Dr James Matthews Duncan

1826 - 1890

James Matthews Duncan was born in Bon Accord Square, Aberdeen in 1826, the son of a shipping merchant.  He was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and at Marischal College where he undertook a Master of Arts degree.  He went on to study medicine in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Paris and in 1846 he obtained a Doctor of Medicine from the University of Aberdeen.  While working in Edinburgh he had become acquainted with the James Young Simpson, professor of midwifery who adopted Matthews Duncan as a collaborator in his discovery of the anaesthetic properties of chloroform.

Matthews Duncan began practice in Edinburgh and in 1853 ran a course of lectures on midwifery at the Extramural School.  Simpson, Matthews Duncan and Dr George Keith used to research and self-experiment in Dr Simpson’s dining room to evaluate the anaesthetic properties of chloroform.  They were known to inhale chloroform to the point of loss of consciousness!

He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh and in 1861 appointed physician to the Royal infirmary being instrumental in the founding of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh.  He published many lectures and books on his research which included the mechanisms of childbirth and diseases in women.

He became obstetric physician to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London where he became recognised as the leading obstetric authority of his day.  He acquired several honours including FRS, FRCP of London, LLD’s of Edinburgh and Cambridge, and an honorary degree from the University of Dublin.  He was an honorary member of the medical societies of America, Russia, Austria, Germany and Norway. At the age of 60, he retired from obstetrics, 2 years later developing angina and suffered a fatal heart attack in Baden-Baden in 1890.  On his death, Queen Victoria sent a telegram to his widow in which she wrote “the country and Europe at large have lost one of their most distinguished men, and one who will be sorely missed”. 

Biography prepared from the nomination made to the University of Aberdeen 525 Alumni project.