Thomas Stewart Traill

Thomas Traill
  • Born:

    Kirkwall, 29 October 1781

  • Died:

    Edinburgh, 30 July 1862

  • Father:

    Thomas Traill

  • Mother:

    Lucia Traill

  • Married:

    Christian Robertson

  • Children:

    Five children and five step-children

Thomas Stewart Traill was born in Kirkwall, where his father was second minister at the Cathedral but both his parents came from Westray. His father died the year after he was born and he was educated by his uncle, Robert Yule. Thomas was an energetic and engaging character who deserves to be remembered for more than editing the eighth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.


His life-long love of lecturing first emerged in Orkney, when he was just 21. He had come home in 1802, with a degree in medicine from Edinburgh University, to find that the harvest had failed and subscriptions were being raised to provide some help for the poor. Nowadays, a course of public lectures in chemistry isn't the first fund-raising idea that would spring to mind but Thomas's lectures were so successful that he repeated them when the harvest failed again the following year. One of his many obituaries said that this was the first time this type of lectures had been given.


When we consider how many visitors to Orkney have remarked on our curiosity and that the subject would probably be entirely new to his audience their success isn't so surprising. Daniel Gorrie, in 'Summers and Winters in the Orkneys', published in 1868, wrote that we are "a curious combination of reserve and inquisitiveness". He added that, "The natural reserve of the people and their anxiety to hear something new impart a singularly undemonstrative aspect to their public gatherings and the decorous quietness that prevails is apt to weigh down the fervid orator who may have been accustomed to rounds of applause." Presumably Thomas was rather more attuned to his audience.


His old friend James Watson, factor of the Earldom estate, had married Christian Robertson and they were keen students of his course. It was at Christian Watson's suggestion that he decided to set up his medical practice in the thriving city of Liverpool, where her sister lived.


A few years later, in 1808, James Watson died, leaving his widow with five young children. Traill was busy setting up his practice and did not meet Christian again until 1811. When he did, he soon realised that his sympathetic affection for the young widow had become something stronger. He thought it was too soon to declare his feelings but can't have disguised them very well: he discovered later that his future wife was the only member of the house party who hadn't noticed. She wasn't left in ignorance for long, as Traill wrote to her soon afterwards, expressing his feelings. They were married the same year and Christian went on to have another five children. They were a devoted couple and, after his wife's death in May 1842, Traill wrote a fond and lengthy memoir of her. It wasn't published but a copy is in the Orkney Room of the Kirkwall library and is well worth a look. It would have been more interesting if he had written his autobiography but it seems fairly typical of the man that he should have concentrated on someone else.


One of the incidents he relates in the book suggests that Orkney played a small but important role in the early days of the railway, with Mrs Traill and her daughters being the first women to ride behind a steam engine.


Traill was very interested in the development of the first passenger railway, between Liverpool and Manchester. He could not afford to buy shares in the company but did contribute towards the initial survey. He and his family went to Rainhill to watch the famous railway trials, in which Stephenson's Rocket competed against other steam engines. Mrs Traill, familiar with her husband's scientific curiosity, (when they attended a balloon ascension, only the refusal of the balloonist to take a passenger had prevented Traill climbing into the basket) had extracted a promise from him before they went; that he wouldn't try to persuade her or her daughters to go anywhere near these terrifying machines.


BraiTheaite and Ericsson, the engineers who had built the Novelty, the Rocket's closest rival, approached Traill to ask if his family would be willing to take a ride behind their engine. They were having difficulty persuading women that it was safe and hoped that the sight of the Traill party enjoying a ride would encourage others to follow their example. Traill explained the promise he had given but suggested that the engineers should approach the ladies directly. They had become so intrigued by watching these machines whose movement "seemed more like the operations of magic than the result of machinery" that they willingly agreed. An open carriage was hitched up to the Novelty and, before a cheering crowd, Dr Traill, his wife and three daughters traveled backwards and forwards at 25-30 mph.

The Traills stayed in Liverpool for thirty years and Thomas became a prominent citizen. His obituary in the Liverpool Daily Post said he had an ample practice and a high reputation and "was the friend as well as the doctor of the best of families". He was a member of the Roscoe group; business men and doctors led by one of Liverpool's most prominent citizens, William Roscoe. One of their chief interests was described as the "furtherance of the arts and sciences" and Traill was one of the prominent figures in the founding of three Liverpool institutions; the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool, the Royal Society of Liverpool and the Mechanics Institute.


