Musings from the Museum 24

The Mystery of Dr James Keir.


This is  not the script of the latest ‘Midsomer Murder’; indeed, someone by the name of James Keir had a long and successful life.  The mystery is that it is possible to trace two men by the name of Dr James Keir in the later eighteenth century, both interested in, and belonging to, learned societies.  The exciting possibility is that they may be one and the same person, at different stages of his life and career.  For the purposes of this investigation, they will be called James Keir A and James Keir B, and the detective services of the Bow Street Runners and the local Spalding Watch will be called into operation to track them both.

James Keir A was a young man, born in Scotland  who had just left Edinburgh University after studying medicine there.  While at Edinburgh, one of his fellow medical students was Erasmus Darwin, later to become famous for his scientific writings and poetry and grandfather of the much more famous Charles Darwin.  Keir appears in Spalding, according to the SGS Minutes, at the beginning of 1757, referred to as ‘Dr James Keir’ so apparently practising medicine in the town.  It would be a good time to begin medical practice in the town, as Dr John Green, son-in-law of Maurice Johnson, who had been Second Secretary of the SGS for some years and then succeeded Maurice Johnson as Secretary  from 1747 onwards, had recently died on October 28th 1756. Keir was recruited into the SGS, recorded as attending a meeting as a visitor on January 6th 1757.  At the following meeting, on January 13th, the Minutes record  that ‘Dr James Keir was at his Own Instance proposed by Mr Callamy Ives to become a regular member of this Society’. Keir must have been present in Spalding before January 1757 as he was already known to Ives, an apothecary in Spalding.  Keir made the customary member’s donation of books for the library.  His donation is still among the books in the amazing eighteenth-century original collection; he chose to offer ‘the Edinburgh Medical Essays six vols’.  His signature, ‘J. Keir’ is clearly visible on the first page.

James Keir A appears to have been a keen and regular member of the SGS, attending the weekly Thursday meetings as recorded in the Treasurer’s accounts and paying his weekly subscriptions of 6d towards incidental expenses like refreshments, heating and upkeep of the collections.  On June 23rd 1757 he was elected Second Secretary: the Minute Book records that ‘Dr Keir was proposed by the President and upon Ballot elected Second Secretary of this Society’ to assist the Secretary, Mr  Everard Buckworth.  It appears that he kept careful minutes of the weekly meetings, as the next entries are in a large, legible handwriting, very similar to that used for his inscriptions in the books he presented.  

He made regular contributions to Society meetings, showing Roman coins on several occasions and donating some to the Society’s Museum.  This was a popular interest among members of the Society.  He also made contributions from his medical knowledge; on August 4th1757 he gave a description of a case at Cowbit of a ‘remarkable Case of an Aneurysm’ in the aorta of a woman, ‘Esther Burrell 55 years of age’ and wrote a detailed account of it in the Minutes.  So far, so normal.  However, instead of pursuing a life in Spalding as a local doctor and SGS member, like Dr Dinham and Dr Green before him, in late 1757 James Keir A suddenly disappears.  There are no more minutes by him and no further entries of his name in the Treasurer’s books.  The meeting on September 8th records ‘the absence of the Secretary’. Nothing further is recorded about Keir in Spalding after this.

At this stage, enter James Keir B.  Born in  in Edinburgh in 1735, he, too, had studied medicine at Edinburgh University, then, as now, famous for its medical teaching.  While a student there, he is known to have become a close friend of the young Erasmus Darwin, also a medical student.  Darwin was one of the sons of Robert Darwin of Elston, near Newark, Nottinghamshire.  Robert Darwin was a barrister and a good friend of Maurice Johnson’s; they travelled together round the Midland Circuit, following the High Court judges on their progress to try cases referred to the Assize Courts at Lincoln and Nottingham.  Robert Darwin was invited to join the SGS in 1733.  His eldest son, William Darwin, another lawyer, became an SGS member in 1747, so the Darwin family had a strong connection with the Society.

Little is known about James Keir B’s early years apart from his education at Edinburgh high school and then his entry to the university in 1754.  In late 1757, he is is recorded as joining the Army, then recruiting for a campaign in the Caribbean.  He had joined the 61st regiment of foot as an Ensign, or what today we would call a Second Lieutenant by December 1757, rising to Lieutenant in March 1759 and leaving the Army in 1768 with the rank of Captain, promoted to that rank in 1766.  He saw eventful service in the Caribbean, surviving a serious attack of yellow fever, but his regiment was then posted to less active service in Ireland by 1763.

On leaving the Army, James Keir B moved to the Birmingham area. Here he made use of his earlier fascination with the chemistry he had studied at Edinburgh to set up a number of manufacturing firms including glass manufacture and a highly successful and pioneering chemical works manufacturing alkali, soap and white and red lead.  His friend Erasmus Darwin was practising as a doctor in Lichfield, having been unsuccessful in setting up an earlier practice in Nottingham.  Darwin introduced Keir to a famous learned society of the later eighteenth century, the well-known Birmingham Lunar Society.  Keir became a regular member, making friends with such pioneers of science and industry as Matthew Boulton and James Watt the engineers, Josiah Wedgwood the potter and the Revd. Joseph Priestley the discoverer of oxygen.  Unlike the SGS, the Lunar Society remained a small and exclusive group, accepting as members only men already established in these fields.  James Keir B had a long and prosperous career as a chemical manufacturer in Birmingham. He  was elected a member of the Royal Society in 1785. Some of his letters to Erasmus Darwin are preserved, although sadly much of his correspondence was lost in a fire at his home.  

So the mystery remains: was James Keir A, the young member of the SGS, the same person as James Keir B, who also studied medicine at Edinburgh at the same time as Erasmus Darwin?  Was his unexplained disappearance from the SGS’s records caused by his joining the Army?  The dates would seem to fit, and time spent in Spalding would fill a gap in the knowledge about the life of James Keir B, whose biographies usually concentrate on his later, successful years from a scientific point of view.  A letter from Keir B to Darwin early in his life mentions a wish to travel and see the world.  Did he find  being a doctor in Spalding too confining?

A young man aiming for an Army career required funds, as it was necessary to purchase a commission in the first place, as Maurice Johnson had done for his eldest son. Perhaps a good way for a hard-up university student to acquire money for this would be some months of medical practice; was this what could have brought Keir to Spalding?  If the two men are identical, Keir’s friendship with Darwin, some of whose family were SGS members, could have brought the SGS to his knowledge.  Spalding would seem an attractive place since it offered the discussion and activities of the Society, where both science and the study of Roman coins were regular features of meeetings.

As readers of detective novels will be aware, sometimes the detective is left with a very strong case for identifying his quarry, one he believes will convince the court even though the final piece of evidence may not be available to confirm the identification.  We are at such a stage with James Keir; if only there was a letter from him to Darwin giving details of his Spalding experience, and how valuable it would be in telling us about the SGS in the later eighteenth century. One of the letters to Darwin that survives, with a signature similar to that in the donated Spalding books, speaks of an early love of coins and numismatics; does this hint at the James Keir A who discussed Roman coins with the SGS?  Is the court convinced?

Diana and Michael Honeybone.

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