duties without betraying a symptom of the approach of the terrible malady which was to befall him, in the course of a few hours. Later in the day his patients noticed his staggering gait, and death-like pallor, which formed a marked contrast with his usually ruddy complexion. Several became alarmed at the Doctor’s altered appearance, and enquired anxiously concerning his health. Bearing up with becoming resolution, he gave to each enquirer a cheering answer. To the oft repeated question, there was as often an encouraging reply. That high sense of duty, which characterised him through the whole of his career was never more strikingly manifest than in this hour of acute suffering. His duty was to attend the sick ; and this fatal illness overtook him in the very act of doing his duty. While he was tottering from house to house with a throbbing pain in the head, which he could only compare to frequent blows from a mallet, and with the merciless paralysis stealthily overpowering his limbs, one might have aptly said, ‘Physician cure thyself.’

Sic vita erat ; facile omnes perferre ac pati: Cum quibus erat cunqueuna his sese dedere; Eorum obsequi studiis; adversus nemini, Nunquam preponens se aliis.

(Such was his life ; ready to bear and comply with all ; with whomsoever he was in company, to them to resign himself ; to devote himself to their pursuits ; at variance with no one, and never preferring himself to others.)

Soon after he had seen the last patient on his sick list he was forced to succumb ; he reeled backwards and fell in the street, near a house which he had just visited.

On being brought home, the assistance of several local practitioners was summoned, when it was discovered that he was suffering from hemiplegia, or paralysis of one half of the body. The advice of some eminent physicians was also consulted ; but notwithstanding their skilful treatment and unflagging attention, he gradually sank and died, after lingering about a fortnight.

Im gefiihl der Nicht zu fallen,
Himmel, welch ein schner Tod.

(To fall with the sentiment of doing one’s duty,
Heavens, what a beautiful death.)

During the interval between his seizure ‘and death he amused himself with quoting from classical and foreign authors, and though ordered to keep his mind at rest, he persisted in entering into discussions upon philosophical questions, scientific discoveries, derivations of words and other abstruse topics. His intellect seemed to be unimpaired, and he met death with the same decorous fortitude which he had opposed to all the trials of his life.

He was interred at Nunhead Cemetery. Those who had been so long associated with him in parochial work, paid him by their presence at his funeral, a last tribute of respect ; whilst a large number of mourners, unbidden, but unforgetful, followed his re-mains to their resting place. Dr. Murdoch’s tall, stalwart frame and stern thoughtful countenance, are so familiar to the people of Rotherhithe, that we can dispense with a delineation of his features. In his early life he was rather thin, but muscular ; at the age of 34 or 35 he began to get corpulent, and from that period his bulk gradually increased when it reached its maximum, he weighed no less than 16 or 17 stone.

Notwithstanding his great weight he was quick and active, and capable of sustaining the fatigue of long journeys even when he had well-nigh attained three score years. In his student days he was addicted to, and excelled in, fencing and other manly exercises. Two or three of his old fellow students of Paris, who occasionally visited him in London, used to relate how he doffed his coat one fine morning near the Jardin des Plantes and undertook to walk seven miles in an hour which was considered a very fair performance in the olden time. He is said to have accomplished the task with ease, and to have won his little wager from a fellow-student who backed ‘Time.’

The extent of his mind seemed to correspond in some degree with the size of his body. To his powerful physique he united a singularly nimble spirit and an abundance of life which promised a far longer course of years than his allotted span. With a mind richly stored with solid literature and general information of every description, with powers of conversation of peculiar compass and capacity, his presence was always acceptable; his society was edifying; a pleasantry and humour enlivened the domestic and the social circle. He had a natural inclination for raillery and occasionally indulged in satire. One of his intimate friends has not unjustly remarked, ‘ he sometimes wounded more than his good nature intended.’ His conversation was so free from affectation, that his candour was sometimes carried to bluntness of speech ; he scorned to appear, in fact, he could not appear, that which he was not. He would have said with Moliere’s Misanthrope :

Je veux que I’on soit homme et en toute rencontre.
Le fond de notre cceur dans nos discours se montre,
Que ce soit lui qui parte, et que nos sentiments
Ne se masquent jamais sous de vains compliments.

