Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Matthew Baillie (1761–1823), anatomist and physician

Matthew Baillie. Portrait by Henry Bone, 1817. Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia. 

Born in Scotland in 1761, Matthew Baillie was taught to read and write at the age of five. He studied Greek and Latin at the local school, at Glasgow University (1774), and at Balliol College in Oxford (1778). In 1780, he began to work in London with his famous uncles William and John Hunter, preparing anatomical specimens for lectures, conducting demonstrations, and overseeing dissections by students.  When John Hunter died in 1783, Baillie inherited his money, a house, a family estate, his collection of specimens, and some of his research and teaching functions. In 1784 Baillie began to give anatomy lectures, which were highly successful and remarkable for their clarity and conciseness. He also carried out research on severed nerves, the passage of the fertilized ovum through the fallopian tube, the lymphatics, and the absorption and release of carbon dioxide by the human skin. In 1789 he obtained his medical degree from Oxford University and was appointed physician to St. George’s Hospital. Later, he was elected to many prestigious societies. In 1788 he toured the cities of Europe, visited hospitals, and it was impressed on him how many were overcrowded, poorly managed, and often dirty.

Baillie’s most significant contribution was his textbook, Morbid Anatomy of Some of the Most Important Parts of the Human Body, published in 1793 and followed six years later by an atlas. Morbid Anatomy was based on his over 4,000 cases described according to the organs involved, rather than by symptoms, as in Morgagni’s earlier monograph. It contained ten fasciculi, 73 plates, and 206 figures from his own collection and from those of William and John Hunter and others. Baillie described the gross and microscopic features of most organs of the body, tumors and cysts, hernias, fistulae and abscesses, most neurological conditions, worms and parasites, and lymphatic vessels with their possible function. The success of his book was immediate. For many years, it was widely used by medical students and practitioners. It was translated into French, Italian, and German, and was reissued in several editions. The anatomical collection was destroyed, however, when the Royal College of Surgeons of England was bombed in 1941.

In 1799, Baillie gave up his appointment at St. George’s and his anatomy lectures to devote himself to his consulting practice, which over several years became overwhelming. Arising at six o’clock in the morning, he would answer letters and see patients in his house until 10:30 am. He would then make house calls until supper and see more patients in the evening. In 1809 he was commanded by King George III to attend his youngest daughter, Princess Amelia, who eventually died from tuberculosis. He became Physician Extraordinary to the King and would travel to Windsor to see him, but “begged permission to decline” a baronetcy. In 1814 he was appointed Physician in Ordinary to the Princess Charlotte, who died sixteen months later following a difficult and prolonged labor. In 1818, he donated his entire anatomical collection to the College of Surgeons. On January 29, 1820, he stood by while the King passed away. In 1821, he was offered the position of First Physician to the Queen but refused the position. He died of tuberculosis two years later at age 62.


Further reading

  1. Robert Finkel. “A memoir of Matthew Baillie.” 1965. Yale Medicine Thesis Digital Library, 2583. http://elischolar.library.yale.edu/ymtdl/2583.
  2. Royal College of Physicians. “Matthew Baillie.” https://history.rcplondon.ac.uk/inspiring-physicians/matthew-baillie.
  3. Harold Ellis. “Matthew Baillie: Pioneer of systematic pathology.” Br J Hosp Med 2011;72(10):594.
  4. Ian Carr. “‘Not on the outward appearance …. but on the heart.’ Matthew Baillie and cardiology.” J Cardiol 1992;8(1):78-82.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Spring 2023  |  Sections  |  Physicians of Note

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