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

Robley Dunglison’s Medical Instruction, Writing, & Research at the University of Virginia

These lancets belonged to Dr. Dunglison. Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, UVa

Dr. Dunglison’s lancet. Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, UVa

 Dunglison’s Teaching

Robley Dunglison created a distinctive medical course at the University of Virginia. He was the first medical professor in America to add to his standard curriculum a series of lectures on the history of medicine. He also created the University’s first course in medical jurisprudence.

In his first year, Professor Dunglison taught twenty-six of the University’s 123 students. He sought constantly to facilitate their research. He sold many of his own books to the fledgling University library to improve its medical collection. As a lecturer he was famous for his thorough reviews:

He first discoursed at length on the virtues and uses of the different articles, and then recapitulated the whole lecture; or else he recapitulated, equally as fully, at the end of the description of each article. In addition, he examined his pupils once a week on the subjects of that week’s lectures,— not, as he said, to catechise them, but to bring back again whatever might have been forgotten (Bruce, 172-3).


Dunglison’s Writing

Dunglison's gold-plated retractable pencil is inscribed, "Robley Dunglison MD." Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, UVa

Dunglison’s gold-plated retractable pencil is inscribed, “Robley Dunglison MD.” The ivory and metal eraser is believed to have also belonged to Dunglison.  Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, UVa

Dunglison was one of the most prolific medical writers of his time. He edited and translated European medical texts, most notably François Magendie’s Formulaire, and contributed over fifty original essays and books. While at the University of Virginia, he wrote Syllabus of Lectures on Medical Jurisprudence, and on the Treatment of Poisoning and Suspended Animation and published the first of his nineteen editions of the famous A New Dictionary of Medical Science and Literature, the forerunner of Stedman’s Medical Dictionary. Dunglison’s two volume Human Physiology (1832), illustrated by numerous engravings and dedicated to former president James Madison, established his reputation as the “Father of American Physiology” and was first written while he was a professor at the University of Virginia. The American Journal of Medical Sciences called it “the most complete and satisfactory system of Physiology in the English language.” The eighth and final edition appeared in 1856. Another seminal work, General Therapeutics and Materia Medica, was written after he left the University of Virginia. He wrote Appeal to the People of Pennsylvania on the Subject of an Asylum for the Poor of the Commonwealth (1838) and supervised the preparation of the first American dictionary with raised type for the blind, Dictionary for the Blind in Tangible Type (1860).


Dunglison’s Research

Dunglison spent relatively little of his time in research, but, in 1832-33, he assisted William Beaumont in his famous study of digestion. Beaumont, who was influenced by Dunglison’s comments on digestion in Human Physiology, sent gastric juices to Yale and the University of Virginia to be examined. Dunglison and John P. Emmet, the University of Virginia professor of chemistry, discovered free hydrochloric acid in their samples. In a letter to Beaumont dated 6 February 1833, Dunglison noted: “We were satisfied, you recollect, in Washington, that free muriatic [hydrochloric] acid was present, but I had no conception it existed to the amount met with in our experiments here” (Beaumont, 74).

Beaumont cited Dunglison’s work in his book, but, against custom and for reasons unknown, he did not send him a complimentary copy. Dunglison recalled that he had to buy a copy from Beaumont in Baltimore for three dollars: “[Beaumont] said he thought, under all the circumstances, I ought to have a copy gratuitously; but took the money” (Radbill, 52).