Christison | Sir | Robert | 1797-1882 | toxicologist and physician

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Sir Robert Christison (1797-1882) was the son of a professor of humanity (Latin). He was educated at the University of Edinburgh, where he studied medicine. After a spell in London and Paris, he was appointed Professor of Medical Jurisprudence (forensic medicine) at Edinburgh in 1822. In his role as an expert on toxicology and physiology, he was a key witness in many criminal trials in Scotland and England, notably that of serial killer William Burke (1792-1829), where he used as evidence the distinctive differences between injuries inflicted before and after death, which had not been previously commented upon in trials. This observation is said to have been crucial in securing Burke's conviction.

While professor of medical jurisprudence, he conducted research in toxicology with his colleague Dr Coindet. He wrote a treatise on poisons, part of which he had researched by risking his own life ingesting toxic substances. He studied, in particular, the effects of oxalic acid, but also lead, arsenic, opium and hemlock.

In 1832, Christison resigned his chair to become Professor of Materia Medica and therapeutics at Edinburgh University. It was in this post that he spent the bulk of his exceptionally long (55 years) professorial career. In this job, he wrote several books, including one on kidney conditions. During his tenure he also acted as physician in ordinary to the Queen in Scotland, was president, for a time, of the British Medical Association, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. He was also active within the University of Edinburgh, and he was well known for his ferocious opposition to the admission of women to the medical faculty.



Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Granular Degeneration of the Kidneys, ( 1839)

Commentary on the Pharmacopeias of Great Britain, (1842)

Treatise on Poisons, (1829)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1819: Awarded Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree, University of Edinburgh

1822-1832: Appointed Professor of Medical Jurisprudence

1827: Appointed Physician to the Infirmary, Edinburgh

1829: Appointed Medical Adviser to the Crown in Scotland

1832-1877: Appointed Professor of Materia Medica and Therapeutics

1839: Elected President of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh

1848: Appointed Physician in Ordinary to the Queen in Scotland

1848: Elected President of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh

1868-1873: Elected President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

1871: Created Baronet

1872: Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws (LL.D) degree, University of Edinburgh

1875: Elected President of the British Medical Association (BMA)


List of sources for the biographical information:

Lee, Sidney, Dictionary of National Biography, vol IV, (London, Smith, Elder & Co, 1908)

Edinburgh University Worthies, ( Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Library, 1999)