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



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

A Glasgow University Digital Edition


This AHRC funded project set out to create a scholarly, publicly accessible, searchable, on-line edition of The Consultation Letters of Dr William Cullen (1710-1790) at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. The following editorial guidelines were devised by Dr Jennifer Bann (Research Associate) and Dr. David Shuttleton (PI), with input from Dave Beavan (Computer Officer) and Mark Herraghty (Web Developer).

Edition Contents

As physically arranged and catalogued the archive is largely divided between seventeen boxes of incoming letters (predominantly autograph letters addressed to William Cullen [hereafter WC]) and twenty-one volumes of WC’s replies which largely survive as copies in a series of bound “case-books”. For conservation reasons and to enable photography these ledgers/volumes – no longer in their original bindings – have been systematically dis-bound by professional conservators. They often include significant para-textual material, notably hand-written original labels, contents lists and indexes which have all been photographed and have their own database entries. After April 1st 1781 the copies of Cullen’s replies were largely made on James Watt’s newly invented copying machine. These relatively flimsy “wet-paper” (or “pressure”) copies, which were mounted on stiffer paper for Cullen’s own retention, are slightly smudgy in appearance. The archive also includes a few printed, or other “miscellaneous” items, all of which have been catalogued in the order they are to be found in the archive.

The edition displays photographs and annotated transcriptions of approximately 5,600 documents, almost all letters, with a range of search facilities and supportive editorial material. Due to time and practical constraints, we have only transcribed documents which we considered to be consultation letters, leaving an approximate 500 more documents which have a database record but did not fit the criteria for transcription: indexes, printed material, letters of introduction, or letters of consolation to Cullen’s family written after his death.

Each document has its own individual record in the project database, containing metadata (information about the document, such as author, date, and places mentioned within) as well as the images and transcription of the document. Our database employs the same catalogue system created for an inventory devised by Alison Scott, in her role as a temporary archivist at the RCPE (supported by the Wellcome Trust), with the addition that in the case of the out-going letters (which are in the form of retained transcripts) we created additional ‘item’ numbering for each (copied) letter/entry. We have also, on occasion, created separate database entries for multiple incoming letters which are grouped under one catalogue number in the RCPE’s catalogue (e.g. CUL/1/2/440 has been split into CUL/1/2/440a and CUL/1/2/440b in our system). The intention behind this was to give each document its own individual database record, with metadata specific to that document.

We have also used XML markup in our transcriptions to record particular areas of interest within the documents. Our policy on this is explained in more detail later in this document.

Basis of Textual Policy

While recognizing the importance of reflecting the state of the copy-texts, we also aimed to produce an edition in which fidelity to the sources is reconciled with clarity for modern readers, including the general public, students and specialist scholars. To achieve this our edition provides the reader with the facility to move between two types of transcription of every item; a diplomatic transcription and a normalised transcription. Our edition uses XML to generate these two transcriptions from a single file.

Our textual/editorial policy is based, with some variations, on those devised by Thomas Keymer and Peter Sabor for the Cambridge Edition of the Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, which includes Dr George Cheyne’s letters to the novelist edited by David E. Shuttleton (published in 2014). This in turn drew upon that in Lars Troide’s edition of The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (6 vols, Oxford University Press: 1988- ), which in turn derives from that in Joyce Hemlow’s Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (Madame d’Arblay), 1791-1840 (12 vols, Oxford University Press, 1972-84). It also adapts editorial procedures from Bruce Redford’s edition of The Letters of Samuel Johnson (5 vols, Princeton University Press, 1992-94), which in turn derives from the Yale Research Edition of the Private Papers of James Boswell; and from David Fairer’s edition of The Correspondence of Thomas Warton (University of Georgia Press, 1995).

Our general policy is to mark up all of the original text, including the original page breaks, line breaks, paragraphing, punctuation, period spellings, misspellings, neologisms, authorial punctuation, contractions, abbreviations, superscripts, underlinings, italics, deletions, numberings, symbols, marginalia, endorsements, postal addresses, etc. Wherever practicable, this extends to any later additions in the form of headings, early cross-referencing notes etc.

