Physician, scientist. Chalmers was born in Campbelltown, Argyllshire, Scotland, in 1715. He studied medicine at one of the Scottish universities, probably St. Andrews, but did not complete the M.D. degree. Chalmers arrived in Charleston in 1737 and found himself in competition with established practitioners. He apparently found it difficult at first to make a living, but a major smallpox epidemic in 1738 may have helped him to establish a modest practice. His marriage to Martha Logan in 1739 most likely improved his financial situation. Around 1740 he entered into a partnership with Dr. John Lining that endured until 1754.
When Chalmers and Lining became partners, Lining was already recording weather data and conducting metabolic experiments on himself in an attempt to record the effects of meteorological change on the human body. Between 1750 and 1759 Chalmers compiled his own series of meteorological records in Charleston, which he later used along with Lining’s in his best-known work, An Account of the Weather and Diseases in South Carolina (London, 1776). In 1767 he published Essay on Fevers, subsequently republished in London (1768) and in Riga in German (1773).
During the 1750s Chalmers began corresponding with the influential Quaker physician-naturalist Dr. John Fothergill of London. Chalmers addressed his first publication, “Of the Opisthotonos and the Tetanus,” to Fothergill; it was published in Medical Observations and Inquiries in 1758. Fothergill helped with the editing and publishing details of Chalmers’s book on weather and diseases. Chalmers aided Fothergill’s interests in natural history by exchanging plant and animal specimens. He also served as Fothergill’s agent in disbursing funds raised for the expedition of the Philadelphia naturalist William Bartram through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. In 1756 Chalmers got St. Andrews University to confer on him the M.D. degree. In this he was aided by his friend Robert Whytt, a physician on the faculty of the University of Edinburgh and a graduate of St. Andrews.
Chalmers’s writings did not mark a significant development in medicine, but he was highly regarded in his time by British physicians such as Fothergill, Whytt, and William Cullen of Edinburgh University, one of the most influential teachers of medicine in the late eighteenth century. Chalmers died in Charleston on May 8, 1777, after having served as a justice of the peace, port physician, and a member of the Charleston Library Society.
Fothergill, John. Chain of Friendship: Selected Letters of Dr. John Fothergill of London, 1735–1780. Edited by Betsy C. Corner and Christopher C. Booth. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
Stearns, Raymond P. Science in the British Colonies of North America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.
Waring, Joseph I. “Lionel Chalmers and William Cullen’s Treatment of Fevers.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 8 (October 1953): 445–47.
———. “Lionel Chalmers, Medical Author.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 33 (July–August 1958): 349–55.