(I would have every one acquit himself like a man ; and under every circumstance to speak his mind freely, and never allow his real feelings to disguise themselves under vain compliments.)

Though somewhat brusque in manners, he was highly susceptible to the emotion of natural tenderness ; his kind and feeling heart was soon affected at the sight of human suffering, and prompted him to afford all the relief in his power. He was naturally vif in temper, but his irascibility was atoned for by a thoroughly cordial and forgiving disposition.

He took great interest in all social questions, whether sanitary or political ; in fact, in every movement that offered an increase of happiness to all classes. It was this desire to elevate the condition of the poorer people, which induced him to give gratuitous lectures to the working classes at various local institutions. He might have appropriated the oft quoted words of Terence :

Homo sum : humanum nihil a me alienum puto.

(I am a man, and nothing that concerns a man do I deem a matter of  indifference to me.)

Perhaps the most striking trait of his character was his insatiable thirst for knowledge, or as a Roman writer would have expressed it, Cupidissimus literarum full [roughly: ‘very fond of learning’ -Ed]. He found time to study, even when his daily labour had encroached upon his hours of rest to an extent that would have been incompatible with health in a body of weaker constitution. In later’ life he contracted a habit of associating reading
with his lighter duties. When he shaved, he placed an open book on the drawer of his looking-glass ; and while going his visiting rounds he got through a ‘deal of reading in a peripatetic manner. Amidst all the arduous duties of his professional life, he continued his devotion to Philology ; his talents as a linguist were extraordinary ; he could read the literature of most European and some Oriental languages. He was fond of classical learning; was fairly conversant with Greek literature, and was a perfect master of many of the Latin Authors especially the poets, few, if any, of the finer passages of Virgil, Juvenal or Horace, had escaped his notice so thoroughly did he appreciate the beauties of the latter, that he translated several odes into English verse. His Greek reading chiefly comprised Homer and Aristotle, with an occasional glance at one of the dramatic writers. In regard to modern languages, French was to him as his mother tongue ; he was fluent in Italian, and was thoroughly conversant with the German language ; he could make himself understood in, and could read the literature of several other tongues, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Norwegian. He habituated himself to the pronunciation of Ancient Greek according to the rules of the Modern tongue, and delighted to exercise his knowledge of the colloquial language whenever he came into contact with Greeks.

Sic enim Graece loquebater.

[‘Thus spoke for Greece’ -Ed]

From time to time he received lessons in Russian and Polish from native teachers, and considering the difficulty that inhabitants of Western Europ experience in mastering the numerous inflections and consonantal combinations of those languages, he possessed as good a practical knowledge as one could hope to acquire without living in a Slavonic country. Of Oriental languages, he could read Hebrew well, and had overcome the elements of Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit, and had dabbled in Hindoostanee, Hindi and other Indian dialects. And lastly, there is along list of languages, such as Anglo-Saxon, Welsh, Scotch and Irish Gaelic,Icelandic, Bohemian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Chinese,  et cetera, of which he possessed a superficial knowledge, or sufficient to enable him to prosecute his studies in Philology and Comparative Grammar.

Though his genius chiefly impelled him to the study of languages, he was almost equally profound in Natural Science nor is this surprising, if we bear in mind the fact that he enjoyed the advantage of living in Paris at a time when that city teemed with illustrious naturalists, whose names it is hardly necessary to mention : for such as Cuvier, Magendie, Geolfry, SI. Hilaire, and others, are as familiar to the English ear as household words. Dr. Murdoch was just the man to reap the fruits of such advantages. He was well read in Astronomy and Geology, as well as in those sciences which have a near connection with his profession, such as Botany and Zoology. To Zoology and Comparative Anatomy he was particularly devoted ; his great love for this branch of Natural Science he probably imbibed from the noble eloquence of his great preceptor Cuvier, whose lectures he had attended regularly in Paris, and whose ‘Regne Animal,’ he had studied most diligently.

