Sketch of the Life of Dr Duncan Liddel

In "J Stuart, Essays: Chiefly on Scottish Antiquities (William Bennett, 1846)" there is a chapter Sketch of the Life of Dr Duncan Liddel of Aberdeen. Professor of Mathematics and of Medicine in the University of Helmstadt on pages 42 to 59. This appears to be taken directly from an article with the same title which appeared in The Aberdeen Magazine; Or, Universal Repository for October 1796, pages 209 to 217 but in the 19th century work the "long s" of the 18th century article has been replaced with the modern "s". This article appears to be based on a pamphlet written by John Stuart, professor of Greek in Marischal College, Aberdeen, an published in 1790. We give a version of the first part of the Chapter in John Stuart's book below:

Sketch of the Life of Dr Duncan Liddel, M.D.

Dr Duncan Liddel, son of John Liddel, a respectable citizen of Aberdeen, was born there in the year 1561. He received the first part of his education in languages and philosophy at the schools and university of Aberdeen.

About the age of eighteen, Liddel having a great desire to visit foreign countries, went from Scotland to Danzig, and from thence through Poland to Frankfort, on the Oder, where John Craig, afterwards first physician to James the Sixth, King of Scots, then taught logic and mathematics. Here Liddel, doubtful what course to pursue, and despairing of his future fortune, was kindly received by his countryman Craig, who afforded him his advice and assistance in the prosecution of his studies: an obligation which Liddel gratefully acknowledges in a dedication to him of the first volume of his medical disputations. He was thus enabled to continue at the university of Frankfort for three years, where he applied himself very diligently to mathematics and philosophy, under Craig and the other professors, and also entered upon the study of physic.

At this time, Dr Craig being about to return to Scotland, sent his young countryman to prosecute his studies at Wroclaw or Breslau, in Silesia, recommending him to the care of that celebrated statesman, Andreas Dudith. During his residence in this university, Liddel is said to have made uncommon progress in his favourite study of mathematics, under the direction of a very eminent professor, Paul Wittich.

Mr Liddel having studied here for more than a year, returned to Frankfort, and again applied himself to physic. He also began at the same time to receive pupils, whom he instructed in various branches of mathematics and philosophy.

He now remained at Frankfort for about three years, when a contagious distemper having broke out there, and dispersed the students, he retired to the university of Rostock, where, says Caselius, his company was most acceptable to all, but especially to Brucaeus, and myself, as well on account of the various learning which the young man possessed, as his modesty and unwearied assiduity in studying and teaching. Here he renewed his studies rather as a companion than a pupil of Brucaeus, who, though an excellent mathematician, did not scruple to confess that he was instructed by Mr Liddel in the more perfect knowledge of the Copernican system, and other astronomical questions. For Caselius likewise observes, that as far as he knows, Mr Liddel was the first person in Germany who explained the motions of' the heavenly, according to the three different hypotheses of Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Tycho Brache.

It was probably during Mr Liddel's residence at Rostock, that he first became acquainted with the Danish astronomer, who had formerly studied in this university, and afterwards maintained a frequent correspondence with Brucaeus. For that Liddel was well known to this illustrious person, and paid him several visits in the course of his journeys to Scotland, appears from various authorities to be unquestionable.

In this university, Mr Liddel had conferred on him the degree of master of philosophy, which probably is the same with what is now called master of arts.

About this time, having greatly improved himself at Rostock in the studies of medicine and mathematics, he returned once more to Frankfort, at the request of two Livonian young men of quality, who were probably his pupils. But having there heard of the increasing reputation of the Academia Julia established at Helmstadt in 1576, by Henry Julius Duke of Brunswick, Mr Liddel and his companions soon removed thither. His friend Caselius, also, after having taught philosophy for twenty-five years at Rostock, was now settled there, having been invited by Duke Julius to the same chair in his new university. This was an additional motive for Mr Liddel's journey to Helmstadt, where he no sooner arrived, than he waited upon Caselius, with whom, from that time, he became very intimate, having lodged in his house for several years.

Soon after his arrival, the first or lower professorship of mathematics becoming vacant, by the removal of Parcovius to the faculty of medicine, Mr Liddel had the good fortune to be appointed to it, chiefly by the recommendation of Caselius, and Henry Grunefeldt, an eminent lawyer.

