The final days of Hugh Miller

James Finlayson looks at the death of the Victorian science popularist Hugh Miller and draws an important lesson in medical professionalism

  • Date: 04 January 2013

THE books of Hugh Miller are well known to the frequenters of a shrinking number of Scottish second-hand bookshops. Innumerable editions – solid, heavy, products of the mighty Victorian Edinburgh publishing industry – sit often forlorn on upper shelves.

Miller is still read; indeed, a surprising number of his books have been recently republished. One volume, The Testimony of the Rocks, first published in 1857, even has a foreword from the eminent Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Opening a first edition of this book, one will find on the first few pages a frontispiece featuring a magnificent photograph of Miller along with a notice that the book was published posthumously. There is also a dedication to JAMES MILLER, ESQ. F.R.S.E., PROFESSOR OF SURGERY IN THE UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH. These facts considered together testify to a fascinating strand in the tragic story of Hugh Miller’s final days.

A fearful dream

On a December night in 1856, Hugh Miller, writer, man of science and leader of the church arose from his bed and wrote a message to his wife. “My brain burns. I must have walked and a fearful dream rises upon me. I cannot bear the horrible thought. God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me. Dearest Lydia, Dear Children farewell. My brain burns as the recollection grows, my dear wife farewell. Hugh Miller.”

Then using the revolver he habitually carried, Miller ended his life.

Suicide is a terrible thing. Many readers of this article will have experience of a patient’s suicide and all will surely agree that it is one of the most difficult experiences in the life of a doctor. Some people, indeed, will have the tragedy and trauma of the suicide of a loved one. To all who knew Hugh Miller and to the many readers of his books and articles this was a shocking tragedy.

Sense of wonder

Miller was one of the best known men in Scotland at that time. He was born in the town of Cromarty in Ross-shire, on the edge of, but not in, the Gaelic-speaking Highlands. His sea-captain father died when he was young and he was brought up by his mystical Highland mother. He describes his childhood in a wonderful memoir, My Schools and Schoolmasters. In it he claims to have learned little during his somewhat rebellious time in the local school, instead receiving his education from listening to the tales of old people, ferocious reading of the few books available and the patient instruction of intelligent relatives. He grew up with a sense of wonder about the natural world and man’s place in it.

He became a stone-mason, working in summer in different parts of Scotland and returning home in the winter to read his books and to think about what he observed. He was fascinated by the structure of the rocks he worked with and the embedded fossils. He had been brought up in the Calvinism of the Scottish church, eventually finding an evangelical Christian faith. He tried to reconcile the testimony of the rocks with the testimony of the Bible, rejecting on the one hand the young age of the earth (espoused still by creationists) and on the other the evolutionary theories of the pre-Darwinians, pointing out the absence of intermediate species in the fossil record.

Church controversy

He published a book, Poems written in the leisure hours of a Journey-man Mason. Unfortunately the quality of the poems does not match the wonderful title. He did, however, develop a distinctive prose style – dignified but not heavy. He published other books on the legends of the Highlands and came to public attention when he entered into the disputes of the Church of Scotland. When first established by John Knox, the church had been profoundly democratic but the Scottish elite hated this and gradually the power of appointing ministers, instead of being vested in the people, was exercised only by the land owners. The Popular, or Evangelical Party, within the church struggled against this but failed to carry the day and in 1843 the church split.

Miller was asked to become founding editor of a newspaper, The Witness, established to support the evangelical cause. However, The Witness did not just deal with church politics but wider social and scientific issues. Miller wanted to have an intelligent faith, a faith that combined a trusting view of the Bible with the latest scientific discoveries.

Miller produced a monumental amount of work. At the time of his death he was working on the proofs of his most ambitious work, The Testimony of the Rocks, Or Geology in its Bearing on the Two Theologies, Natural and Revealed. He had written the dedication to Professor James Miller, who was not a relation but a very close family and church friend.

Tragic mystery

Many reasons have been given as to why Hugh Miller ended his life. The Victorian one was that his brain had been turned by the excess mysticism of his mother. A more modern view is that he could not cope with the difficulties of reconciling his faith with the discoveries of geology. Perhaps he had a psychotic depression. It has even been suggested, albeit without supporting evidence, that he had tertiary syphilis.

Miller was a complex and vulnerable person. He had written of times of deep depression as a young man. Like all stone-masons of the time, he had significant pulmonary problems and had been unwell in the weeks leading up to his death, complaining of terrible headaches. He had become very suspicious – at times bordering on paranoia – and felt completely exhausted. He saw his family doctor but his wife called in their friend Professor Miller. The professor thought that Hugh was overworked and advised cooling baths and cutting his hair. Two days later Hugh Miller was dead.

Professor Miller subsequently performed a post mortem on his deceased friend and found “a diseased brain”. One wonders how he felt when he read the fulsome dedication in his friend’s book. The professor was publicly criticised for being negligent in not having arranged for Miller’s gun to be taken into safe keeping when he saw him.

Separate roles

We cannot know what was wrong with Hugh Miller. His symptoms would surely suggest today that an organic cause be carefully excluded. We also cannot be critical of Professor Miller for not having access to modern brain scanners.

However, was the professor wise to be his friend’s doctor? Could he be objective? Would he have been reticent about asking Miller if he was suicidal or if there had been some personal matter troubling him? If he had doubts about his faith would Miller have told the professor, a fellow churchman? Hugh Miller’s relationship with his wife was complex. Would he have been able to speak to his respectable friend about any sexual difficulties present? Did their friendship blind the professor to the need to objectively asses the risks of the situation? Was James Miller, as a surgeon, the most appropriate medical specialist to be involved?

Miller’s writings can still be read with pleasure and profit – and I believe we can still learn from his life and death. His tragic end shows, I am convinced, the necessity to clearly separate the role of doctor and friend, and the dangers of combining the two.

Dr James Finlayson is a psychiatrist and medico-legal expert who lives on the Isle of Skye

This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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