Gilbert Blane was the fourth son of Mr. Gilbert Blane of Blanefield in Ayrshire, where he was born on 29th August 1749. At the age of fourteen, he was sent to the University of Edinburgh, being at first intended for the church, but was ultimately led to study medicine. After spending five years in the faculty of arts, and five more in that of medicine, at Edinburgh, he took the degree of Medical Doctor at the University of Glasgow on 28th August 1778. During his studentship, he was elected one of the presidents of the Students’ Medical Society of Edinburgh.
On leaving Edinburgh, Blane went to London, furnished with introductions from his teacher, Dr. Cullen, to Dr. William Hunter. Hunter recommended him as private physician to Lord Holdernesse and, afterwards, in the same capacity to Admiral Rodney, who was then sailing on his notable expedition to the West Indies in 1779. Blane won Rodney’s good opinion by his professional skill and also by his personal bravery, which was shown in conveying the admiral’s orders under fire in a dangerous emergency to the officers at the guns. Rodney at once placed him in the important position of physician to the fleet, which he occupied till the close of the war, returning to England with Admiral Francis William Drake in the Spring of 1783. He was present at six general engagements, and wrote an account, which was published, of the great victory over the French fleet commanded by the Comte de Grasse on 12th April 1782. He also furnished materials for Mundy’s ‘Life of Rodney’ and took part in a controversy, which subsequently arose, respecting that great admiral’s originality in introducing into naval warfare the manoeuvre of ‘breaking the line’. These, with many other circumstances, show the intimate friendship which existed between Blane and his commander. The officers of the West India Fleet also marked their appreciation of Blane’s services by unanimously recommending him to the admiralty for a special recompense, which he received in the form of a pension from the Crown. In 1781, when Rodney was compelled by the state of his health to come home for a time, Blane accompanied him, and took the opportunity of being admitted as licentiate of the College of Physicians on 3rd December 1781, but returned to the West India station early, in 1782.
The services which Blane rendered, whilst in medical charge of the West India Fleet, and the reforms which, firmly supported by Rodney, he was able to introduce, were indeed of the most singular importance. Not only did they increase the efficiency of that fleet, but they inaugurated new era in the sanitary condition of the Navy. Before his time, scurvy prevailed to a lamentable extent among seamen, so that important naval operations often failed from this cause alone. Fevers and other diseases arising from infection and the unhealthy state of ships also caused great mortality. Blane, in a memorial lecture presented to the Admiralty on 13th October 1781, showed that one man in seven died from disease on the West India Station in one year. He suggested certain precautions, especially relating to the supply of wine, fresh fruit and other provisions, adapted to prevent scurvy, and also advocated the enforcement of stricter discipline in sanitary matters on board ship. In a second lecture, given on 16th July 1782, he pointed out the great improvement effected by the carrying out of these suggestions, the annual mortality being reduced to one in twenty. The health of the Fleet during the latter part of Rodney’s command was indeed remarkably good and greatly contributed to its successes, as was generously acknowledged by the commander himself. He said, "To [Dr. Blane’s] knowledge and attention it was owing that the English Fleet was, notwithstanding their excessive fatigue and constant service, in a condition always to attack and defeat the public enemy. In my own ship, the ‘Formidable’, out of 900 men, not one was buried in six months."
In 1780, Blane brought out a small book ‘On the most effectual means for preserving the Health of Seamen, particularly in the Royal Navy’. Later on, in 1793, his recommendation to Admiral Sir Alan Gardner, one of the lords of the Admiralty, of lemon juice as a preventative against scurvy produced such good results that regulations were issued in 1795 for its universal use in the Navy. Though Blane was by no means the discoverer of this remedy, which had been known for more than a century and had been strongly recommended by Dr. Lind and others, he was the means of introducing those regulations which entirely banished scurvy from his/her Majesty’s ships.