Having taught with much reputation in this lower department (upon the death of Erhardus Hoffman), Mr Liddel now succeeded to the second and more dignified mathematical chair, which, according to the testimony of many of his colleagues and contemporaries, he occupied for nine years, with much credit to himself and to the Julian Academy. During this period, he gave repeated courses of lectures on geometry, astronomy, and universal geography; instructing his pupils in the whole circle of mathematical science, and particularly in the new theories of the planetary system, which until his time were very imperfectly understood or taught in that country.

He obtained the degree of M.D., was admitted a member of that faculty, and began publicly to teach physic. Nor was he less distinguished in this new profession than he had been in the former. Caselius observes, "ut cum se nemini collegarum praeferret, nemini tamen in hac dignitate se inferiorem gesserit." It is farther said of him, that, by his teaching and writings, he was the chief support of the medical school at Helmstadt, was employed as first physician at the Court of Brunswick, and had much practice among the principal families of that country.

He was chosen dean of the faculty of philosophy, and while he held this honourable office, he is said to have conferred the degrees of master of arts and doctor of philosophy, upon twenty pupils, some of whom became afterwards very eminent; particularly Jo. Nendorfius of Goslar, and Henn. Arnisaeus, and Joan. Wolflius, both celebrated prfessors of medicine.

Although Dr Liddel had been admitted into the faculty of physic in 1596, and had from that time publicly taught in this faculty, yet he continued to give lectures in mathematics until the present year, when he resigned that chair, and was succeeded by Henr. Schaperus.

Having been several times elected dean of the faculties both of philosophy and physic, he had the honour this year of being chosen pro-rector of the university.

But neither academical honours, nor the profits of an extensive practice abroad, could make Dr Liddel forget his native country. Having already made several journeys to Britain during his residence at Helmstadt, he now determined to retire thither for the remainder of his life. Accordingly, in the beginning of this year, he took a final leave of the Academia Julia, and, after travelling for some time through Germany and Italy, he at length settled in Scotland.

Several reasons may have induced him to retire thus early from public life. Caselius ascribes it in part to the solicitations of his friend Dr John Craig, but chiefly to the unsettled state of the university; for such were the troubles in Germany during the former year, that many students unwillingly left it, and, among others, a nephew of Craig's, under the tuition of Liddel, who on that occasion was sent by him to Padua. Caselius says farther, that Dr Liddel went away without the permission of the Duke of Brunswick, and that, had he been informed of his intention, he would not probably have allowed such a valuable member of his favourite academy to have left it.

Where Dr Liddel resided, or how he was employed during these few years after his return from Germany, no information can now be obtained, only that he was occasionally at Edinburgh, and probably lived chiefly at Aberdeen, among his relations. On the 12th of July in this year he was at Edinburgh, where he subscribed his first deed of settlement of that date, by which he bestows certain lands purchased by him near Aberdeen, upon the university there, in all time coming, for the education and support of six poor scholars. Among a variety of regulations and injunctions for the management of this charity, he appoints the Magistrates of Aberdeen his trustees, and solemnly denounces the curse of God against any person who shall abuse or misapply it.

Upon the ninth of December in this year, he executed at Aberdeen another deed of settlement, by which he confirms his former donation, and farther bequeaths to the Marischal College, for the endowment of a professorship of mathematics, the sum of 6000 merks, which having been afterwards judiciously laid out by the Magistrates, his trustees, in the purchase of lands in the neighbourhood, now produces a very considerable salary to that professor, He also bequeaths his whole collection of books and mathematical instruments to the same college, directing a small sum to be expended annually in adding to the collection, and another to be distributed among the poor.

This appears to have been the last act of Dr Liddel's life, and was probably executed by him while on his death-bed, for he therein recommends that the deed should be more formally extended, "thir presents being made upon a suddenty," and he died eight days after, December the 17th, in the fifty-second year of his age. His body was buried in the West Church of Aberdeen, formerly called St Nicholas' or the Old Church, where the Magistrates placed in memory of him a large tablet of brass, upon which is engraved a figure of the deceased in his professor's gown and cap, surrounded by books and instruments, and accompanied with a suitable inscription. They also erected a pillar upon the lands left by him to the college, bearing a modest inscription dictated by himself in his first settlement.

Dr Liddel, having never been married, left the remainder of his fortune to his brother, John Liddel, and a sister, both of whom had children, and some of whose descendants are still alive in Aberdeen. One son of his brother John is well known to have succeeded Dr William Johnston in the mathematical chair endowed by his uncle; but the young man having acted imprudently, was, according to the author here referred to, most unjustly deprived of his office.

Last Updated November 2019