To pass from his private to what might be called his public life ; though Dr. Murdoch had but few opportunities of exercising his faculties as a speaker,y et all who have heard him, admit that he was possessed of no mean ability. He rather excelled in extempore oratory ; he had a remarkable power of adapting his expressions to the sentiments of his audience, be it that he was addressing a sedate assembly at a literary institution, or an uproarious mob gathered round a tavern on the eve of an election. In his political speeches he always advocated civil liberty and religious equality.

Ever willing to communicate his knowledge and share with others the pleasure of his own intellectual enjoyment, he delivered from time to time lectures to Local Institutions and Young Men’s Societies. Many years ago he delivered a course on Botany and Zoology at the Working Men’s Institute of Greenwich. His lectures were interesting and instructive, and he never allowed the attention of his hearers to flag for one moment. After giving a minute description of some scientific details, he would introduce a humorous anecdote to excite a little mirth, and then would burst forth into a peroration upon the sublime in Nature.

To his professional skill I need hardly refer, for doubtless the inhabitants of Rotherhithe are fully competent to form their own estimate ; and the same high opinion of his sound and practical medical knowledge is entertained by several physicians and consulting surgeons, whom he had occasion to meet in consultation, as well as by those who have been under his care as patients. Several eminent medical men have remarked that had he attached himself to one of the London medical schools, instead of engaging in general practice, there is little doubt but that his public fame would have equalled his private reputation. His long experience in the French Hospitals was ably seconded by the natural endowments of coolness and precision ; his penetration was quick and his attention constant and unabated ; he took very great care in the investigation of symptoms ; hence his diagnoses were generally accurate.

In his treatment he avoided both of the extremes which, prevailed in his day: the antiphlogistic and the overstimulating. While in Paris he had opportunities of performing most of the greater and more dangerous surgical operations. The Revolution of July, (1830.) though of short duration, was sufficient to direct his attention to the importance of the study of military surgery. He was a good obstetrician, had devoted considerable attention to the diseases of women and children, and was fond of the study of medical psychology ; but practical surgery was his forte. During the construction of the Thames Tunnel, accidents were frequent, and sometimes appalling.

Dr. Murdoch was often called upon to treat cases of compound and comminuted fracture, to apply ligatures to deep arteries, amputate limbs, and perform other operations, which are very trying to the skill of a general practitioner.

He wrote several papers, which were published in Lte.. journal Ilebelornadaire [I can’t find anything on this journal, and I doubt the rendition is correct. -Ed], and La Clinique Medicale: the most important of which were, Recherches surl’epanchement du sang ;’ Obser-vations de fistule sus-laryngienne aerienne etalimentaire ;’ and ‘Considerations sur les retractions musculaires spasmodiques ‘Many years ago he contributed to one of the English medical journals, ‘ Remarks on Tubercle of the Brain,’ and wrote a pamphlet on ‘Epilepsy.’

I deeply regret that the task of tracing this brief biographical sketch has not been allotted to an abler writer than myself, for I feel incompetent to dojustice to the memory of one who was so deservedly esteemed. I do not pretend that Dr. Murdoch’s history will be of any interest to the outside world, beyond his own and the adjacent parishes; but even those who were not personally acquainted with him will admit that his career was not an ordinary one, and that his devotion to duty and diligence were exemplary. Many of his friends seem to think that he might have attained to great distinction in his profession, or as a naturalist or a linguist, had a life of leisure been allotted to him, instead of the laborious calling of a general practitioner of medicine..I will not lay too much stress on such opinions :

The world which credits what is done,
Is cold to all that might have been.

