Skip to main content

Skae, David, 1814-1873 (Scottish physician)



  • Existence: 1814 - 1873


David Skae was born in Edinburgh on 5 July 1814, one of the two sons of David Skae, builder and architect, and his wife, Helen Lothian. As both Skae's parents died while he was a child, he moved to St Andrews to live with his maternal uncle, the Reverend William Lothian, who was responsible for his education. At the age of fourteen Skae enrolled as a student in the arts faculty of St Andrews University, leaving at the age of sixteen to work as a clerk in an Edinburgh lawyer's office. He then entered the Edinburgh extra-mural medical school, becoming a licentiate of the College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, in 1835, and a fellow in 1836. After this he became a partner of Dr Davidson, a general practitioner in Edinburgh.

In 1836, Skae became lecturer in medical jurisprudence in the extra-mural school, and his lectures proved to be popular. At the same time he became surgeon to the Lock Hospital and held this appointment for ten years. On Christmas day, 1837, he married Sarah, daughter of Major Alexander Macpherson, late of the 2nd West India regiment; they had five sons. Skae was described as a stout figure, with a massive head of brown curly hair, who was jovial and charming in company.

Skae wrote several original articles on syphilis, and was also appointed as an examiner in medicine at St Andrews University, which led to an honorary degree of MD being conferred on him in 1842. In the same year he succeeded Robert Knox as one of the lecturers on anatomy in the extra-mural school in Edinburgh. In 1846 he was appointed physician superintendent at the Morningside Asylum (later the Royal Edinburgh Asylum / Hospital) and held this post until his death. In 1863 he was president of the Association of Medical Officers of Asylums, and in 1873 was nominated Morison lecturer in insanity at the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh.

Skae's most significant contribution was in the field of mental disease. He was judged an able and humane superintendent of the asylum, and in his annual reports he emphasized the need for the careful organization of the institution, and for a healthy and active regime for the inmates. During his period of office the asylum doubled in size, and Skae brought about improvements in the accommodation by providing cottages for small groups of patients. The reputation of Morningside was also enhanced, and several assistant physicians, such as John Batty Tuke, David Yellowlees, and Thomas Clouston, who went on to achieve eminence in the field of lunacy, trained under him. Skae was also an enthusiastic teacher, who set up a regular course of lectures and demonstrations for students.

In his published work Skae was interested in the classification of mental disease, general paralysis, alcoholism, and the legal aspects of lunacy. He was a somaticist in his approach to insanity, defining it as a disease of the brain affecting the mind. Skae made an ambitious attempt at the classification of insanity based on aetiology, which he outlined in his 1863 paper in the Journal of Mental Science, and, further, in his series of 1873 Morison lectures, which were completed after his death by his pupil, Thomas Clouston. Skae's classification was not adopted outside Edinburgh and was heavily criticized by his contemporaries. Other important publications by Skae include his 1857 article on ‘Mental diseases’ in the eighth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, his discussions of ‘Dipsomania’ (1858) and ‘General paralysis’ (1860), and his two papers on ‘The legal relations of insanity’ (1861, 1867).

Sae's last years were overshadowed by illness, and he died at his home, Tipperlinn House, Morningside Place, Edinburgh, on 18 April 1873 from cancer of the oesophagus. He was survived by his wife and children.

From Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry by Allan Beveridge.

Found in 4 Collections and/or Records:

David Skae, Applications, 1846

Identifier: LHB7/30/1
Scope and Contents

Two applications by David Skae for different posts.

Dates: 1846

Francis David Alexander Skae MD. Obituary, 1892

Identifier: LHB7/11/22
Scope and Contents

Obituary reprinted from the 'Edinburgh Medical Journal' for February 1892.

Dates: 1892

Publications By Hospital Staff, 1845 - 1994

Identifier: LHB7/14
Scope and Contents

Series of publications by staff from the Royal Ediburgh Hospital. Includes publications on a wide variety of topics to do with mental health disorders and their treatment.

Dates: 1845 - 1994

Royal Edinburgh Hospital

Identifier: LHB7
Scope and Contents

Management 1792 - 1948; administration 1807 - 1982; finance 1841 - 1971; history and publications 1845 - 1983; staff 1846 - 1985; patients (bound records) 1817 - 1971; patients (unbound records) 1900s - 1960s.

Dates: 1791 - 1985

Additional filters:

Archival Object 3
Collection 1
Mental Disorders 1
Mental health services | Scotland | Edinburgh | 1
Psychiatric hospital care | Scotland | Edinburgh | 1
Psychiatric hospital patients | Scotland | Edinburgh | 1
Psychiatric hospitals | Administration | 1