Professor John Gregory

3 June 1724 - 9 February 1773

Born in 1724, John Gregory was the son of James Gregory (died 1731), Professor of Medicine at King's College and grandson of James Gregory  FRS, mathematician. After attending Aberdeen Grammar School he studied at King's College, transferring to Edinburgh University in 1741 to study medicine. He completed his studies at Leiden University in the United Provinces (now The Netherlands) and while there was awarded a degree as Doctor of Medicine (1745) from King's College.

On return to Aberdeen in 1746 Dr Gregory was appointed Professor of Philosophy at King's College but he resigned the post in 1749 as his real interest was the practice of medicine. He became one of the first surgeons to operate at Aberdeen Infirmary which had opened in 1742. While at King's College he tried to set up a series of medical lectures, but there were too few medical students to make this viable, partly because of the rivalry between King's and Marischal Colleges. More successful was Professor Gregory's institution of lectures to midwives as part of pioneering moves to improve the training and skills of midwives in Scotland.

Professor Gregory founded the Aberdeen Philosophical Society. A paper he presented to the society formed the basis of his 1765 publication "A Comparative View of the State and Faculties of Man with those of the Animal World". In this he proposed that universal human nature could be discovered through scientific experiment. He believed that the principal elements of man's nature were reason and instinct, arguing that "The task of improving our nature, of improving man's estate, involves the proper development and exercise of the social principle." His emphasis on an open mind and basing conclusions on rational scientific research were an influence on the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Professor Gregory married Elizabeth Forbes in 1752.

In 1754, he went to London and in the same year, aged only 30, was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1755, Professor Gregory's brother, who had succeeded their father as Professor of Medicine in Aberdeen, died and John was appointed in his place.

His wife Elizabeth died in 1761. As a tribute to her thoughts on female education, Professor Gregory wrote " A Father's legacy to HIs Daughters" which was published in 1774, a year after his death. At the time this was the work for which he became best known as it was widely-read and translated. In it Professor Gregory advised parents and women on moral behaviour, religion, friendship and relations with men, with an emphasis on marriage. He suggested that women should conceal their educational level as this might discourage potential husbands. He was reflecting widely-held views at the time but did genuinely believe in women's education. However, his views in "A Father's Legacy" were criticised by Mary Wollstonecroft in her book "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" (1792), not least because she felt it encouraged young women to practice deceit.

Professor Gregory moved to Edinburgh in 1764 in order to pursue medical practice and in 1766 was appointed Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh University, a post which he held until his death in 1773.

He expanded a series of lectures which he gave between 1767 and 1769 to form the text of his most important work "Observations on the Duties, Offices and Qualifications of a Physician" (1772). This laid out his views on medical ethics. Professor Gregory encouraged a bedside manner of gentleness, sympathy and compassion. Sympathy helped gain the patient's trust and was "in many cases of the utmost consequence to his recovery." He described humanity as "the sensibility of the heart which makes us feel for the distresses of our fellow creatures" and thought it the most important character for a doctor to have. The physician must be honest and be "ready to acknowledge and rectify his mistakes". At all times he should maintain intellectual vigour and promote the patients' interests. The doctor must reject commercial motives and the pursuit of status, putting patient welfare above all else. Professor Gregory's philosophy of medical practice and the doctor-patient relationship came to define Scottish medicine and formed the basis of the system of modern medical ethics. His writings were translated into French, German, Italian and Spanish so that his ideas influenced medical practice throughout Europe.

HIs influence extended further through student teaching. As well as his ethical principles described in "Observations", he encouraged medical students to pursue systematic scientific methods to investigate the causes, diagnosis and most appropriate management of disease. One of his most successful students was Thomas Percival (1740 - 1804) whose book "Medical Ethics" was widely-studied in the English-speaking world and further developed Professor Gregory's ideas.
Another was Benjamin Rush who became a leading physician and statesman in the USA and who had a major influence on the development of American medical ethics.

Professor John Gregory died in 1773 and was buried in Canongate Kirkyard. His friend the social reformer, patron of arts and literary critic Elizabeth Montague wrote after his death "One loved Dr Gregory for the sake of virtue and virtue (one might almost say) for the sake of Dr Gregory."


  • A Comparative View of the State & Faculties of Man with those of the Animal World (1765)
  • Observations on the Duties, Offices & Qualifications of a Physician (1772)
  • Elements of the Practice of Physic (1772)
  • A Father's legacy to HIs Daughters (1774)


  • Fellow of the Royal Society (1756)
  • Physician in Scotland to King George III (1766)

image: National Trust for Scotland, Fyvie Castle 84.122.2 CC-BY-NC 4.0

Biography prepared from the nomination made by Dr A Fraser to the University of Aberdeen 525 Alumni project.