However, without overrating his abilities in the least degree, it may be said, that he was endowed with a divergence of faculties which would have fitted him for almost any calling. His mind readily appreciated scientific facts and problems ; and in addition to this he was gifted with a wonderful Verbal Retentiveness, which enabled him to quote at pleasure, long passages from the original text of nearly all the great European writers:  Shakespeare; Milton; Pope; Byron; Moliere; Fénelon,Voltaire, Schiller, Goethe, Dante, Tasso, Cervantes, de Camões, and others were ever at his elbow. It was characteristic of the man to put the whole of himself into whatever he undertook, and whether he was commencing a new study, or entering upon a movement that offered an increased happiness to the poorer classes, he threw himself into it with all his force. The mere acquirement of so many languages involved a concentration which would have sorely taxed ordinary intellects. From the Norsk and Lapp of the North, to the Graeco-Latin of the South : from the Scotch and Irish Gaelic of the West, to the Indian and Mongolian languages of the further East, there are but few known tongues to which he had not devoted himself. The literature of every civilized country was open to him, and every language is said to reveal a new sphere of ideas.

Huic versatile ingenium sic pariter ad omnia fuit, natum ut ad id unumdiceres quod cunque ageret.

(This man’s genius was so versatile, so equally adapted to every pursuit, that in whatever he engaged, you would pronounce him to have been born for that very thing alone.)

His laborious habits ruled him even in his holiday ; a few hours snatched at haphazard from the stirring turmoil of business, were spent within the silent walls of a museum, where he delighted to penetrate into ages past, and contemplate the broken monuments of antiquity. An occasional visit to the sea side offered him still wider scope for enlarging his mind. The earth, the air, the water, all contributed to his intellectual enjoyment. He was now exploring the hedges for ferns and flowers now searching the cliffs and caves for relics of pre-historic life, now visiting the homes of the Mollusca and Actinice in the deep recesses of the rocks. He would fain know how the hills and rocks were formed, how ridge and valley came into existence ; the sea-cliff, the mountain glen, the quarry by the way side, the pebble in the path, each had to yield up to him its story.

But while paying this tribute to his versatile talents, and untiring industry, we must not neglect to notice those higher qualities which endeared him to his fellow man. Too much could not be said in praise of his sound humanitarian principles. His sense of duty induced him to remain in harness at a time when he might have retired from his labours and devoted the remainder of his days to his favourite pursuits or have adopted the less toilsome calling of a consulting practitioner ; but he was unambitious, so disinterested, so perfectly content to remain in the same circle in which he had worked so many years, that he preferred to go on plodding his daily rounds, year after year, till Death summoned him from his toil. Many of the inhabitants of Rotherhide regarded him as a friend, whose willing counsel was never refused and whose vast stories of information and intellectual riches were freely and generously conferred on all who sought them. Free from ostentation, plain speaking and affable, he was at home with the poor, whose anxious enquiries during his illness, and grief at his funeral, bear honourable testimony to their esteem.

Generous to a high degree, undeviating in friendship, charitable to all in need ; in short, when we contemplate the various qualities of his character we are at a loss, whether to admire most his indefatigable diligence and steadfast application as a student ; his fluency and extensive learning as a linguist ; his sound knowledge as a medical practitioner ; his cheerfulness of manners and sprightly humour ; his plain habits and unaffected simplicity ; or his disinterestness [sic] of character and spotless probity.

The eulogy bestowed upon a celebrated English Author by his biographer, is well applicable to Dr William Murdoch.

He admires with all his heart good and virtuous men, stoops to flattery, bears no rancor, does his public duty uprightly,  is findly loved by his family, and dies at his work.


3 thoughts on “Dr William Murdoch (1805 – 1866)

  1. Matt — this is amazing. How lucky you are to have so much information about a fascinating man who obviously contributed more than 3% of your genome. There are dominant genes, you know. 😉

  2. Yes thats an interesting account read with much interest. I hope I got a few of those genes as well. Steve Murdoch


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s