- “To Ask the Suffrages of the Patrons”: Thomas Laycock and the Edinburgh Chair of Medicine, 1855. Medical History
For seven long weeks in the late summer and early fall of 1855 the academic and political communities of Edinburgh were convulsed by a battle-royal over the principal university chair in medicine. The power of decision lay with a Town Council of thirty-two members drawn from such occupations as grocer, paper merchant, tailor, upholsterer, watchmaker, and civil engineer. When the reigning Nestor of the Scottish medical profession, Robert Christison, declined to fight a public battle for the position, a number of local candidates and one Englishman, Thomas Laycock (a practitioner in York), applied for the chair.
The ensuing struggle rivaled any political contest of the period for its overheated rhetoric, shrewd politicking, partisan loyalties, rumor-mongering, and name-calling. The personal lives of the candidates, their religious affiliations, and their political attachments were all thrown into the cauldron of blistering attack, backroom gossip, and subtle accusations. “One’s position on Corinthians,” writes editor Michael Barfoot, “could be as important as on the Corn Laws” (p. 39). Each candidate was expected to publish volumes of testimonials and canvass personally every member of the Town Council. In the active rumor-mills of the city, one candidate was accused of being the father of an illegitimate child, another of having a violent and ungovernable temper, and a third of being an insufferable egotist.
Laycock’s winning strategy (engineered by the sometimes double-dealing James Young Simpson) was to divide and conquer by convincing enough of the followers of the faculty favorite, John Hughes Bennett, that the latter could not win in a head-to-head run-off with the feared extra-academical lecturer Alexander Wood, and that they must therefore vote in the first round for LaycockÑwho then went on to beat the confident Wood by a vote of 17 to 15. It was a stratagem that would have done justice to the most memorable feats of Tammany Hall. What is remarkable for historians about this hard-fought election was that Laycock, an outsider who remained under unremitting attack from the stalwarts of the Edinburgh faculty, decided to write a retrospective account of the election and to gather every document, letter, telegram, and press clipping bearing on the affair. This he did over a period of fifteen years. The resulting collection is [End Page 161] perhaps the most complete record we have of a single academic election in the nineteenth century. The editor, with his peerless knowledge of the vast archives in Edinburgh, has done a superb job of editing the manuscript and providing a penetrating and witty introduction.