In 1812 Traill proposed the founding of the Royal Society, "for the promotion of Literature, Science and the Arts". The idea received widespread support and £20,000 was quickly raised in subscriptions. Traill was one of the early Presidents and gave regular lectures in Chemistry until he left Liverpool in 1833.


In 1825 he helped found the Liverpool Mechanics' Institute which was intended primarily to provide educational opportunities, mainly through evening classes for working men. Lectures were given on a range of subjects, from Arctic exploration to Shakespeare. Charles Dickens chaired its Christmas Soiree in 1844. The Institute went on to provide other education and its offshoots included a boys' grammar school and an art college. Distinguished old boys include all the Beatles except Ringo.


When John James Audobon came to Britain to seek a publisher for his great work, Birds of America, he came first to Liverpool. He and Traill became friends and, when Audubon went to Edinburgh he took with him letters of introduction from Traill, which led him to William Home Lizars, who printed the first plates. Audubon named the Traill Flycatcher after him, writing, "I have named this species after my learned friend Dr. THOMAS STEWART TRAILL Of Edinburgh, in evidence of the gratitude which I cherish towards that gentleman for all his kind attentions to me." His friend, the Arctic explorer William Scoresby, named Traill Island in Greenland after him.


Thomas Traill wasn't just a family doctor. In 1829 he was appointed as physician at the Liverpool Infirmary and joined the staff of the Ophthalmic Infirmary. In 1831 he was one of four doctors appointed by the Liverpool Council to combat a cholera epidemic.


Traill must have been an imposing figure of a man, as a Liverpool paper of 1821, reporting on a fancy dress ball, remarked on his impressive appearance as the Theban general Epaminondas, and lamented that "the modern Greeks had not now such a leader to shake off the Turkish yoke".


Traill left Liverpool in 1833, when he was appointed Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at his old university, Edinburgh. He and his wife had some qualms at leaving the successful practice he had built up in Liverpool. However, the move was an unqualified success. His course quickly became very popular and they settled comfortably into Edinburgh's intellectual society.


Traill was described as "possessing such extensive knowledge of many departments of science that on several occasions he very ably discharged the duties of other professorships during temporary vacancies." He regularly lectured on Natural History and when Professor Hope resigned suddenly, he lectured in Chemistry again.


According to one of his obituaries, Professor Traill never took a fee from an Orkney student attending his course. When the student laid down his £4 4/-, Traill kindly pushed it back, "with the intimation that the Professor and the pupil were brethren". One of his Orkney students was the doctor and explorer William Balfour Baikie, who named Mount Traill in Nigeria after his old professor.


He was ahead of his time in his attitude to women studying medicine and supported Elizabeth Garrett's unsuccessful petition to be admitted to the preliminary examination.


In 1834, after a visit to Orkney, he displayed fossils from Breckness and Skaill at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, of which he seems to have been a prominent member. In 1836 Traill gave the opening address at the AGM of the Association in Liverpool. In the same year, his book, Outlines of a Course of Lectures on Medical Jurisprudence, was published in Edinburgh and five years later it was published in Philadelphia.


He joined the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh, and presented several papers. He also wrote articles for several encyclopedias on a variety of subjects.


In 1839, with Sir Robert Christison and James Syme, he produced the standard work on post-mortem procedures in Scotland, The Medico-Legal Examination of Dead Bodies. The principles they laid down are still current practice.


In 1841, he and Christison edited the twelfth and final edition of the Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia before it was incorporated into the British Pharmacopoeia. This book, whose first edition was published in 1699, attempted to rationalise the use of drugs and was enormously influential. It was re-printed all over Europe, from London to Milan and when the Medical Society of Boston produced the first American civilian pharmacopoeia they described the Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia as being so much "the basis of their own" as to "deny it any appearance of originality"


Traill became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1819 and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1833. He was President of the College in 1852.


Having devoted so much of his time and considerable energy to sharing his knowledge, it is wonderfully appropriate that he should have spent his last years working on the Encyclopedia Britannica. When Macvey Napier, editor of the seventh edition died, the publisher, Adam Black, turned to Traill, another professor at the university, who had already contributed several articles to the encyclopedia. The eighth edition was published in 1861 and was the first to include articles from American contributors. Traill's ill-health meant that much of the editing was done by others but he contributed hundreds of articles. He died the year after publication, on 30 July 1862.


Thomas Stewart Traill left a large collection of snakes, presumably dead, to the National Museum of Scotland and, in a phrase that is clichéd but true, left the world a better place, through the institutions he helped found and the knowledge he shared.