Shortly after Blane’s return to England, a vacancy occurred for a physician at St. Thomas’ Hospital and, as he was now resolved to practice in London, he became a candidate. The influence of Lord Rodney, who after his brilliant victories was one of the most popular men in England, was warmly exerted on his behalf and, in a letter to one of the governors, Rodney bore the generous testimony to Blane’s merits which has already been quoted. After a sharp contest, Blane was elected, on 19th September 1783, by 98 votes to 84. He held this office for twelve years, resigning it in 1795.
In 1785 Blane was appointed physician extraordinary to the Prince of Wales, on the recommendation of the Duke of Clarence, with whom he had become acquainted in his naval career. He, afterwards, became physician to the Prince’s household and his physician in ordinary. In 1785 also, he produced the first edition of his work on the diseases of seamen, which passed through several editions and attained the position of a medical classic. His court and hospital appointments, with other connections, appear to have procured Blane a large medical practice, but he was more especially known for his services in public affairs, naval, military and civil. In 1795, he was appointed one of the commissioners for sick and wounded seamen, a body which was virtually the medical board for the Navy. He held his position there till the reduction of the naval and military establishments after the Peace of Amiens in 1802, when his services were rewarded with a doubling of his former pension.
His advice was frequently sought by the Government and other authorities on sanitary and medical matters. Thus, in 1799, the Turkey Company, which then controlled the whole of the Levant trade, consulted him about the quarantine regulations for the prevention of the importation of plague from the Mediterranean. He was subsequently called upon by the Government to draw up, in conjunction with other eminent physicians, the rules which formed the basis of the Quarantine Act of 1799. When the army returned from Egypt, it was transported, under regulations drawn up by Blane, to guard against the danger of introducing the plague into this country. The Home Office consulted him on a variety of subjects: on the means of keeping contagious fevers out of prisons and on the mortality which arose from the same cause in ships which carried convicts to Botany Bay and elsewhere. The board of control sought his aid in framing improved regulations for the medical service in India. Hardly any department of state failed to resort to Blane’s advice on one occasion or another. But the most important emergency on which he was called upon, to advise the Government, was in connection with the disastrous Walcheren expedition. It was felt that the critical situation of the army, owing chiefly to the ravages of disease, was eminently a question requiring medical knowledge and experience. The army medical board had lost the confidence of the Government. They had failed to foresee the dangers arising from the unhealthiness of the seat of war and, then, they had supinely met the crisis, each member of the board excusing himself on various pretexts from proceeding to the scene of action. Under these circumstances, the War Office sent out Blane to report and when it was decided, chiefly on medical grounds, to recall the expedition, he was charged with the arrangements for bringing home the sick and wounded. This perhaps unprecedented instance of employing a naval medical officer in the work of the Army undoubtedly raised Blane’s reputation. He was at once liberally rewarded and thanked, and received the honour of a baronetcy from the Prince Regent on 26th December 1812.
On the accession of King George IV, Blane became one of his physicians in ordinary and filled the same office in the next reign. Consultations on medico-political questions and compensatory honours flowed in upon Blane from foreign countries. The Emperor of Russia, the King of Prussia and the President of the United States sought his advice and acknowledged his services. In 1821, the medical officers of the Navy presented him with a piece of plate. In 1829, he founded a prize medal for the best journal kept by the surgeons of the Royal Navy. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, a member of the Institute of France and other learned bodies. In 1821, Blane’s health began to fail, but not seriously till 1834. He died on 26th June 1834 at his house in Sackville Street. His country properties were at Kirk Oswald in Ayrshire and at Culverlands at Burghfield in Berkshire. He had married, on 11th July 1786, the only daughter of Mr. Abraham Gardiner, and had six sons and three daughters. He was succeeded in the title by his third son, Hugh Seymour Blane; the two elder having predeceased him.
Blane was undoubtedly a man of great original force of character and he became a very completely equipped physician. He united, in an uncommon degree, adequate scholarship and considerable dialectical skill with scientific acumen and great administrative capacity. He does not appear to have made any reputation as a hospital teacher, but his books are well written and full of original observations. Although there is no one subject in which he made any striking discovery, the general body of fact and argument in his writings constitutes an important contribution to medicine and to the science of health. He wrote a number of works.
Edited from Leslie Stephen's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1886).
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