Dr James Copland M.D., F.R.S.

Doctor James Copland
  • Born:

    Deerness, 1791

  • Died:

    Hertford House, Brondesbury Road, Kilburn 12 July 1870

  • Father:

    James Copland

  • Mother:

    Jean nee Pottinger

  • Married:


  • Children:

    Son and daughter

The following article appeared in Orkney Today on 14 October 2010:-

Medicine man compiled a world-famous dictionary

The Royal Society of London was founded almost exactly 350 years ago, in November 1660, "to assist and promote the accumulation of useful knowledge". It is still active today and Bill Bryson, in the book he recently edited about the Society, Seeing Further, The Story of Science & The Royal Society, describes it as not only the most venerable learned society in the world but the finest club.

Four men born in Orkney have been elected to the Society: Dr John Rae, Murdoch Mackenzie, for his charting of coastal waters; Sir John Smith Flett, Director of the British Geological Survey, and the man hardly anyone has heard of, Dr James Copland. What did a doctor, born in Deerness in 1791, do to qualify for membership?

Within a year or two of James's birth, his parents James and Jean, nee Pottinger, moved to Shetland, so we do have to share one of our almost famous sons. They leased the little island of Noss, just off Bressay and, according to A Lerwick Miscellany by E. S. Reid Tait, are said to have had twenty-four milking cows and sold milk and butter every day in town. It's clear where their son's work ethic and 'indefatigable energy' came from. They made money and moved to Lerwick about 1817, where they built 2-8 Commercial Street and the pier still known as Copland's Pier.

James went to Edinburgh University when he was sixteen, intending to enter the church but, after four years of studying philosophy, mathematics, literature and science, he switched to medicine. This seems to have been because it offered more opportunity for research. He didn't see the first four years as time wasted, writing later that he "had had the advantages, at that time too seldom enjoyed by medical students, of having pursued those studies which form the best introduction to the attainment of medical knowledge". He graduated with an MD in 1815.

Now aged twenty-four, and intent on learning even more, he set of for London to study surgical practices there. As Continental travel had just become possible again after the defeat of Napoleon, Copland went on to France and Germany and spent two years studying the diseases prevalent there.

On his return to Britain, he accepted an appointment as medical officer to the settlements of the Royal African Company on the Gold Coast. He sailed to Goree, an island off the coast of Senegal, early in 1817, and then travelled on to Senegal, the Gambia and Sierra Leone. He studied the tropical diseases he encountered there and this stood him in good stead just after leaving Sierra Leone, when three-quarters of the crew went down with yellow fever. While he was dealing with this, the ship was dismasted by a tropical storm. Somehow, Copland survived to reach land and, as his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography cryptically says, 'by various means made his way along the coast [about 1000 miles] to the British fort of Cape Coast [in Ghana], where he lived for some months'.

On his return to Britain, he paid a brief visit home and then headed for Paris again, where he spent several months working in the hospitals before evidently deciding he finally knew enough to set up his own practice, in 1820.

That same year he began to contribute articles to medical journals and, just three years later, became editor of one of them: the London Medical Repository, copies of which can be read on-line. Its hundreds of pages contain gruesome articles on an astonishing variety of illnesses, treatments and operations. Articles contributed by the editor himself show an extensive knowledge of the most recent research and treatments.

His medical career seems to have prospered just as quickly: in the frontispiece of the Repository in 1823 he describes himself as "Consulting Physician to Queen Charlotte's Lying in Hospital, one of the Physicians to the Royal Universal Dispensary for the Diseases of Children and late to the South London Dispensary'. Two years later, he had become Senior Physician to the Royal Universal Infirmary and Corresponding Member of the Medical and Chirurgical Society of Berlin.

The Royal Universal Dispensary was a charity which provided medicine for children so they could be nursed at home and investigated diseases in children and young people. Queen Charlotte's Lying-In Hospital, founded in 1752, was the third oldest maternity hospital in the country and provided care for poor women and midwifery training for men. Unusually, it was willing to take in unmarried mothers but only to deliver their first child.

