University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Robley Dunglison: From Keswick, England to Charlottesville, Virginia

Robley Dunglison was born in Keswick, Cumberland, England on January 4, 1798. At seventeen he became an apprentice to a surgeon. From 1815 to 1818, he studied medicine in London, Edinburgh, and Paris, and he passed his examinations with the Royal College of Surgeons and the Society of Apothecaries in London in 1818. He began practicing in London in 1819, and obtained his M. D., in absentia, from the University of Erlangen, Germany, in 1823, with a dissertation on neuralgia. Finding general practice “distasteful” he decided to specialize and teach obstetrics and pediatrics (Radbill, 7). The following year he published his first book, Commentaries on Diseases of the Stomach and Bowels of Children.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson. Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1800

Meanwhile in Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson commissioned Francis Walker Gilmer to find professors in England for his new University. Gilmer was asked to select “characters of due degree of science, and of talents for instruction, and of correct habits and morals.” In the fall of 1824, he offered the anatomy and medicine professorship to the twenty-six year old Robley Dunglison who had just taken on a student and was preparing a lecture course in midwifery. (Hickman)

The contract that Gilmer presented to Dunglison was unique. It provided rent-free living accommodations in Pavilion X on the Lawn at the center of Jefferson’s academical village, a guaranteed salary of $1,500, plus tuition fees of $25 to $50 per student. By limiting the practice of the signer to consultations, the contract established the first full-time medical professorship in America.


Portrait of Francis Walker Gilmer

Francis Walker Gilmer. Artist unknown, ca. 1820

Gilmer’s attractive offer forced Dunglison to hurry a proposal of marriage to Miss Harriette Leadam, daughter of fellow London physician, John Leadam. Dunglison was actually pleased to have a reason to rush his request, for he believed that he could not possibly have convinced Miss Leadam to accept him “for years to come” had he stayed in London. She was apparently quite popular. On the same day that Dr. Dunglison asked her father for his approval of the marriage, another of Harriette’s suitors, Rev. Thomas Lee, did the same. After going back and forth between the two men to hear their offers, and after a lengthy discussion with his daughter, Dr. Leadam decided that Dunglison was the best choice. Having secured his engagement, Dunglison signed Gilmer’s contract on 28 September 1824. He and Harriette were married exactly one week later (Radbill, 4-9).

The Dunglisons left London at the end of October, but, thanks to bad weather and navigators of questionable ability, they did not reach America until early February; a voyage routinely made in four to five weeks was for them fourteen. Among their adventures at sea, Dunglison recalled a near-catastrophe off Cape Hatteras:

I had retired to rest when I was suddenly aroused by the roaring of the wind and waves, and by the skipper calling down the companionway -‘all hands on deck, the ship’s going down.’… When the Captain’s coarse announcement was heard below everyone of course started up… Mr. Bonnycastle [professor of natural philosophy] rushed on deck, almost in puris naturalibus, with his nightcap on, and his appearance was so droll as to excite the laughter of the sailors – all immediate danger having passed away (Radbill, 20).