However, since photographs of the original manuscripts are available to the reader we do not always reproduce the precise visual appearance of the original manuscripts in terms of layout. If any text continues down the side of a page, for example, we have treated it as part of a continuous paragraph. While we preserve existing paragraph breaks and do not impose paragraphing on a document that lacks it, our paragraphs themselves are standardised in being separated by line breaks and lacking indentation.

We also have not transcribed any page numbering (whether original or a later addition), the RCPE’s catalogue numbers (which appear in soft pencil on the outer side of a sheet), or catch-words at the foot of one page which are repeated at the top of the next. We do not transcribe postal hand-stamps, although information about these is contained in the record for each document. Likewise, some of the earlier outgoing letters contain annotations made in a much later hand; we do not consider these part of the original archive, and have therefore chosen not to transcribe them (but they have been recorded in the document notes).

Our more policy on particular matters follows below:

  • Upper and Lower Cases:

    For letter-headings and words appearing mid-sentence, we reproduce the original use of lower-case and capitals whenever decidable. Cullen and many other eighteenth-century writers use enlarged letters at the start of sentences that are not actually capitals (in particular an enlarged lower-case version of ‘a’ is often employed). For the transcriptions, we render these as full-capitals (i.e. wherever the start of a new sentence is clearly indicated in the text by the use of a full-stop or a dash, then we start the first word with a capital letter).

    Alternatively, in a number of hands the lower-case letters ‘c’ and ‘s’ in particular tend to appear more enlarged, but unless found at the start of a sentence, these are generally treated as lower-case. Because decisions over whether a letter is a capital or not was taken left to the discretion of the transcriber there may inevitably be some minor variation of treatment over this matter .

  • Disguised Names:

    Where a name is indicated by a number of dashes (e.g. ‘Mr. F-------’), the exact number of dashes is transcribed.

  • Dashes:

    Dashes are standardised as either short ( - ), medium (–) or long ( ––––– ) and transcribed, according to normal usage, with a single space both before and after the dash. Where obvious, we distinguish between straight and ‘italicised/curly’ dashes.

  • Brackets:

    Where obvious, we preserve any original distinction between square and curved brackets, as well as the use of forward-slashes to serve as brackets.

  • Catch-words:

    The letter-book copies, and some of the longer loose letters (or drafts) include ‘catch-words” at the bottom of each page. Since these do not belong to the text of the letter as posted out, they are ignored when transcribing.

  • Hand-stamps:

    Many letters bear “handstamps” in the form of an ink stamp near the handwritten address indicating the place of posting, e.g. ‘NEWCASTLE’. These are not transcribed, although they are recorded in the database.

  • Superscript and sub-script letters:

    These are preserved in the transcription.

  • Full stops in abbreviations:

    These are standardised to some degree, to put the full stop (if one exists) at the end of the abbreviated word even if it falls within a superscript – i.e. ‘Wm.’ rather than ‘Wm.’ or ‘W.m’ for ‘William’, regardless of the precise placement of the full stop on the page.

  • Long s (ſ):

    These are standardised as lower-case ‘s’, except where they appear as a symbol in recipes.

Expansions and contractions

As David Fairer observes in his edition of Warton, ‘obsolete abbreviations are by far the largest obstacle to the readability of a text’. The naturalised transcriptions therefore expand or normalise all abbreviations not in standard use today: for example, ‘ye’ and ‘yt’ (where the ‘y’ is strictly speaking a thorn) are expanded to ‘the’ and ‘that’.

Some different rules apply for specific issues:

  • Abbreviated signatures:

    These are relatively common, especially for first names (i.e. ‘Wm.’ and ‘Jno.’ for ‘William’ and ‘John’). We do not expand these; the person record for each person mentioned is linked to the document’s database record, including the full version of their name.

