- D. E. Allen
Alston, Charles (1685–1760), physician and botanist, was born on 24 October 1685 at Eddlewood, in the parish of Hamilton, Lanarkshire, the third son of Thomas Alston (d. 1703), a physician of Thrinacre Milne and Eddlewood. According to family tradition his paternal ancestors came from England with the founders of the dukedom of Hamilton in the time of Robert the Bruce. After boyhood at Hamilton he entered Glasgow University, in 1700, but the death of his father in 1703 left the family impoverished and compelled him to forgo graduating. The duchess of Hamilton, however, recognizing his promise, arranged for him to receive some legal training under a writer to the signet, James Anderson, in Edinburgh; after three years the duchess then employed him as her 'principal servant' in her household at Hamilton.
By this time it had become apparent that medicine was Alston's preferred vocation, and with the duchess's encouragement he used his abundant leisure to study to that end. When the failure of the Jacobite rising in 1715 caused the superintendent of the physic garden at the palace of Holyrood, William Arthur, to flee to Italy, the duchess used her influence to obtain for her protégé the vacant post. This brought him the titles of king's botanist and regius professor of botany, a requirement to lecture at the garden, and a stipend of £50. Conscious that it was an appointment 'during the Sovereign's pleasure' only, the duchess instructed her executors to pay Alston £500 in the event of the stipend lapsing; as it turned out, he held the post for life.
What Alston still lacked were relevant qualifications. Accordingly, after putting the garden in such order as he could, he returned to Glasgow to obtain a degree and then absented himself for the academic year 1718–19 to study under Hermann Boerhaave at Leiden. He became MD at Glasgow in December 1719 and was elected to fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in August 1721, by which year his courses at the royal garden had begun. Before long his reputation was sufficient to gain him the secretaryship of the college, in 1725, an office he was to occupy for the impressive span of twenty-one years. At the instance of the new professor of anatomy at Edinburgh University, Alexander Monro, whose friendship Alston had made at Leiden, he was also induced to extend his teaching of botany and materia medica to that institution too, and thereafter he played a major part in bringing the Edinburgh medical school a reputation in Europe second only to Leiden's. When eventually its relevant professorship fell vacant in 1738, he was consequently the automatic choice to succeed—while retaining his royal posts—and in a strong position to ask its patrons, the town council, to attach to it a much enhanced stipend. When that materialized, in 1746, it was sizeable enough probably to engage some labour at last for the university's botanic garden at Trinity Hospital. For lack of assistance the garden had seriously deteriorated and to Alston belongs the credit for effecting a great revival, notably by improving the soil and initiating seed exchanges with Leiden and elsewhere. One of Alston's first steps, in 1740, was also to produce a printed index to the plants for the guidance of the students. However, his attempts to obtain funds for a new and larger garden less subject to atmospheric pollution repeatedly proved in vain.
Alston's research interests latterly became focused on the medicinal virtues of lime water, on which he published three dissertations and corresponded at length with Stephen Hales. In botany Alston was a staunch adherent to the natural classification of J. P. de Tournefort; he used his one substantial publication, Tirocinium botanicum Edinburgense (1753, reissued in English in 1754), to make an ill-judged attack on the increasingly widely accepted sexual system of Linnaeus, following Tournefort in refusing to acknowledge the existence of sexuality in plants. In seeking to demonstrate that stamens are unnecessary for the development of good seed, however, the evidence he adduced was seemingly the first record of the phenomenon later recognized as apogamy.
At the time of his death, which occurred at Edinburgh on 22 November 1760 (his widow, Bethia, died on 31 January 1788), Alston was preparing for publication his lecture course on materia medica. That task was subsequently carried through by his successor, John Hope, who had been the most outstanding of his students. The book gives evidence of Alston's scepticism about the supposed efficacy of many simples, in the absence of experimental testing. In his memory, a genus of mainly tropical African pagoda trees was later named Alstonia by Robert Brown.
- H. R. Fletcher and W. H. Brown, The Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, 1670–1970 (1970), 37–45, 59
- I. B. Balfour, ‘A sketch of the professors of botany in Edinburgh from 1670 until 1887’, Makers of British botany: a collection of biographies by living botanists, ed. F. W. Oliver (1913), 280–301, esp. 284–6
- R. Pulteney, Historical and biographical sketches of the progress of botany in England, 2 (1790), 9–16
- B. Henrey, British botanical and horticultural literature before 1800, 2 (1975), 198–200
- GM, 1st ser., 30 (1760), 594
- W. S. Craig, History of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (1976)
- autobiography of Charles Alston, U. Edin.
- Scots Magazine, 50 (1788), 206
- RBG Kew, lecture notes and papers
- RCS Eng., treatise on materia medica
- Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, lecture notes
- U. Edin. L., lectures, letters received, and papers; lectures on materia medica
- U. Glas. L., lecture notes
- Wellcome L., lecture notes; notes on materia medica