- Anita Guerrini
Stuart, Alexander (1673?–1742), physician and natural philosopher, was probably born in the north-east of Scotland, possibly in Aberdeen. Practically nothing is known of his early life. One of his name graduated MA from Marischal College, Aberdeen, in 1691. By 1698 he was practising as a surgeon–apothecary, although where is not known. In 1701 he followed the path of many other Scots surgeons and signed on as a ship's surgeon. He was on the trader London from 1701 to 1704 and on the Europe from 1704 to 1707.
While at sea Stuart corresponded with Hans Sloane (who may have been responsible for his getting a place), sending him natural history specimens. A few of Stuart's reports appeared in the Philosophical Transactions. Stuart also kept detailed journals of his surgical cases on the Europe. After a brief sojourn in Ireland in 1708 he settled for a time in London, where he continued to practise as a surgeon. The following year, with the sponsorship of Sloane and Sir David Hamilton, one of the queen's physicians, Stuart entered medical school at the University of Leiden, where he matriculated on 14 December 1709, aged thirty-six. While at Leiden Stuart continued his lifelong habit of compiling notebooks of medical cases and prescriptions. He greatly admired Boerhaave, his professor at Leiden, and kept Sloane informed of his activities. He graduated MD on 22 June 1711 with a dissertation 'De structura et motu musculari'. The study of muscular motion continued to be of interest and he returned to it as a topic of research later in life.
Upon completing his Leiden degree Stuart travelled to Flanders for a time to serve with the British army, but by 1712 he was back in London and pursuing a medical career. In the highly competitive London environment he made at first slow progress, earning only £100 in 1713; a decade later he would earn that much in a month. On 30 November 1714 he was elected to the Royal Society, and in December 1719 he was named first practising physician for the new Westminster Hospital. In June 1720 he took the examination for the licence of the Royal College of Physicians of London, and was admitted a licentiate on 25 June.
Stuart was an early advocate of inoculation for smallpox, conducting several trials among his patients in 1725. William Douglass's 1722 anti-inoculation pamphlet, The Abuses and Scandals of some Late Pamphlets in Favour of Inoculation of the Small Pox was addressed to Stuart. In 1728 Stuart was awarded the MD from Cambridge, comitiis regiae, and named one of Queen Caroline's physicians-in-ordinary. The Royal College of Physicians admitted him as a fellow on 2 September 1728, and he served as censor in 1732 and 1741. In October 1733 he led the secession from the Westminster Hospital in a dispute over a new site; he and his colleagues founded St George's Hospital, where he served until 9 July 1736.
Despite his apparent success as a practitioner Stuart was continually in financial difficulties. He borrowed money to invest in the South Sea Bubble in the early 1720s and lost heavily, and in 1727 was forced to the expedient of turning over his assets to his wife with the exception of his manuscripts, which he hoped to sell to pay off some of his debts. He had married Susannah, whose surname was probably Wishaw, in January 1726; she owned property in the parish of St Paul's, Covent Garden. The union was apparently childless.
In the late 1720s Stuart resumed the research in physiology he had begun two decades earlier, and contributed several papers to the Philosophical Transactions on the role of bile in digestion and on the existence of the nervous fluid. He was invited to give the first Croonian lecture on muscular motion at the Royal Society in 1738, and in the same year he published a revised version of his MD thesis on that topic which won a prize from the Academy of Bordeaux. Stuart was also a foreign member of the French Academy of Sciences. The Royal Society awarded him its Copley medal in 1740 in recognition of his research on muscles, and he delivered the Croonian lecture again in 1740 and 1741. Against the prevailing emphasis on waves and ethers, Stuart, following his mentor, Boerhaave, and also his fellow Scot, Archibald Pitcairne, argued in favour of a more strictly mechanical system to explain muscular motion and nervous activity. He supported this concept of vascular hydraulics with an extensive series of experiments and observations. These included microscopic examination, injection of vessels, and comparison of the structure of blood vessels and nerves. He demonstrated his principle of muscular motion with a decapitated frog; pushing with a probe on its exposed spinal column made its legs twitch, an indication, said Stuart, that the nervous fluid was pushed into the muscles. The spinal frog experiment was important to later studies of reflex action by Whytt and Haller, although they did not agree with Stuart's theories.
Stuart died on 15 September 1742. His will, written only a month before his death, chronicles his continuing indebtedness; he still owed money to the people he had borrowed from in 1720. He assigned Henry Baker and Hugh Fraser, chaplain of St George's Hospital, as executors and asked Baker to oversee the publication by subscription of his remaining scientific papers in the hope that this would help pay his debts. However, Baker and Fraser refused to act as executors, and it was left to Susannah Stuart to sell her husband's manuscripts for very small sums. William Hunter eventually acquired several of them and they are among the Hunterian MSS at the University of Glasgow.
- RCP Lond.
- BL, corresp., Sloane MSS 4038–4040, 4042, 4045–4056
- U. Glas. L., Hunter MSS
Wealth at Death
owed at least £3000 from loans made at time of South Sea Bubble in 1720: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/723, sig. 23