Biography of William Cullen
Born in Hamilton, Cullen studied Arts at the University before choosing to pursue a career in Medicine. He gained experience as a surgeon in London and at sea before returning to practice in Scotland. Cullen was awarded an MD by the University in 1740 and in 1744 he began offering extra-mural lectures in Glasgow on the theory and practice of physic, before becoming a lecturer in Medicine two years later.
Cullen advocated the need for an independent lectureship in Chemistry at the University, which was agreed in 1747 when he took up the post. Cullen’s enthusiasm for Chemistry and its value to medical study was longstanding and he continued to lecture and offer a course in Chemistry after his appointment to the Chair of Medicine in 1751. Cullen encouraged practical scientific experimentation and research and as such was a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment and friends with other key figures of the movement, including Adam Smith. The first recorded example of artificial refrigeration was demonstrated by William Cullen at the University of Glasgow in 1748, although not used for any practical purpose at the time. His teaching and publications on the practice of medicine were highly influential, particularly in the United Kingdom and America. Cullen was a popular teacher whose students included Joseph Black, who on Cullen’s recommendation, succeeded him as a lecturer in Chemistry at the University in 1756.
Cullen left Glasgow in 1755 to become Professor of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. He was appointed Professor of the Institutes of Medicine there in 1766 and in 1773 moved to the chair of Practice of Physic.
The University of Glasgow holds a collection of William Cullen’s papers which relate to the foundation of the Chemistry department and includes: drafts of his lectures, medical notes, and personal letters. We also hold material which relates to the biography and book of his work written by his grandson John Thomson (1765-1846), first published in 1832.