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Matthew Guthrie

Guthrie, Matthew, 1743—1807

Matthew Guthrie was born in Edinburgh on 24 March 1743, the son of Harrye Guthrie (1709-1794), an Edinburgh lawyer, and Rachel Guthrie, née Milne (1719-1746).

Without formal qualifications he practiced as a ship’s surgeon for the East India Company in the early 1760s, but in 1764 began studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, apprenticed to the surgeon, William Inglis. After briefly practicing in London, without taking his degree, Guthrie sought opportunities for employment at St Petersburg in Russia, but failing to find a suitable position returned to Scotland to finish his qualifications, taking an MA and MD from St Andrews University in April 1770.

Around 1771 he returned to St Petersburg as surgeon to the admiralty, subsequently being appointed surgeon to the army in Moldavia and Wallachia, in which capacity he travelled widely along the northern Black Sea coast. He returned to St. Petersburg and was promoted to physician to the Cadet Corps of Nobles in 1778. In 1781, he married Marie Dunant, née Romaud-Survesnes (d. 1800), a French widow, with connections at the imperial court, herself acting director of the imperial convent for the education of young noblewomen (the Smol’nyi Institute). Guthrie became thereafter (1797) a state counsellor to the imperial court and was ennobled by tsar Paul with the honorary military title of General.

In the 1780s his two daughters were born: Anastasia-Jessy (1782-1855) and Mary Elizabeth (1789-1850). In that and the following decade, he also enjoyed a growing reputation not only for medical practice but also scientific and ethnological research. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1782, and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783. He corresponded with leading scientists in England, including James Hutton, Joseph Priestly, and James Watt, and received British travellers at his home in St Petersburg (including William Coxe). He provoked debate over the freezing point of mercury with experiments conducted in 1783, and published studies of the Russian climate and its effect on diseases in the journal Medical and Philosophical Commentaries. He edited and translated the work of Russian authors, contributing many of these along with original compositions under the pseudonym, Arcticus, to The Bee, or, Literary Weekly Intelligencer between 1792 and 1794. His translations included Catherine the Great’s Ivan Czarowitz, or The Rose without Prickles that Stings Not (1793), published as a short book in London by Robinson and Sons. Guthrie also translated her opera Oleg, which remains in manuscript.

The range of Gurthrie’s interests and expertise is evident in his Dissertations sur les antiquités de Russie (St. Petersburg, 1795), an antiquarian and ethnological treatise comparing early Russian mythology, rites, games, customs, ceremonies, dress, marriage and funereal practices, hospitality, and food, to those of the ancient Greeks. When, in 1795 and 1796, his wife’s precarious health necessitated that she tour the warmer Crimean coasts, Guthrie encouraged her to send him letters on her observations. After her death, he edited these as A Tour, Performed in the Years 1795-6, through the Taurida, or Crimea, the Antient Kingdom of Bosphorus (1802), integrating his own antiquarian research into the original letters, an interpenetration, he claims in his introduction, which had been their joint intension all along.

In 1804, Sir John Carr reported meeting ‘the venerable Doctor Guthrie […], a gentleman of the most amiable manners, a philosopher, and well known to the world for his various scientific and literary productions, and particularly for being the editor, as he modestly announced himself, of the Letters of his deceased lady from the Crimea, wither she went, but in vain, in search of health’ (327). By this time Guthrie had prepared a continuation of his earlier Dissertation entitled, Noctes Rossicae, or Russian Evening Recreations (1800-01), and was at work on A Supplementary tour through the countries on the Black Sea conquered by Russia from the Turks (1804-05), both of which remain in manuscript.

Guthrie died at St. Petersburg in 1807.

Sources:

Carr, Sir John. A Norther Summer: or, Travels round the Baltic, through Denmark. Sweden, Russia, Prussia, and Part of Germany, in the Year 1804. London: Richard Phillips, 1805.

Cross, Anthony. By the Banks of the Neva: Chapters from the Lives and Careers of the British in Eighteenth-Century Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Robinson, Eric H. ‘Guthrie, Matthew (1743–1807)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Texts

Title Published
A Tour, Performed in the Years 1795-6 1802 (Editor)

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