The Consultation Letters of Dr William Cullen (1710-1790) at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh


[Case ID:370]: Case of an unnamed slave with epilepsy at Charleston, South Carolina.

This letter stands out as a unique approach made on behalf of an unnamed American slave suffering from epilepsy. Regrettably we have been unable to trace any record of the slave to establish his name, though he is more likely to have been a house-slave (domestic servant) rather than a field worker. However, much can be traced concerning his owner Robert Brisbane (1707-1781), who writes this request. Brisbane was Scottish-born merchant, library founder and slave-owner who settled at Charleston, South Carolina. He was christened at Glasgow High Church on 1st January 1708, as the second eldest of nine recorded children born to the schoolmaster William Brisbane (1670-1733) and his wife Catherine Paterson (married ca. 1700). Robert Brisbane died "a wealthy man" at - or near -Glasgow, in mid-November 1781. His Will was proved at Charleston on 18th December 1781. He died unmarried.

Robert's father William was educated at Glasgow University and was a master at Glasgow Grammar School before serving as Rector at Hamilton Grammar School from August 1721 to 1726. Cullen, who attended Hamilton Old Grammar School before going to Glasgow University in 1726, is known to have been taught by a Dr Findlater but it seems highly probable that William Brisbane also played a role in his education. Young Robert Brisbane was himself attending Glasgow University by 1723. Around 1733 he emigrated to Charleston, a prosperous centre of the Atlantic slave-trade. His brother Dr William Brisbane (1710-1771) who arrived there around 1731-3, became a surgeon and apothecary. Robert worked in partnership with an older brother, Walter (b. 1706), who succeeded to their father's Glasgow-based business, W. & J. Brisbane. The Dr Thomas Brisbane, who had a substantial Glasgow practice, was nominally professor at Glasgow and whose death (around 1744-5) created an opening for Cullen to move to Glasgow was probably their uncle.

In Charleston Robert became a prominent merchant, medical supplier and eventually Justice of the Peace (1774). In 1740 he joined the St. Andrew's Society, in 1746 he was secretary to the Right Worthy and Amicable Order UBIQUARIANS' and in 1748 he was one of the founders of the Charles Town Library Society, which established one of the oldest subscription libraries in America. Several founders were of Scottish origin. In 1756-9 Robert served as the Library Society's "correspondent"; an early library letter-book, recently edited by book historian James Raven, records Brisbane's letters to the London bookseller James Rivington concerning the purchasing of books and journals for the library. In June 1764 Robert and his brother purchased lands in Granville County and the Brisbanes became 'magnificently established on the Ashley River' (Raven, p. 56). Like some others on the Charleston library committee, Robert Brisbane may not have been an importer of slaves, but he owned plantation slaves. Any response to his request for zinc ointment on Cullen's part is untraced but Brisbane thought he might visit Cullen 'next summer'.

The letter to Cullen, dated at Charleston November 1774, reveals that by this date Brisbane had already consulted the physician over his own ill-health while on a previous visit to Scotland. Nothing has been traced of this earlier consultation, but as detailed in the letters collated as Case 1329, by July 1781 Brisbane was once again in Scotland, suffering from severe dropsy (fluid retention). In September 1781 he visited Cullen at Edinburgh in person but was under the immediate care of leading Glasgow surgeon William Hamilton who kept Cullen closely informed of their patient's failing condition. On 18 November 1781 Hamilton reported Brisbane's death 'a week or so ago', and also the results of opening up the body. In the same letter Hamilton advises that if Cullen is owed any outstanding fees he should approach Brisbane's trustees. Hamilton was at a loss how to proceed with the trustees when Henry Cullen subsequently wrote to say that an outstanding fee was barely adequate for all his father's trouble.

Primary Printed Sources

E. Haviland Hillman. 'The Brisbanes: First Part', South Carolina Historical and Geneaological Magazine 14 (1913), pp. 123-27. [detailed genealogy]

James Raven, London Booksellers and American Customers: Transatlantic Literary Community and the Charleston Library Society, 1748-1811 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002), pp. 134-5; pp. 237-8 [letters to Rivington]; p. 415, notes 7 and 9 [other local sources].

David E. Shuttleton

Documents in this case

1 document(s) found in this case.

DOC IDSummaryDate
[DOC ID:938] 
Letter from Robert Brisbane - an apothecary, medical importer and planter in Charlestown, South Carolina, - regarding a 21-22 year old male slave with epilepsy. Brisbane asks Cullen to send flowers of zinc, as '[i]t may save many a poor negro from ruin in the fire'. 26 November 1774

People involved in this case

4 found.

PERS IDFull Name
[PERS ID: 198] (Negro man)
[PERS ID: 538] Dr Alston (Negro man)
[PERS ID: 453] Mr Robert Brisbane (Negro man)
[PERS ID: 1] Dr William Cullen (Professor Cullen)

Unique Places linked to this Case

4 found.

TypeSpecific Place Village/Town/City (aka) Region Country Continent Confidence
Place Charleston South Carolina USA North America certain
Place Edinburgh Edinburgh and East Scotland Europe certain
Place Leith Edinburgh and East Scotland Europe certain
Place Bo'ness (Borness / Borrowstouneness) Mid Scotland Scotland Europe certain

Places and role of place

4 found.

TypeRoleSpecific Place Village/Town/City (aka) Region Country Continent Confidence
PlacePlace of Writing Charleston South Carolina USA North America certain
PlaceDestination of Letter Edinburgh Edinburgh and East Scotland Europe certain
PlaceMentioned / Other Leith Edinburgh and East Scotland Europe certain
PlaceMentioned / Other Bo'ness (Borness / Borrowstouneness) Mid Scotland Scotland Europe certain