William Cullen’s Cane

This cane originally belonged to Dr. William Cullen (1710-1790). Cullen was an influential figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, and his social circle encompassed Edinburgh literati including David Hume and Adam Smith. He became a fellow in the Royal College of Physicians in 1756. Cullen published a number of important medical treatises.

  • The gold snake embellishment below the handle includes the inscription “MOC. CULLENI BACULO COLL. REG.MED.EDIN. DOMAVIT JACUBUS CRAIG CRCH. S. KAL. NOV MDCCC LIII”.
  • The gold handle is etched with a symmetrical stripe effect, and is noticeably lacking in a rounded ‘head’.
  • The tassel is loosely attached with coarse brown thread.
  • It is relatively light in weight and is 92.5 cm in height.

Born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Cullen's father was a lawyer and factor to the Duke of Hamilton; educated at local Grammar School and Glasgow College; apprenticed to Mr Nisbet, a surgeon apothecary. At the age of nineteen he became a surgeon on a trading ship plying between London and the West Indies.

He returned to Scotland in 1731 and commenced practice in the village of Shotts, a few miles from his birthplace. About two years later having inherited a small legacy he came to Edinburgh to study medicine throughout three winter sessions. Cullen and some of his fellow students started a medical society which was granted a Royal Charter from King George III in 1779.

Studies in Edinburgh completed, he returned to Hamilton and general practice. He and William Hunter, who was born in Lanarkshire and attended medical classes in Glasgow, entered into partnership. They planned to permit each other time off on alternate years to study at various medical schools. Hunter went to London to study anatomy and there he remained to become the famous anatomist and surgeon.

In 1744, Cullen was persuaded to commence practice in Glasgow where his versatility was quickly recognised. He was given permission to lecture on the Theory and Practice of Medicine; six months afterwards he added Botany and Materia Medica and later included Chemistry. In 1751 he was appointed Professor of Medicine in Glasgow.

Four years later he was invited to be joint Professor of Chemistry with Plummer in Edinburgh and when the latter died a year later Cullen became sole Professor of Chemistry and Medicine. The duties of the Chair of Chemistry included teaching in the wards of the Royal Infirmary and he soon acquired a large student following. When the Chair of the Institutes of Medicine became vacant Dr Cullen was appointed. Eventually, in 1773, on the death of Dr John Gregory he was elected to the Chair of which his breadth of knowledge made him most suitable, that of the Practice of Medicine.

In 1773 Cullen became President of the College and had the satisfaction of laying the foundation stone of the new Hall in George Street.

Dr Cullen was largely responsible for the 1774 edition of the Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia and his First Lines of the Practice of Physic went through many editions and was translated into French, German and Italian.

He continued his university work until the age of seventy-nine and died a year later.