Patrick Blair ~ Botanist, Surgeon, and Anatomist

The first ever dissection of an elephant was undertaken by Patrick Blair in 1706. Blair was born around 1680 at Lethendy in Perthshire, the third son of George Blair, a farmer and Euphame. Blair was apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary from the late 1680s, probably in Coupar Angus. He spent the period from 1694 to 1697 in the Low Countries – mainly Flanders. Here he worked as a surgeon but also conducted research into botany. By 1700, he was in Dundee and a year later was advertising an anatomical handbook in the Edinburgh Gazette (never published).

Patrick Blair was married in April of 1702 to an Elizabeth/Elspeth Whyte. They had a son John, a son Henry and two daughters, Elizabeth and Isobell.

In April of 1706 a female Indian elephant which was on exhibit around the north of Scotland died near Dundee. Blair was allowed to dissect the carcass. Working with local butchers the task was done: the bones were recovered and mounted for exhibition in Dundee and the skin stuffed. Blair undertook the dissection precisely and wrote up his findings in a paper published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1710 – Blair later wrote several other papers for this journal. The same was produced as a pamphlet in 1713 – Osteographia Elephantina. In 1712, the Royal Society elected Blair to be a Fellow. That same year King’s College awarded him an MD.

Blair’s family were Jacobites so it is not surprising that he joined Lord Nairn’s Battalion (as a surgeon) in the 1715 rebellion. Captured, he was taken to Newgate Prison in London, before being sentenced to death. Lobbying amongst friends and other influential scientists saw a reprieve come at the final moment – past the midnight of his pre-execution night.

Returning home things were more difficult for his practice. Nevertheless, his scientific work continued: an account of pyloric stenosis appeared in 1717. Other writings on botany, physick, anatomy and surgery followed.

In 1720, he settled in Boston, Lancashire and practised medicine; always producing on botany as well. One area that he worked on was plant sexuality, although his theories of hermaphrodite reproduction were later proved incorrect.

In 1723, Blair brought out Volume 1 of Phamaco-Botanologia. He only completed this encyclopedia of botany up to the letter H (1728). He died in Boston in the year 1728.

“BLAIR, PATRICK, M. D. an eminent botanist in the earlier period of the existence of that science in Britain, was first known as a practitioner of surgery and physic at Dundee, where he brought himself into prominent notice as an anatomist, 1706, by the dissection of an elephant which died near that place. He was a non-juror or Scottish episcopalian, and so far attached to the exiled family of Stuart, as to be imprisoned during the insurrection of 1715, as a suspected person. He afterwards removed to London, where he recommended himself to the attention of the Royal Society by some discourses on the sexes of flowers. His stay in London was short, and after leaving it, he settled at Boston in Lincolnshire, where Dr Pulteney conjectures that he practised physic during the remainder of his life. The same writer, in his “Historical and Biographical Sketches of English Botany,” supposes that his death happened soon after the publication of the seventh Decad of his Pharmacobotanologia, in 1728. Dr Blair’s first publication was entitled, “Miscellaneous Observations in Physic, Anatomy, Surgery, and Botanicks, 8vo, 1718.” In the botanical part of this work, he insinuates some doubts relating to the method suggested by Petion and others, of deducing the qualities of vegetables from the agreement in natural characters; and instances the Cynoglossum, as tending to prove the fallacy of this rule. He relates several instances of the poisonous effects of plants, and thinks the Echium Marinum (Pulmonaria Maritima of Linnaeus) should be ranked in the genus Cynoglossum, since it possesses a narcotic power. He describes and figures several of the more rare British plants, which he had discovered in a tour made into Wales; for instance, the Rumex Digynus, Lobelia Dortmanna, Alisma Ranunculoides, Pyrola Rotundifolia, Alchemilla Alpina, etc. But the work by which he rendered the greatest service to botany, originated with his “Discourse on the Sexes of Plants,” read before the Royal Society, and afterwards greatly amplified, and published, at the request of several members of that body, under the title of “Botanical Essays, 8vo, 1720.” This treatise is divided into two parts, containing five essays; the three first respecting what is proper to plants, and the two last, what is proper to plants and animals. This is acknowledged, by an eminent judge, to have been the first complete work, at least in the English language, on that important department of botanical science, the sexes of the plants. The author shows himself well acquainted, in general, with all the opinions and arguments which had been already circulated on the same subject. The value of the work must not be estimated by the measure of modern knowledge, though even at this day it may be read by those not critically versed in the subject, with instruction and improvement. A view of the several methods then invented, cannot be seen so connectedly in any other English author. Dr Blair strengthened the arguments in proof of the sexes of plants, by sound reasoning and some new experiments. His reasons against Morland’s opinion of the entrance of the Farina into the Vascudum Seminale, and his refutation of the Lewenhoekian theory, have met with the sanction of the greatest names in modern botany. Dr Blair’s last distinct publication, which he did not live to complete, was “Parmacobotanologia, or an Alphabetical and Classical Dissertation on all the British indigenous and garden plants of the New Dispensatory,” 4to, 1723-8. In this work, which was carried no further than the letter H, the genera and species are described, the sensible qualities and medicinal powers are subjoined, with the pharmaceutical uses, and the author also notices several of the more rare English plants, discovered by himself in the environs of Boston. Dr Blair’s fugitive writings consist of various papers in the Philosophical Transactions, of which one of the most remarkable is an account of the Anatomy and Osteology of the Elephant, drawn up from his observations in dissecting the animal above alluded to at Dundee.”