Featured Borrowers: Sir Gilbert Blane: A Physician

portrait of Sir Gilbert Blane

Sir Martin Archer Shee, ‘Sir Gilbert Blane, first baronet (1749-1834)’, c. 1833
Royal College of Physicians

Although borrowings from Gilbert Blane only appear in one of our Books and Borrowing Libraries so far, he may yet be found in more as we begin work on linking our data across our 150,000 or so records collected at time of writing.

Born in Ayrshire in 1749, Blane was destined for a career in the church when he entered the University of Edinburgh aged fourteen, but he switched to medical studies in 1769. He borrowed books from the University Library starting in 1770 and from 1771 his loans were focused on practical medicine on topics such as antiseptics, female diseases, and fevers. He studied at Edinburgh’s medical faculty for five years.

Blane took his MD from Glasgow in 1778 after studying with William Cullen. Unfortunately, we don’t have Glasgow student borrowing registers for the relevant date, but it’s likely he would have borrowed books there as he did at Edinburgh. Cullen introduced Blane to London-based physician William Hunter who had a notable private library. Hunter in turn recommended Blane to Lord George Rodney who employed the new medic as his personal physician.

12 Nov. 1773: Jean-Baptiste Senac, De febribus (Geneva, 1769) – one of Blane’s borrowings from Edinburgh University Library. EUL MS Da.2.10, f. 115.

Blane sailed to the West Indies with Rodney and became a fighting physician, as likely to be part the action as tending to the sick and injured during the American War of Independence. He became Physician to the West Indies fleet in 1780. Blane published his Short Account of the Most Effectual Means of Preserving the Health of Seamen, Particularly in the Royal Navy the following year and distributed to all the surgeons of the fleet.

Blane’s dedication for his Short Account of the Most Effectual Means of Preserving the Health of Seamen, Particularly in the Royal Navy (1780).

After the war, Blane became a royal physician and physician of St Thomas’s Hospital, London. There, he expanded his theories for preventing illness, including using fresh fruit to prevent scurvy and introducing strict sanitation measures, relying on his practical experience. His Observations on the Diseases Incident to Seamen appeared in 1785.

The French Revolution saw Blane back in active service. He collected statistical data that showed that his approaches to promoting health worked. The effectiveness of lemons in preventing and curing scurvy had long been recognised by seafarers and Dr James Lind’s Treatise on the Scurvy of 1753 had provided empirical evidence. In 1795, as a Commissioner on the Sick and Wounded Board of the Admiralty, Blane authorised the distribution of lemons throughout the Royal Navy. He became a recognised public health expert and was consulted in cases of plague and the management of convict ships. Blane recommended such measures as vaccination and ventilation – practices we are very familiar with in recent times. Blane retired from the navy in 1802, but continued to research and publish on medical matters. He died in London in 1834.[1]

[1] J. Wallace, ‘Blane, Sir Gilbert, first baronet (1749-1834)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/2621 [accessed 13 July 2022].