  • Contracted surnames:

    These – e.g. ‘Lady E.’, ‘Mr F----’ – are not expanded. Usages of this kind indicate informality and occasionally generate ambiguity (between Mr. Forster and Mr. Forrester, say), and for both these reasons they are preserved.

  • Common abbreviations:

    We do not expand any contraction which is still in common and familiar use today (such as ‘Dr.’ for ‘Doctor’, for example).

XML content markup

In addition to encoding each document’s structure (e.g. line and paragraph breaks), and containing the different versions of text for diplomatic and normalised transcriptions, we used XML to mark up particular content features of each letter: symptoms, conditions, treatments, parts of the body, medicinal ingredients, and particular preparations of those ingredients.

The significant benefit of using XML in this way is that we can apply the same identifier regardless of how a particular feature is spelled or expressed. Symptom number 17, for example – problems with sleep – can be expressed in a number of ways (‘troubling dreams’, ‘started frequently throughout the night’, ‘sleeps poor’), but is always tagged with the same symptom number. Likewise, ingredient number 2 might appear as ‘mercury’, ‘quicksilver’ or ‘hydragyrum’.

Document information in the database record

The record for each document, each person, and each place, contains information contained in specific fields.

  • ID: This is the unique numerical identifier, assigned by the database.
  • Catalogue Number: This is assigned either by the RCPE archivist or the project team (see section 1). The archive is divided into three sections, indicated by the catalogue numbers: CUL/1/1/… for the letterbooks of outgoing letters, CUL/1/2… for the loose boxes of consultation letters, and CUL/1/3… for the loose boxes of miscellaneous letters (which do contain some consultation letters).
  • Language: Due to time and financial constraints on the project, we have been unable to transcribe some of the non-English letters, but their images and database records are still viewable.
  • Document Direction: Either ‘outgoing’, ‘incoming’, or ‘miscellaneous’ (for documents which are not consultation letters). Generally, this maps onto the catalogue number described in 6.2; however, there are some outgoing letters in the loose boxes of letters, and even occasional incoming letters bound into the outgoing letterbooks.
  • Date: There are three parts of each date (day, month, and year), and three levels of certainty for each (guess, inferred, and certain). Our policy is to use ‘inferred’ only if we can be certain, due to internal or surrounding evidence, of a document’s date of writing, but when there is no explicit dating on the document itself.
  • Annotation: This is used for recording the annotations made by a later hand at the top of some of the earlier outgoing letters, which are not included in the transcriptions.
  • Type: Each document falls into one specific group within this category.
    • Authorial original: Written by the author themselves, rather than dictated to or copied by a scribe. Our policy is to assume that incoming letters fall into this category unless there is some internal evidence suggesting otherwise.
    • Scribal copy: Dictated to, or copied out by, a scribe.
    • Machine copy: A copy made using the Watt copy machine, in Cullen’s own hand.
    • Scribal machine copy: A copy made using the Watt copy machine by one of Cullen’s scribes.
    • Printed: Any printed material.
    • Unattributed: Any document which cannot be placed with confidence in any of the above categories.
  • Enclosures: This indicates whether the document originally contained any enclosures, and if so, whether they are still present.
  • Autopsy: Indicates whether the document is, or contains, a detailed report of an autopsy.
  • Recipe: Indicates whether the document is, or contains, a recipe.
  • Regimen: This does not refer to any general dietary etc. advice, but to a specific kind of document – usually a lengthy, numbered document giving advice for all aspects of a patient’s life.
  • Letter of introduction: This indicates whether the document is introducing a specific person to Cullen, as a professional connection or pupil rather than a patient.
  • Manuscript Incomplete: Indicates whether pages are known to be missing from the document.
  • Type of Document: This is distinguished from 6.7; it refers to whether the document is a letter or paratextual material (such as an index, a cover of a bound volume, or a contents page).
  • Evidence of Commercial Posting: Some letters were delivered by hand or through a courier, others sent through the commercial postal service. Evidence of this is on the wrapper of the letter, the image that includes the address. It includes handstamps (usually giving the name of a town), any reference to ‘Post paid’ etc., and scribbles through the address which will usually look like a loose ‘2’ or a ‘4’ (giving the number of sheets of paper sent, as indicative of the cost of posting).
  • People connected to a document are linked to that document with a specific role, which is always one of the following:
    • ‘Author’ – The person who has written, and typically signed, the letter. (If the letter is copied or dictated to a scribe, the scribe is not themselves considered to be the author.)
    • ‘Addressee’ – The person the letter is sent to.
    • ‘Scribe’ – Named if identified.
    • ‘Patient’ – The patient being discussed, or the patient whose case is being referred to. Each letter can have multiple patients.
    • ‘Patient’s physician/surgeon’ – Any physician or surgeon involved with the care of a particular patient. Each patient can have multiple people in this role in each document.
    • ‘Other physician/surgeon’ – A medical professional who is mentioned, but who is not involved with a patient’s care.
    • ‘Patient’s relative/spouse/friend’ – Self-explanatory.
    • ‘Other’ – Any person mentioned in the letter who does not fit in the above categories.
  • Places connected to a document also have specific roles, along with levels of certainty (certain, inferred, or guess) for each role:
    • ‘Place of writing’ – The place a letter was written; this may be distinct from the place of its postage.
    • ‘Destination of letter’ – Self-explanatory.
    • ‘Place recommended for travel’ – Anywhere that Cullen, or someone else, recommends that a patient travel for their health.
    • ‘Place of handstamp’ – Used for all letters which have an ink stamp on the wrapper giving the name of the postal town.
    • ‘Mentioned’ – Any place mentioned which does not fit any of the categories above.

