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A Battle of the Senses

By Emma Laws, Cathedral Librarian

Printing presses may not have had the immediate global reach of our modern-day social media platforms but pamphlets could be printed and disseminated quickly and anonymously, and could make or break reputations. This 18th century pamphlet, printed in Edinburgh, contains a venomous attack on John Aitken (d. 1790), a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and Senior President of the city’s Medical Society. One would expect the title-page to provide the names and addresses of booksellers to whom one might go to purchase a copy but, here, the anonymous author opts for a rather more covert method of distribution: “Sold at the Infirmary at Twelve, at the College-gate at One o’clock afternoon, and nowhere else”.   

Little is known of John Aitken, M.D.  In 1781, he published Outlines of the Theory and Cure of Fever, on Plain and Rational Principles, and dedicated it “To Common Sense”. In retrospect, he may have wished he hadn’t made such a claim; the author of this pamphlet couldn’t resist opening with a satirical address “To Nonsense” before launching into a tabloid-style vitriolic rebuttal of Aitken’s work:

“The ENORMITY of the author’s vanity requires a severe reprehension… Every sentence indeed is such a piece of complete nonsense… To expose the absurdity of it in every part, would far exceed the limits I have prescribed to myself… his performance… in truth, resembles more the ravings of a person in Bedlam, than a treatise written by a public Lecturer, and Fellow of so many “Royal” Societies as the title page designs him… the total want of sentiment, the ridiculous language, and the extreme incorrectness throughout the whole, may justly characterise it as a standard of NONSENSE and BLUNDERING, to all future generations.”

The Cathedral Library’s copy of this defamatory pamphlet holds the continuing story. Pasted inside is a printed advertisement – a single folded leaf, probably just as quickly printed as the pamphlet itself – issued by Aitken to refute the accusations against him: 

“A pamphlet by an anonymous author… I deem… altogether unworthy of any serious notice, because it is evidently a libel replete with personal defamation, destitute of fair argument, and breathes in every line the execrable spirit of extreme malignity. I will however endeavour to drag into public view the lurking pusillanimous Assassin its author, that he may be marked, and that I may if possible guard my breast against his knife. No persecution of any kind shall have the smallest influence to control my inquiries after truth or science…”

Here, the trail ends, and one can only assume that Aitken had the last word on the matter. 

The anonymous author of the pamphlet was rather better known than Aitken: James Tytler (1745-1804), a notorious and penniless Scottish apothecary who was eventually outlawed in 1793 for printing a number of seditious anti-government pamphlets. He was also the first person in Britain to fly in a hot air balloon, but that’s a story for another day.