CodeDS/UK/42
Person NameWhytt; Robert (1714-1766); Professor; physician
Dates1714-1766
TitleProfessor
Epithetphysician
HistoryWhytt was born in Edinburgh on 6 September 1714. He was educated first at the public school of Kirkcaldy. There is little evidence for the common assumption that about 1727 he followed his elder brother, George (d. 1728), to the University of St Andrews. It is much more likely that he was the Robert Whyt recorded as matriculating in arts in Edinburgh in 1729, the year after George died. Certainly Whytt was studying medicine there in the following year under Alexander Monro primus, in whose class-list he appears also in 1732 and 1734.

Later in 1734 Whytt left for London to study under the great lithotomist William Cheselden. From the wards of the London hospitals he went to those of Paris and attended the lectures of Jacques Benigne Winslow. After this he studied at the foremost medical school of the time, Leiden, and with the 'teacher of all Europe', the ageing Herman Boerhaave. Whytt took his MD (like many contemporary Scottish physicians) at Rheims, on 2 April 1736. After returning home he took an equivalent degree from St Andrews, on 31 October 1737, and becoming a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, on 21 June 1738. He was elected a fellow on 27 November and began his practice.

Whytt's contemporary reputation rested in the first instance on his use of lime water and soap in cases of the stone of the bladder, about which he published his 'Essay on the virtues of lime-water and soap in the cure of the stone' in Observations and Essays in Medicine by a Society in Edinburgh (vol. 2, pt 2, 1743). Soap, when dissolved in lime water, remained popular as a lithontriptic until the second half of the nineteenth century.

By 1739 Whytt had begun to question the received views on the nature of the vital motions, and thus to begin his most important enterprise. He believed that no mere machine could perform vital actions and held that the living body contained a 'sentient principle' that could perceive and react to stimuli in an unconscious way. He outlined these ideas in a paper read before the Philosophical Society in Edinburgh in 1745 or 1746, which no doubt helped to bring the 'lime-water' doctor more into the public eye. He was elected professor of the practice of medicine in the Edinburgh medical faculty on 26 August 1747. He was also appointed as the professor of the institutes of medicine.

Whytt's major work was his Essay on the Vital and other Involuntary Motions of Animals of 1751. In it he elaborated his doctrine of the sentient principle: it was the soul, distributed all over the body and acting in a limited way in the organs and tissues it occupied. A principal argument of Whytt and the animists was that if the body was a hydraulic machine, in the Newtonian manner, then there must be a non-mechanical source of motion that moved it. His interest in the sensibility and co-ordination of the nerves led to a major work on nervous diseases in 1764.

Whytt died in Edinburgh on 15 April 1766.

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