Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Babington, William (1756-1833)

BABINGTON, WILLIAM (1756–1833), physician and mineralogist, was born at Portglenone, near Coleraine, in the county of Antrim, Ireland. He was first apprenticed to a practitioner at Londonderry, and afterwards completed his medical education at Guy's Hospital, London, but without at that time taking a medical degree. In 1777 he was made assistant surgeon to Haslar (Naval) Hospital, and held this appointment four years. He then obtained the position of apothecary to Guy's Hospital, and also lectured on chemistry in the medical school attached to the hospital. Of these appointments Babington made stepping-stones to a higher professional position. He resigned the post of apothecary, and, having obtained the necessary degree of M.D. from the university of Aberdeen in 1795, was in the same year elected physician to Guy's Hospital. In 1796 he was licentiate of the College of Physicians, and remained so till 1827, when he received the unusual honour of being elected fellow by special grace. In 1831 he was made honorary M.D. by the university of Dublin. He ceased to be physician to Guy's in 1811.

Dr. Babington was a very able and successful physician, whose skill and knowledge are attested by the general verdict of his contemporaries; while a not less unanimous voice testifies to the elevation and purity of his character. 'History does not supply us,' says Dr. Munk, 'with a physician more loved or more respected than was Dr. Babington.'

If in the course of his busy life he made no conspicuous addition to the science of medicine, it was that his energies were devoted to the sciences of chemistry and mineralogy. He lectured on chemistry at Guy's Hospital for many years, and published some memoirs in 'Nicholson's Journal.' In mineralogy his interest was still greater, and he achieved more. While apothecary to Guy's Hospital he became possessed of the valuable cabinet of minerals which had belonged to the Earl of Bute: of this he made an elaborate catalogue, which probably served as the foundation of one of his books. His works on mineralogy are described by Mr. Greenough, president of the Geological Society in 1834, as having well represented the state of the science when they were written, but they have long ceased to have any importance.

Dr. Babington did more by encouraging science than by his own work; and as such he has some claim to be regarded as the founder of the Geological Society. The circumstances are thus stated by Mr. Greenough (Presidential Address to the Geological Society, 1834): 'In 1807, with a view to enable Count Bournou, of whom he had been a pupil, to publish his elaborate monograph on the carbonate of lime. Dr. Babington invited [to his own house] a number of gentlemen the most distinguished for their zeal in the prosecution of mineralogical knowledge. A subscription was opened and the necessary sum readily collected. The object having been accomplished, other meetings of the same gentlemen took place, for the joint purpose of friendly intercourse and mutual instruction. From such small beginnings sprang the Geological Society, and among the names of those by whose care and watchfulness it was supported during the early period of its history that of Dr. Babington must always stand conspicuous.' He was president of the society in 1822, but did not contribute to its 'Transactions.' It is recorded that after this he took lessons in geology of a Mr. Webster, and attended the chemical lectures at the London University the year before his death. He was appointed by government one of the referees to put a price upon the Greville collection of minerals, bought by the nation, and now in the British Museum. Dr. Babington was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and took part in founding the Hunterian Society. He rapidly acquired a large and lucrative practice, and continued in the full exercise of professional and scientific activity till within four days of his death, which occurred from influenza, during the severe and destructive epidemic of that disease in London, on 29 April 1833. Dr. Babington was buried in the church of St. Mary's, Aldermanbury. Four years after his death a monument was erected to him in St. Paul's Cathedral by public subscription, Behnes being the sculptor. His bust is in the College of Physicians, and his portrait by Medley has been engraved by Branwhite. He left a son, Benjamin Guy Babington, also physician to Guy's Hospital, and one of his daughters married the eminent physician, Dr. Richard Bright.

He wrote: 1. 'A Systematic Arrangement of Minerals reduced to the Form of Tables, founded on the joint consideration of their chemical, physical, and external characters,' 4to, 1795. 2. 'A new System of Mineralogy in the form of a Catalogue, after the manner of Baron Born's Catalogue of the Fossils of Mdlle. E. de Raab,' 4to, 1799. 3. 'A Catalogue of the genuine and valuable Collection of Minerals of a Gentleman Deceased' (by Dr. Babington and others), 8vo, London, 1805. 4. 'Syllabus of the Course of Chemical Lectures at Guy's Hospital,' 1789, &c. 5. 'A Case of Exposure to the Vapour of Burning Charcoal' (Med.-Chirurg. Transactions, vol. i. 1806).

[Annual Biography and Obituary, 1834; Gent. Mag. 1833; Munk's Roll Coll. Physicians, ii. 451; Medical Gazette, 1833.]

J. F. P.