Person information in the database record

Each person included in the archive also has their own database record, with particular types of information recorded about them.

  • ID: This is the unique numerical identifier, assigned by the database.
  • Title: If a person had multiple titles at different points when they occur in the archive (if, say, a Captain is promoted to a Major), this contains their most senior title.
  • First name: Self-explanatory.
  • Middle name or initials: Self-explanatory.
  • Maiden name or birth name: Used if someone had a different name at marriage to the name they had at birth. This might apply to some men (typically in the nobility, who sometimes adopted their wife’s family name for reasons of inheritance), and might not apply to some married Scottish women, who did not always change their names at marriage in the 18th century outside the nobility.
  • Also known as: Used for other titles, or descriptors such as ‘of Auchinleck’, ‘of Lambhill’.
  • Occupation: Self-explanatory.
  • Gender: A choice between Male, Female, or Unknown.


Examples of Scholarly Editions in Bookform

Battestin, Martin C., and Clive T. Probyn, eds. The Correspondence of Henry and Sarah Fielding. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Kahrl, George M., and David M. Little, eds. The Letters of David Garrick. 3 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Pettit, Henry, ed. The Correspondence of Edward Young. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Redford, Bruce, ed. The Letters of Samuel Johnson. 5 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991-93.

Miscellaneous Reference

Alcock, R. C., and F. C. Holland. The Postmarks of Great Britain and Ireland, Being a Survey of British Postmarks from 1660 to 1940. Cheltenham: R. C. Alcock, 1940 (plus later supplements; see also their British Postmarks: A Short History and Guide , 2nd edn, 1968).

Fitch, Henry. The Perfect Calendar for Every Year of the Christian Era. New York: Funk and Wagnells, 1928. A google search on ‘perpetual calendar’ brings up several useful sites for calculating days of the week in any given month and year; see also

Hunter, Joseph, ed. J.C. Clay, Familiae minorum gentium. 4 vols. The Harleian Society. Vols. 37-40. London: Harleian Society, 1894-96.

Hyde, Ralph, ed. The A to Z of Georgian London. London: London Topographical Society, 1982. (Reprints, with index, John Rocque’s map of 1747.)

Salmon, Vivian. “Orthography and Punctuation.” The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III: 1476-1776, ed. Roger Lass. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 13-55.

Zurcher, Andrew, et al. “English Handwriting 1500-1700: An Online Course,” at (A Renaissance resource, but some of the later examples are relevant and helpful).