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James Matthews Duncan was born in Aberdeen in 1826,1 the son of a shipping merchant. He was educated at the grammar school and at Marischal College in Aberdeen where he took a Master of Arts degree. Medical studies followed both there and in Edinburgh and Paris, and in 1846 at the age of 20 he obtained an Aberdeen doctorate of medicine.
While in Edinburgh he had come under the influence of Sir James Young Simpson, professor of midwifery, and so distinguished himself that after his graduation, was appointed as his assistant. One year later, Matthews Duncan played an important part with Simpson in the discovery of the anaesthetic properties of chloroform. Shortly afterwards, he began practice in Edinburgh, and in 1853 began a course of lectures on midwifery at the Extramural School. His lectures were both practical and scientific and he soon had an international reputation in obstetrics. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, and in 1861 was appointed physician to the Royal Infirmary. He was also greatly instrumental in founding the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh (fig 1).
He delighted in research which he pursued with single-minded energy. His clinical instinct was intuitive and he rarely needed to retract anything he had written or said. Speaking fluent French and German, he was also widely read. It was he who coined the term “missed abortion” and he also described the method of placental separation. His memory was remarkable, his erudition encyclopaedic, and he was a prolific author. Besides his Clinical Lectures on Diseases in Women, his best known works include Researches into Puerperal Mortality, Fecundity, Fertility and Sterility, and Researches in Obstetrics and the Mechanism of Natural …