Not content with writing about medicine, he lectured on it as well, at first as one of the lecturers in a private medical school in Soho and then at the Middlesex Hospital. In the London Literary Gazette in 1828 there is an advertisement for "DR COPLAND'S LECTURES on NATURE and TREATMENT of DISEASES; embracing the Principles of Pathology, Morbid Anatomy, &c." It promises that the lectures will be, "by Practical Instruction on the Cases under Treatment at the Dispensary attached to the School and at the Royal Infirmary for Children; and By coloured Drawings Plates &c." and continues, "Dr Copland will also deliver a Course of Lectures on the Influence of Climate on Health and Disease embracing particularly the Disorders of Warm Countries."

In 1825 he issued a prospectus for an encyclopaedia of medicine but, according to his biography in the Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, "a panic in mercantile affairs" made his publishers withdraw. Three years later, he tried again but these publishers also let him down. At last, in 1830, Longman and Co offered him a contract to write a Dictionary of Practical Medicine and he could embark on the work which made him famous and led to him becoming a member of the Royal Society.

Working alone, he completed the first of three volumes by 1832 and it was published in September, under the title, which took up most of the first page, A Dictionary of Practical Medicine. Comprising General Pathology, the Nature and Treatment of Diseases, Morbid Structures and the Disorders especially incidental to Climates, to the Sex, and to the different Epochs of Life. With numerous Prescriptions for the Medicines recommended; a Classification of Diseases according to Pathological Principles; a copious Bibliography, with References, and an Appendix of approved Formulæ. The whole forming a Library of Pathology and Practical Medicine, and a Digest of Medical Literature.

Unsurprisingly, given his other commitments, it took Copland another 26 years to complete the two other volumes. The three volumes together totalled 7000 densely printed pages. The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians says,

"The information amassed in these volumes is literally enormous, and must excite astonishment as the production of one individual - but when it is further considered that the whole of the materials were most carefully selected from all existing sources, most patiently digested, elaborated, and arranged into compact and simple forms easily accessible and readily available, it is not easy to point out in the whole of medical literature any work by a single hand so much calculated to excite admiration of the industry and talents of the author."

An obituary delivered to the American Philosphical Society, of which Copland had been made a member in 1845, said,

"It is no exaggeration to say that but few more colossal literary works have ever been achieved by any author. The number and variety of the articles are only equaled by the profound erudition and great practical knowledge which they evince, and the vigor and clearness of the style in which they are composed".

He was well-rewarded for his efforts, being paid £4000 for the three volumes and another £1000 for the supplement the publishers requested on the latest advances in medical techniques. Ten thousand copies of the English edition were sold and it was also published in America and translated into German. Copland gave a signed copy of the Dictionary to the Orkney Library, which can be seen in the Orkney Archive, noting his place and date of birth under his signature.

Of course, not every doctor could afford a copy so, working with his nephew, another Dr James Copland, he produced an abridged version "throughout brought down to the present state of medical science", a mere 1538 pages, in 1866.

James Copland was elected to the Royal Society in 1833 and was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1837. He held office in the College of Physicians for many years and delivered several of their annual lectures. His fame in medical circles was international: as well as the American Philosophical Society, he was an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium and the Royal Academy of Sciences of Sweden.

Almost incredibly, alongside all this he built up what was described in one of his obituaries as one of the largest and most lucrative practices in London. Although these achievements suggest a driven obsessive, with time for nothing but work, he is variously described as amiable, generous and hospitable; he just seems to have had more time at his disposal. He wrote in the introduction to his Dictionary.

"...endowed with a strong and a sound constitution and enjoying through life uninterruptedly good health ... he [the Author] has been enabled to pursue his avocations... with much less loss of time in the restoration of the powers of nature in sleep than is generally required" so he "employed some of the hours usually given to repose in digesting the results of his observations and studies".

This good health lasted well into old age. Although he only gave up his practice a year or so before he died, in 1870, at Hertford House, Kilburn, he still found time in his later years to be a Vice President of the British Archaeological Society.

According to the DNB nothing is known of his wife but his son and daughter were executors of his will.

On the frontispiece of the Dictionary there is a quote from Chaucer that seems to perfectly sum up Copland's long life, and could be taken as the motto of so many Orcadians, "Gladly would he learn and gladly teach".