Whytt | Robert | 1714-1766 | professor of theory of medicine, University of Edinburgh

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Robert Whytt (1714-1766) was born in Edinburgh, the son of an advocate. His father died before his birth and his mother when he was just six years old. He studied in St Andrews, Edinburgh, Paris and Leyden and began to practice as a doctor in 1738.

Whytt's important work concerned unconscious reflexes, in which he was an early believer, tubercular meningitis, and the treatment of urinary bladder stones.

With respect to bladder stones, the conclusion of his experiments - that limewater and soap was an effective remedy to the ailment - was ultimately false (though the treatment continued to be used until the late nineteenth century), but led indirectly to the discovery of carbon dioxide by Joseph Black in 1754.

His studies of reflexology and tubercular meningitis were to have a greater impact on the science of medicine. Whytt was the first to ascribe a reflex - Whytt's reflex, a dilation of the pupil brought on by pressure on the optic thalamus - to a specific part of the body. He also demonstrated that the spinal cord, rather than the brain, could be the source of involuntary action. His description of "dropsy of the brain" (tubercular meningitis) was the first methodical and accurate definition of the disease, and it would have been impossible to define to a more accurate extent with the instruments available in at that time.


Robert Whytt was physician to King George III in Scotland from 1761.

Other Significant Information

Notable Publications:

Essay on the Vital and Other Involuntary Motions of Animals, (1751)

An Essay on the Virtue of Lime-Water in the Cure of the Stone, (1752)

Physiological Essays, (1755)

Review of the Controversy Concerning the Sensibility and Moving Power of the Parts of Men and Other Animals, (1761)

Observations on the Nature, Causes and Cure of Those Disorders Which Have Been Commonly Called Nervous, Hypochondriac or Hysteric, (1767)

Observations on Dropsy of the Brain, ( 1768)

The Works of Robert Whytt, MD, ( 1768)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1730: Awarded Master of Arts (MA) at the University of St Andrews

1736: Awarded Doctor of Medicine (MD) at the University of Rheims

1747: Appointed Professor of Medicine, University of Edinburgh

1752: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS)

1761: Appointed King's Physician in Scotland

1763: Elected President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh


List of sources for the biographical information:

Gillispie, Charles C, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol XIV, (New York , Scribner's, 1976)

Lee, Sidney, Dictionary of National Biography, vol XXI, (London, Smith, Elder & Co, 1909)

Logan Turner, A, History of the University of Edinburgh, 1883-1933, (London, Oliver and Boyd, 1933)