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January 12, 1970

Robert Whytt, the Soul, and Medicine

Author Affiliations

American Medical Association Chicago

JAMA. 1970;211(2):303. doi:10.1001/jama.1970.03170020067025

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When a physician today thinks of the word "soul" he probably thinks of theology. But formerly the soul belonged as well to physiology, and indeed represented a physiological concept of utmost importance. Of course, "soul" was a complex term and, in various doctrines, had various grades and subdivisions relating to various functions. The soul had to do with sensation and perception and voluntary action, with tonus, involuntary movements, "sympathy," stimulus and response, "irritability," reflex activity, and other physiological processes. Physicians who used "soul" to explain phenomena belonged to the vitalist camp, while other physicians who explained physiological phenomena in physical and chemical terms belonged to the mechanist school.

Robert Whytt (1714-1766) was an important vitalist. Born in Edinburgh, he studied medicine at the university there and lived most of his life in that city. He was deeply interested in physiology, particularly of the nervous system. While he held to the