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Douglas, Jameslocked

(bap. 1675, d. 1742)
  • Helen Brock

Douglas, James (bap. 1675, d. 1742), anatomist and man-midwife, was the third child of a family of eight sons, four of whom became fellows of the Royal Society, and five daughters of William Douglas (d. 1705), of Baads, West Calder, 5 miles west of Edinburgh, and his wife, Joan Mason. The date of his birth is not known but he was baptized on 21 March 1675. Nothing is known of his early education, although a James Douglas graduated MA at Edinburgh University in 1694. In 1698 Douglas was a medical student at Utrecht and may have spent time in Paris before graduating MD at Rheims in 1699. In London by 1700 he became associated with Paul Chamberlen in the practice of midwifery, and on one occasion, in 1702, used (unsuccessfully) modo nostro (forceps), the Chamberlens' secret instrument. A large collection of Douglas's case histories, both midwifery and clinical, survive for the period 1700–11 and illustrate contemporary medical practice. The accuracy with which symptoms are recorded often makes modern diagnosis possible. After 1711 only records of patients' prescriptions survive, an indication that Douglas had a considerable practice among the upper class.

In 1706 Douglas began teaching anatomy, for which he published a syllabus. Cadavers not being available, students dissected dogs. Douglas intended publishing a series of handbooks comparing the anatomy of dogs and humans but got no further than Myographiae comparatae specimen, or, A comparative description of all the muscles in a man and in a quadruped (1707), long used as a dissecting guide, and republished in 1760 and 1775 with a Latin translation (1729). In 1705 he reviewed Valsava's De aure humana tractatus for the Royal Society (PTRS, 25.2214) and on 4 December 1706 he was elected a fellow of the society. Eleven of his papers on medical, botanical, and zoological subjects were published in Philosophical Transactions and he read at least fifty-seven unpublished papers. In 1740 he was excused further annual subscriptions. The Barber–Surgeons' Company elected him Gale osteology lecturer for 1712, and to the Arris lectureship on the muscles in 1716, for which a syllabus survives. He resigned this lectureship over disagreement with the masters of surgery.

Interested in all aspects of medicine Douglas published Bibliographiae anatomicae specimen, sive, Catalogus omnium pene auctorum, qui ab Hippocrate ad Harveum rem anatomicum … scriptus illustravat (1715) with another edition in 1734. All his medical and other writings started with a historical review. A number of assistants helped Douglas with his work over the years. His brother George worked with him for many years and he had other able assistants in Robert Nesbitt, Joseph Hurlock, William Douglas (no relation), James Parsons, and, finally, William Hunter. Douglas's published work was often illustrated by talented artists and engravers. Many of his papers are in the handwriting of amanuenses. Hunter acquired all Douglas's papers, some of his medical books, and preparations from the latter's famous anatomy museum.

Douglas's interest in comparative anatomy covered not only mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibia, and fish but also extended to invertebrates. From about 1719 he took an interest in botany, possibly as a result of acquiring a garden. At first he lived in Fetter Lane, London, an area of dense housing. In 1721, when he was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, he was living in Bow Lane, where most houses had gardens. Moving to the Grand Piazza, Covent Garden, he grew in his garden many medicinal plants for observation and experiment. He gave to the Royal Society a series of papers on medicinal plants including wild valerian that he had found plant hunting near Ilford. Plants were part of his interest in materia medica and in 1724 he published Index materia medicae, or, A catalogue of simple medicines that are fit to be used in the practice of physic and surgery. In 1733, together with Thomas Wilkins, a chemist, he considered setting up a laboratory for the preparation of 'curious medicines'. His most important botanical work, although it contains nothing of medical interest, is Lilium sarniense, or, A description of the Guernsay-Lilly; to which is added, the botanical description of the coffee berry. On the title page Douglas is described as physician-extraordinary to the queen. In 1726 he sent the gardener Thomas Knowlton to Guernsey to learn what he could of the history and cultivation of the Guernsey lily there and in 1729 published a second edition incorporating Knowlton's findings; it was reprinted in 1737. In 1727 Douglas published The Description and History of the Coffee Tree and A Supplement to the Description of the Coffee Tree. His work on chocolate and tea was not published.

An advertisement in Lilium sarniense told readers that George I had given Douglas £500 'to communicate the observations and discoveries he has made in anatomy' and 'a treatise on diseases incident to women'. Douglas had been working on an osteology since at least 1713; the plan was monumental: the book was to comprise plates of all the bones, together with their weights, chemical composition, connections, cartilages, glandulae, and sacculi mucosi (first described by Douglas), and associated muscles and ligaments. It was also to include sections on diseases of bones and a history of osteology and osteological figures. It was virtually complete at his death, but his assistant William Hunter's wish to publish it remained unfulfilled. All that remains extant is a large collection of drawings of dissections of normal and abnormal reproductive systems, gravid uteri and foetuses for the treatise on diseases of women. In order to assist his brother, the surgeon John Douglas, James undertook an investigation of the relevant anatomy to enable John to reintroduce safely suprapubic lithotomy. Indeed, Douglas intended a complete history of lithotomy but got no further than The History of the Lateral Operation (1726), reprinted 1731 with an Appendix Containing Mr Cheselden's Present Method with French (1726) and Latin (1733) translations. Much unpublished material survives.

