Brunton, Sir Thomas Lauder, first baronet 1844-1916, physician, the third son of James Brunton, by his wife, Agnes, daughter of John Stenhouse, of White Lee, was born at Hiltonshill, Roxburghshire, 14 March 1844. Educated privately, he entered the university of Edinburgh, where he had a distinguished academic career, graduating M.B., C.M. with honours in 1866. For a year after graduation he acted as house-physician in Edinburgh Infirmary. In 1867, as Baxter scholar, he began a period of travel and study, working successively in Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Leipzig, and laying the foundations of European friendships which were shaken only in the last years of his life.
Returning to England in 1870, he was appointed lecturer in materia medica and pharmacology at the Middlesex Hospital, and in the following year to the same position at St. Bartholomew's. Regarding this as a responsibility that involved more than the mere delivery of lectures, and in emulation of the pharmacological laboratories that were just beginning to be established in Germany, he secured as his first laboratory the only place available, a hospital scullery, measuring twelve feet by six. He remained on the active staff of St. Bartholomew's as casualty physician for four years, as assistant physician for twenty years, and as physician for nine. During this time he gradually became an acknowledged leader of the medical profession, with a more than European reputation. His fruitful researches and his wide knowledge of scientific and medical literature, his friendships with British and foreign workers, his personal charm and integrity, added to his fame—at least with the general public—as the most widely known consulting physician in London, gave him a peculiar and powerful influence as a connecting link between the practice of medicine and the sciences upon which it is based.
Brunton's own investigations covered a wide field, but his main interest was in the treatment of disease. His M.D. thesis (1867) on Digitalis, with some Observations on the Urine, embodying the results of six months' experiment on himself, started a life-long interest in problems of the circulation. His greatest single contribution to practical medicine was made in 1867 while he was still a house-physician in Edinburgh. He had been observing closely a patient who was suffering from nightly attacks of angina pectoris, and noticed that, during the attacks, the blood pressure rose. It seemed probable that the great rise in tension was the cause of the pain, and it occurred to me that if it was possible to diminish the tension by drugs, instead of by bleeding, the pain would be relieved. I knew, from unpublished experiments by Dr. A. Gamgee [qv.], that nitrite of amyl had this power, and therefore tried it on the patient. My expectations were perfectly answered. Amyl nitrite immediately secured, and has since retained, a position of first importance in the treatment of this disease. From 1870 to 1890 Brunton and his collaborators published many important papers on digitalis, nitrites, inorganic salts, enzymes, on the relation between chemical constitution and physiological action, and on many other problems. His publications and addresses were full not only of new observations but also of explanations and suggestions, many of far-reaching importance and in advance of his time.
Brunton was also—and for his time this was equally important—a great teacher and organizer of knowledge. His lectures at St. Bartholomew's were described by one who attended them as the most interesting and instructive of all the lectures given there at that time. His Textbook of Pharmacology and Therapeutics (1885) was the first complete treatise on the subject from the standpoint of physiology, and few pioneer text-books in any science can have attained such a high level of excellence. It was translated into several languages. Brunton delivered the Lettsomian lectures in 1886, the Goulstonian lecture in 1877, the Croonian lectures in 1889, and the Harveian oration in 1894.
He had imperial as well as academic interests. He was one of the founders of the national league for physical education, and a steadfast and active advocate of national health, school hygiene, and military training. In a letter to Brunton in 1915 Sir Douglas (afterwards Earl) Haig wrote, You and I have often talked about the certainty of this war, and have done, each of us, our best to prepare in our own spheres for it.
Brunton had married in 1879 Louisa Jane, daughter of the Ven. Edward A. Stopford, archdeacon of Meath. They had three sons and three daughters. The death of his devoted wife in 1909, and of his second son (killed in action in France in 1915) clouded the last years of his life. Of somewhat frail build, he was impressive only when he spoke. His learning, originality, and practical skill entitle him to rank as one of the founders of modern pharmacology. This, combined with his enthusiasm, his capacity for friendship, and unfailing kindness of heart made him an outstanding and cosmopolitan figure for over a quarter of a century. He died in London 16 September 1916.
Notices in the British Medical Journal, 1916, vol. ii, p. 440
Lancet, 1916, vol. ii, p. 572
Proceedings of the Royal Society, vol. lxxxix, B, 1915-1916 (portrait)
Contributor: J. A. G. [James Andrew Gunn]