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Cullen was born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire. He studied at Hamilton Grammar School, then, in 1726, began a General Studies arts course at the University of Glasgow. He began his medical training as apprentice to John Paisley, a Glasgow apothecary surgeon, then spent 1729 as surgeon on a merchant vessel trading between London and the West Indies. After two years as assistant apothecary to Mr Murray of Henrietta Street, London, he returned to Scotland in 1732 to establish himself in general medical practice in the parish of Shotts, Lanarkshire. From 1734 to 1736 he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he became interested in chemistry, and was one of the founders of the Royal Medical Society.
In 1736 he began medical practise in Hamilton, where he rapidly acquired a high reputation. He also continued his study of the natural sciences, especially of chemistry. From 1737 to 1740 William Hunter was his resident pupil, and at one time they proposed to enter into partnership. In 1740 Cullen was awarded the degree of M.D. from Glasgow University. In 1741, he married and started his family. He became ordinary medical attendant to James Douglas, 5th Duke of Hamilton (1703-43), his family, and his livestock. In 1744, following the Duke's death, the Cullens moved to Glasgow.
In Glasgow he gave extramural lectures, for the University, on physiology, botany, materia medica, and chemistry. His great abilities, enthusiasm, and use of practical demonstrations for instruction, made him a successful and highly popular teacher, attracting large classes. At the same time he also practised physic. In 1747 he was appointed to a lectureship in chemistry. Cullen was a diligent, but unoriginal, investigator and experimenter. However, he encouraged original research among his pupils, one of whom was Joseph Black. In 1751 he was appointed Professor of the Practice of Medicine, but continued to also lecture on chemistry.
In 1755 he was enticed by Lord Kames to become Professor of Chemistry and Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. It was in Edinburgh, in 1756, that he gave a practical demonstration of artificial refrigeration (though he had carried out similar experiments at the University of Glasgow in 1748). Cullen used a pump to create a partial vacuum over a container of diethyl ether, which then boiled , absorbing heat from the surroundings. This created a small amount of ice, but the process found no commercial application.
From 1757 he delivered lectures on clinical medicine in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
On the death of Charles Alston in 1760, Cullen at the request of the students undertook to finish his course of lectures on materia medica; he delivered an entirely new course, notes of which were published in an unauthorized edition in 1771, but which he re-wrote and issued as A Treatise on Materia Medica in 1789.
On the death of Robert Whytt, the professor of the institutes of medicine, Cullen accepted the chair, at the same time resigning that of chemistry. In the same year he had been an unsuccessful candidate for the professorship of the practice of physic (medicine), but subsequently an arrangement was made between him and John Gregory, the successful candidate, by which they both agreed to deliver alternate courses on the theory and practice of medicine. This arrangement continued until the sudden death of Gregory in 1773. Cullen was then appointed sole professor of the practice of physic, and he continued in this office until a few months before his death.
His chief works were First Lines of the Practice of Physic; Institutions of Medicine (1710): and Synopsis Nosologiae Methodicae (1785), which contained his classification of diseases into four great classes (1) Pyrexiae, or febrile diseases, as typhus fever; (2) Neuroses, or nervous diseases, as epilepsy; (3) Cachexiae, or diseases resulting from bad habit of body, as scurvy; and (4) Locales, or local diseases, as cancer.
Cullen's eldest son Robert became a Scottish judge in 1796 under the title of Lord Cullen later Baron Cullen, and was known for his powers of mimicry.
The first volume of an account of Cullen's Life, Lectures and Writings was published by Dr John Thomson in 1832, and was reissued with the second volume (completing the work) by Drs W. Thomson and D. Craigie in 1859.
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