Thomas Maclagan ~ Medical Pioneer

Thomas Maclagan (1838–1903) was a doctor and pharmacologist from Scone. He was medical superintendent at Dundee Royal Infirmary from 1864 to 1866. During this time he had to cope with a major fever epidemic, leading him to pioneer the clinical use of thermometers. His most important work, however, was the research he carried out into the anti-rheumatic effects of salicin, a chemical extracted from willow bark. Maclagan’s work was taken up by German researchers who used salicin to develop acetyl-salicylic acid – better known today as aspirin.

Maclagan later moved to London and established a fashionable practice whose patients included Thomas Carlyle and members of the Royal Family. At the time of his death in 1903, it was said that he “deserves a niche in the Temple of Fame as one of the great benefactors of the human race.”

“Influenced by the herbalist`s belief that antidotes were to be found in the vicinity of poisons, a Dundee physician, Thomas MacLagan, in November 1874, was the first to use the active principle from willow bark – salicin – to treat a human patient suffering from rheumatic fever.

Shortly after his clinical use of salicin, MacLagan heard of the work of Prof Marcellus von Necki in Basle, Switzerland, who in 1870, had found that salicin is converted into salicylate acid in the body. Around this time, Carl Thiersch, a Leipzig surgeon, was concerned about the damaging effects of carbolic acid and approached Hermann Kolbe, a professor of chemistry, who suggested that a carbolic acid analogue – salicylate acid – might be suitable, and devised a method for synthesising this. In 1874, Thiersch used salicylic acid for the first time – clinically. Carl Buss of St Gallen, Switzerland, used salicylate acid as a routine disinfectant to patients with typhoid and found that although it was an obvious antipyretic, it did not lower the body temperature by curing the typhoid infection. Buss published his findings in 1875. When news of these first, clinical, reports of the antipyretic action reached MacLagan, he gave salicylate acid to patients and also found that it relieved the affliction in his patients without effecting a cure. Another who had heard of Buss`s findings was Frank Strickler of Berlin, who tried salicylic acid in patients suffering from rheumatic fever. By his clinical application, Strickler found that not only did salicylic acid act as an antipyretic but it also had unquestionable value as an anti-rheumatic agent. Strickler published his first report in a German medical journal in January 1876 – two months before MacLagan`s own paper appeared in the `Lancet`. All of the findings had come through clinical experience – without any experiments on animals.