John Abercrombie lived from 11 October 1781 to 14 November 1844. He was one of the leading doctors of his day and later in life also published a number of works of philosophy. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
John Abercrombie was the son of the Reverend George Abercrombie, an Aberdeen clergyman. He was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and studied at Marischal College, Aberdeen. He then studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, graduating with his doctorate on 4 June 1803 while still only 21 years old. He then spent six months in London studying the latest developments in medicine before returning to Edinburgh and setting up in private practice, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh late in 1804.
Abercrombie quickly established himself as a very effective doctor, placing what for the time was an unusual emphasis on listening to his patients and observing their symptoms. In 1816 he began to publish papers in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal and he later used these as the basis for two medical textbooks he published in 1828: Pathological and Practical Researches on Diseases of the Brain and Spinal Cord" and "Researches on the Diseases of the Intestinal Canal, Liver and other Viscera of the Abdomen. Abercrombie failed in his application to fill the vacant post of Professor of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1821, despite being regarded at the time as the best physician in the city. He was subsequently appointed "Physician to the King in Scotland".
In 1830 Abercrombie published Inquiries concerning the Intellectual Powers of Man and the Investigation of Truth, and in 1833 followed it up with The Philosophy of the Moral Feelings. These are generally regarded as "popular philosophy": commercially successful at the time, but adding little of real originality. Abercrombie was made an honourary Doctor of Medicine at the University of Oxford in 1834, and the following year he became Lord Rector of Marischal College, Aberdeen.
At the age of 60 in 1841, Abercrombie suffered an attack of paralysis. He recovered sufficiently to resume his practice but three years later he died of a heart attack while leaving his consulting rooms to visit a patient.