The Past in the Present

Sir Arthur Mitchell (1826 – 1909) was a Scottish doctor involved in the study and care of patients with mental illness. He served on several public commissions, and wrote widely on history and anthropology.

He lived with his family at 34 Drummond Place in Edinburgh’s New Town.

He studied at the University of Aberdeen, graduating MA in 1845 and MD in 1850. He did further postgraduate studies in Paris, Berlin and Vienna.

From at least 1856 Mitchell was based at Larbert Hospital, Scotland’s largest hospital specialising in mental health.

In 1857 Mitchell was appointed Deputy Commissioner of Lunacy with the newly established General Board of Lunacy for Scotland, acting as deputy to William A.F. Browne. His appointment coincided with a report produced by the Scottish Royal Lunacy Commission that prompted a greater understanding of the care of the insane.

His work included a special study of individuals in private care, which were outlined in his work The Insane in Private Dwellings. His contributions to the Edinburgh Medical Journal, reprinted in a condensed form in Memoirs of the Anthropological Society of London, contained material collected from extensive surveys. His work established a methodology for epidemiological studies in this field.[

In 1866 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh his proposer being John Hutton Balfour. He served as the Society’s Vice  In 1908 he was President of the Royal Meteorological Society.

He held positions with the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, the Scottish Meteorological Society, the Early Scottish Text Society, and council member of the Scottish History Society. He was a professor of ancient history to the Royal Scottish Academy.

His Rhind Lectures to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland were published as The Past in the Present: What is Civilisation? His conclusion was that the difference in the essential characteristics of modern and early peoples are imperceptible, that civilisation was due to accumulated knowledge rather than an inherent superiority of its individual members.

Arthur Mitchell’s fascination was  with a wide range of subjects, including blushing.

He retired in 1895 .

Arthur Mitchell was a collector and archivist and had in his possession in 34 Drummond Place the skulls of George and Andrew Combe the famous Edinburgh phrenologists:

On his death, Arthur Mitchell donated his entire collection to the University of Edinburgh:


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