CodeDS/UK/50
Person NameChristison; Robert (1797-1882); Sir; toxicologist; physician
Dates1797-1882
TitleSir
Epithettoxicologist; physician
HistoryChristison was born in Edinburgh on 18 July 1797. He completed the Edinburgh University arts course, taking additional lectures in chemistry and botany, graduating MA in 1815. He began to study medicine in November 1815 and graduated MD in 1819 with the intention of becoming a physician but his direction was unexpectedly steered towards toxicology.

In 1822 Christison was appointed to the regius chair of medical jurisprudence and medical police (forensic medicine and public health) at Edinburgh at the early age of twenty-five. The chair, having been excluded from the medical faculty since its foundation in 1807, languished in obscurity. Christison's initial class sizes were small, consisting mainly of young lawyers, and numbers fell from twelve students to one in the first three years. In 1823 he set his sights on a career specializing in toxicology when, with his colleague J. F. Coindet, he published 'An experimental inquiry on poisoning by oxalic acid'. Christison began to appear in court as a defence witness, but his ability to highlight defective crown medical testimony and his presence in the witness box soon forced the solicitor-general to make him a crown medical witness.

In 1825, Christison successfully petitioned the university to include medical jurisprudence as an optional subject for medical degrees. This, combined with his rapidly increasing reputation for research into arsenic poisoning, revitalized the chair's teaching. He discarded the chair's public health component to give more time to medico-legal teaching. He was instrumental in gradually raising the general standing of medical testimony and medical practice in cases of suspicious death, more especially in relation to poisons. With James Syme and Thomas Traill, Christison produced the standard work on post-mortem procedure in Scotland, The Medico-Legal Examination of Dead Bodies, published in 1839 at the request of the lord advocate. The principles expounded remain sound.

Christison's first notable trial (1826) was that of Mrs Smith for poisoning her husband with arsenic, but he achieved instantaneous public recognition with the case of the body snatchers Burke and Hare, in 1829. Christison published meticulous medico-legal details of his more important cases. His Treatise on Poisons (1829) became a standard work in English and was translated into German in 1831. He became medical adviser to the Standard Life Assurance Company, founded in 1825. He introduced into his medical jurisprudence course lectures on the responsibility of doctors when medically examining a person whose life was to be insured.

In 1832 Christison resigned his chair of medical jurisprudence and was elected to the chair of materia medica and therapeutics. On Christison's acceptance of the chair the university finally admitted medical jurisprudence and medical police to the medical faculty and curriculum. As professor of materia medica, Christison's major publications were On Granular Degeneration of the Kidnies (1839) and A Dispensatory on the Pharmacopoeias of Great Britain (1842). He continued his researches in toxicology and remained a crown medical witness until 1866, publishing more medico-legal papers than strictly materia medica papers during his professorship.

The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, despite their differences with him, twice elected Christison as president (1838-40 and 1846-8). Following the Medical Act of 1858 the crown selected Christison to represent the Scottish medical profession on the newly constituted General Medical Council, on which he served until 1873. He was elected president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh from 1869 to 1873 and was physician-in-ordinary to the queen in Scotland. He was created a baronet in 1871.

Christison died from cancer of the omentum at his home, 40 Moray Place, Edinburgh, on 27 January 1882.

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