Douglas was also involved in the case of Mary Toft, of Godalming, who claimed in 1726 to have given birth to a number of rabbits. Toft was brought to London and examined by Sir Richard Manningham and Douglas. She eventually admitted her deception and it was Douglas who took down her confession. When Manningham published his diary of the case Douglas became concerned that Manningham had implied that he (Douglas) had been duped by Toft. He therefore defended himself in An Advertisement Occasioned by some Passages in Sir R. Manningham's Diary Lately Published (1727). A satire on Douglas's account of the Toft affair and his earlier actions in it was ‘Flamingo’, a shorter and truer advertisement by way of supplement, to what was published the 7th instant, or, Dr D-g-l-s in an extasy, at Lacy's Bagie, December 4th 1726 (1727).

Douglas's most important medical work, A Description of the Peritoneum, was published in 1730. In it Douglas described the fold in the peritoneum between the rectum and the bladder, later called the pouch of Douglas. In an early draft of this work he acknowledged Winslow's priority in describing this fold but this was left out in the published version. Douglas described the fold as being:

where the pertionaeum leaves the foreside of the rectum, it makes an angle and changes its course upwards and forwards over the bladder; and a little above this angle there is a remarkable transverse stricture or semi-oval fold of the peritonaeum which I have constantly observed for many years past, especially in women.

J. Douglas, A Description of the Peritoneum, 1730, 37

In 1734 Douglas attended Princess Anne, daughter of George II and wife of the prince of Orange. Setting out for a return to the Netherlands in November 1734 after a visit to England the princess became ill. She was believed to be pregnant and Douglas and a midwife were sent to attend her. Douglas thought it was inadvisable for her to make a sea crossing but George II insisted on her return to the Netherlands. Whether or not Douglas accompanied her on this trip, he was in the Netherlands in 1735 when she was found not to be pregnant. Queen Caroline awarded Douglas an annuity of £500 for his attendance on the princess. However, the princess had taken a dislike to him and he did not attend her pregnancy in 1736, but did so in 1739 when her daughter lived only half an hour.

About 1735 Douglas began working on a treatise on aneurysms. The work remained unpublished although much of the material still remains. He also produced the papers on English, Latin, and Greek languages which may have been written for his children. Assessments of these papers have been made by Holmbert (1956) and Michael (1970). Alexander Pope (1743) described Douglas as 'above all curious in what related to Horace' (Pope, 4.187). In the Dunciad Pope refers to Douglas in the couplet:

There all the learn'd shall at the labour stand,And Douglas lend his soft obstetric hand.

Douglas collected editions of Horace and published Catalogus editionum Quinti Horatii Flacci ab 1476 ad an 1739 quae in bibliotheca Jacob Douglas … adservantur (1739). He also made a translation of Horace's first ode.

Douglas married twice. The identity of his first wife is unknown, but there was a daughter of this marriage. His second wife was Martha Wilkes (d. 1752), aunt of John Wilkes the radical politician. They had two sons, Israel James, an apothecary, and William George, who studied medicine, and a daughter, Martha Jane, who was said to have been engaged to William Hunter but who died in 1744. Nothing is known of Douglas's private life. His friends tended to be colleagues and others who shared his interests. Latterly Douglas lived in Red Lion Square, London, where he died on 2 April 1742; he was buried on 9 April in St Andrew's Church, Holborn. His wife applied to administer his will, but the will has not survived. William Hunter helped William George Douglas to assemble, from his father's notes, the substance of what would have been James Douglas's second Croonian lecture on the bladder, which George read to the Royal Society on 27 May 1742. In 1748 he published Nine Anatomical Figures Representing the External Parts, Muscles and Bones of the Human Body, being the proposed first plates in Douglas's osteology.


  • U. Glas., James Douglas papers
  • C. H. Brock, Dr James Douglas papers and drawings … a handlist (1993)
  • K. B. Thomas, James Douglas of the pouch and his pupil William Hunter (1964)
  • C. H. Brock, ‘James Douglas (1675–1742), botanist’, Journal of the Society of the Bibliography of Natural History, 9 (1978–80), 137–45
  • B. Holmbert, James Douglas on English pronounciation c1740 (1956)
  • I. Michael, English grammatical categories and the tradition to 1800 (1970)
  • A. Pope, The Dunciad in four books, rev. edn (1743), bk 4
  • A. Wilson, The making of man-midwifery: childbirth in England, 1660–1770 (1995)


  • Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, pathology department, Royal Infirmary, pathological preparations
  • Royal Society, The Hague, Netherlands, Dutch Royal Archives, journal book and classified papers
  • U. Glas. L., special collections department, medical and scientific papers
  • BL, Sloane MSS
  • Bodl. Oxf., Rawl. MSS
  • NHM, Bankesian MSS
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
University of Glasgow