James Jeffray

Biography of James Jeffray

James Jeffray
James Jeffray

James Jeffray (1759-1848) was Regius Professor of Botany from 1790 until his death. He was appointed Vice-Rector By Sir Ilay Campbell in 1800 and he was Clerk of Senate from 1814 to 1815.

Born in Kilsyth, Jeffray studied at the University and graduated MA in 1778. He completed his medical education at the University of Edinburgh, graduating MD in 1786. Jeffray was a renowned teacher and attracted over 200 students to his classes each year when he was in his prime. He was an innovative surgeon and is credited (with the Edinburgh obstetrician James Aitken) with the invention of a chain saw for use in the excision of diseased bone.

Jeffray greatly improved facilities for students studying Anatomy. The dissecting room he found in 1790 was cramped and ill-lit, but he acquired the Materia Medica room as a more suitable location. He also acquired the garret above the Common Hall for a library and worked hard to build up the collection of books on Anatomy and Surgery.

In 1818, Jeffray successfully proposed separate chairs in Botany (until then his Chair had been that of Anatomy and Botany), Chemistry, Surgery and Midwifery. He was also a force behind the creation of the Royal Botanic Institution of Glasgow in 1817 and the move to purchase a botanic garden. His energies were not confined to academic matters: in 1821 he was ordered by the Faculty to close a shop in the College grounds selling ham and cheese, which he had opened without permission.

Jeffray was a victim of public agitation about "resurrectionism" - the procuring of corpses from graveyards for dissection at medical schools. In 1813 the windows of his house were smashed by a mob, convinced (mistakenly) that he had been involved in the theft from the Ramshorn Kirkyard of the body of Janet McAlister. The stolen corpse was subsequently discovered (with five others) in the dissecting room at the independent College Street Medical School. In 1818, he took part in the famous experiment with Dr Andrew Ure in the public dissection of the body of executed murderer Matthew Clydesdale, when Ure attached the body to a galvanic battery and passed a electric currents through the corpse. The experiments gave rise to the persistent myth that Jeffray and Ure had attempted to bring the corpse back to life. The mundane truth was that they had simply intended to study the effect of electric impulses on the human nervous system.

A memorial to James Jeffray can be found on the Glasgow Necropolis. You can find out more information about his memorial here.


James Jeffray
Anatomist and Surgeon

Born 1759, Scotland.
Died 28 January 1848.
University Link: Clerk of Senate, Graduate, Professor
GU Degree: MA, 1778;
Occupation categories: anatomists; surgeons
Record last updated: 25th Sep 2013

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