Open main menu

Denman, Thomas (1733-1815) (DNB00)

DENMAN, THOMAS, the elder, M.D. (1733–1815), physician, second son of John Denman, an apothecary, was born at Bakewell, Derbyshire, 27 June 1733. He was educated at the Bakewell grammar school, and in 1753 came to London and began to study medicine at St. George's Hospital. He entered the medical service of the navy as a surgeon's mate, and in 1757 became surgeon, and was attached to the ship Edgar till 1763, when, on the conclusion of peace, he left the service. He then continued his medical studies, and attended the lectures on midwifery of Dr. Smellie, one of the best observers and most original writers on this part of medicine, and to whose instruction the future distinction of Denman was in part due. He graduated M.D. at Aberdeen 13 July 1764, and began practice as a physician at Winchester. He got so little to do that he came again to London and tried to re-enter the navy, but failed to get an appointment. He obtained, however, the post of surgeon to a royal yacht, the duties of which did not often take him away from London, while the emolument of 70l. a year was an important addition to his income. He lectured on midwifery, and continued to do so for fifteen years. In 1769 he was elected physician accoucheur to the Middlesex Hospital, and held the post till his large practice forced him to give it up in 1783. In that year he was admitted a licentiate in midwifery of the College of Physicians. In 1791, having accumulated a considerable fortune, he bought a country house at Feltham in Middlesex, and though he never gave up practice altogether, limited it to consultations. He died at his town house in Mount Street, London, 26 Nov. 1815, and was buried in the church of St. James, Piccadilly. His wife was Elizabeth, daughter of Alexander Brodie, and survived him till 1833. His eldest son became chief justice of England [see Denman, Thomas, the younger, Lord], one of his two daughters married Dr. Matthew Baillie, the morbid anatomist [q. v.], and the other Sir Richard Croft, M.D. [q. v.] Denman had a broad face and a forehead projecting far over his eyes. His portrait was painted by L. F. Abbot, and has been engraved. He was the first physician whose authority made the practice general in England of inducing premature labour in cases of narrow pelvis and other conditions, in which the mother's life is imperilled by the attempt to deliver at the full time. This had been suggested before, but never successfully established as a rule of practice; while since Denman's time it has never been opposed in Europe except by certain theologians. His first publication was ‘A Letter to Dr. Richard Huck on the Construction and Method of using Vapour Baths,’ London, 1768. He recommends the use of an apparatus in which steam from the spout of a kettle is introduced within the envelope of blankets in which a patient's body is enclosed. This method, now in common use, was then known to very few people. In the same year were published ‘Essays on the Puerperal Fever and on Puerperal Convulsions,’ papers only of temporary interest. In 1782 he published ‘An Introduction to the Practice of Midwifery,’ which reached a fifth edition in 1805, and is a lucid, philosophical work, still to be read with advantage. His most popular work appeared in 1783, ‘Aphorisms on the Application and Use of the Forceps and Vectis on Preternatural Labours, on Labours attended with Hemorrhage and with Convulsions,’ a duodecimo volume in which all the important points of the subject are stated with admirable precision. It has had seven English and three American editions, and was translated into French. In 1786 three separate essays appeared ‘On Uterine Hemorrhages depending on Pregnancy and Parturition,’ ‘On Preternatural Labours,’ ‘On Natural Labours;’ and in 1787 ‘A Collection of Engravings to illustrate the Generation and Parturition of Animals and of the Human Species.’ In 1790 he wrote a paper ‘On the Snuffles in Infants’ in the ‘Medical Journal.’ This is the first accurate description of the nasal and laryngeal catarrh of congenital infantile syphilis. The symptoms are accurately described, but Denman failed to discover their pathological nature, and though he had noted that calomel was sometimes useful he did not learn that mercury was curative, a fact now so well known that Sir William Jenner, speaking of this affection before a royal commission in 1867, stated that he had told a clinical assistant who failed to prescribe it that he was guilty of the death of the patient. Denman subsequently published further observations on the same subject, ‘Observations on Rupture of the Uterus,’ ‘On the Snuffles in Infants,’ and ‘On Mania Lactea,’ 1810; and ‘Plates of Polypi of the Uterus,’ 1800, and ‘Observations on the Cure of Cancers,’ 1810. The book on cancer contains more conjecture and fewer observations than any of his other writings, the general characteristics of which are the exact record of observation and the strict relation of his conclusions to his facts.

[Munk's Coll. of Phys. 1878, ii. 333; Denman's Works; information from Dr. Matthew Duncan.]

N. M.