Person NameSyme; James (1799-1870); Professor; surgeon; chemist
Epithetsurgeon; chemist
HistorySyme was born in Edinburgh on 7th November 1799. He was sent to the Royal High School at the age of nine, and remained until he was fifteen, when he entered the University of Edinburgh. For two years he frequented the arts classes (including botany), and in 1817 began the medical curriculum, devoting himself with particular keenness to chemistry. His chemical experiments led him to the discovery that a valuable substance is obtainable from coal tar which has the property of dissolving india-rubber, and could be used for waterproofing silk and other textile fabrics; an idea which was patented a few months afterwards by Charles Macintosh, of Glasgow.

In the session 1818-1819 Syme became assistant and demonstrator of the dissecting room of Robert Liston and held resident appointments in the infirmary and the fever hospital. In 1823 Liston handed over to him the whole charge of his anatomy classes, retaining his interest in the school as a pecuniary venture; the arrangement did not work smoothly, and a feud with Liston arose, which did not terminate until twenty years later, when Syme settled in London.

In 1824-1825, he started the Brown Square school of medicine, but again disagreed with his partners in the venture. Announcing his intention to practise surgery only, Syme started a surgical hospital of his own, Minto House hospital, which he carried on from May 1829 to September 1833, with great success as a surgical charity and school of clinical instruction. It was here that he first put into practice his method of clinical teaching, which consisted in having the patients to be operated upon brought from the ward into a lecture-room where the students were seated conveniently for seeing and taking notes.

In 1833 he succeeded James Russell as professor of clinical surgery in the university. Then in 1847 Syme accepted the chair of clinical surgery at University College, London left vacant after Liston's death. He began practice in London in February 1848 but left in early May. He returned to Edinburgh in July, and was reinstated in his old chair.

In 1849, he broached the subject of medical reform in a letter to the lord advocate; in 1854 and 1857 he addressed open letters on the same subject to Lord Palmerston; and in 1858 a Medical Act was passed which largely followed the lines laid down by himself and created the General Medical Council.
In April 1869, he had a paralytic seizure, and at once resigned his chair; he never recovered his powers, and died near Edinburgh in June 1870.

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