Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bancroft, Edward Nathaniel

BANCROFT, EDWARD NATHANIEL, M.D. (1772–1842), physician, son of Edward Bancroft [q. v.], was born in London and received his schooling under Dr. Charles Burney and Dr. Parr. He was entered at St. John's College, Cambridge, and graduated bachelor of medicine in 1794. In 1795 he was appointed a physician to the forces. He served in the Windward Islands, in Portugal, in the Mediterranean, and with Abercromby's expedition to Egypt in 1801. On his return to England he proceeded to the degree of M.D. in 1804, and began to practise as a physician in London, retaining half-pay rank in the army. He joined the College of Physicians in 1805, became a fellow in 1806, was appointed to give the Gulstonian lectures the same year, and was made a censor in 1808, at the comparatively early ago of thirty-six, doubtless for the reason that he had endeavoured to do the monopoly of the college some service by pamphleteering against the growing pretensions of army surgeons. In 1808 he was appointed a physician to St. George's Hospital, but in 1811 he gave up practice in London, owing to ill-health, and resumed his full-pay rank as physician to the forces, proceeding to Jamaica. He remained in that colony for the rest of his life (thirty-one years), his ultimate rank being that of deputy inspector-general of army hospitals. He died at Kingston on 18 Sept. 1842, in his seventy-first year; a mural tablet to his memory was placed in the cathedral church of Kingston 'by the physicians and surgeons of Jamaica' (Munk's Roll of the College of Physicians, vol. iii.)

Bancroft's earliest writings were two polemical pamphlets — 'A Letter to the Commissioners of Military Enquiry, containing Animadversions on the Fifth Report,' London, 1808, and 'Exposure of Misrepresentations by Dr. McGrigor and Dr. Jackson to the Commissioners of Military Enquiry,' London, 1808 — on certain proposed changes in the army medical department in which he contended for the then existing artificial distinctions between physician to the forces and regimental surgeon, and for the precedence of the former. His opponents in the controversy were two army medical officers holding Scotch degrees, Dr. James McGrigor (afterwards created baronet, and director-general of the army medical department) and Dr. Robert Jackson. McGrigor charges Bancroft with want of accuracy, want of candour, and partiality. Jackson accuses him of being 'presumptuous in his professional rank, which he conceives to be superior to actual knowledge.' A perusal of the writings on both sides will serve to show that these criticisms were justified. Bancroft's best title to be remembered in medicine is his 'Essay on the Disease called Yellow Fever, with Observations concerning Febrile Contagion, Typhus Fever, Dysentery, and the Plague, partly delivered as the Gulstonian Lectures before the College of Phvsicians in the years 1806 and 1807,' London, 1811, with a 'Sequel' to the same, London, 1817. 'Never,' says Murchison (Continued Fevers of Great Britain, 1st ed. 1862, p. 111), 'has any work effeced a greater revolution in professional opinion in this country.' The spontaneous, autochthonous, or de novo origin of the contagia of pestilential diseases was then the generally accepted one, although the doctrine now current of the continuous reproduction of a virus existing ab æterno had been stated in the most precise terms, among others, by Eggerdes, a Prussian physcian, for the plague as early as 1720. Bancroft's undoubted skill in dialectic made the ab æterno doctrine popular. 'There is no chance, nor even possibility, of thus generating anything so wonderful and so immutable as contagion, which, resembling animals and vegetables in the faculty of propagating itself, must, like them, have been the original work of our common Creator. . . . As well might we revive the for-ever exploded doctrine of equivocal generation' (Essay, p. 109). This ingeniously misleading use of an analogy is a fair specimen of his method. All through his book he shows great cleverness in explaining away an entire set of facts vouched for by competent observers, such as Pringle, Donald Monro, and Blane, who lived in the great days of typhus, and were intimately acquainted with its natural history. The value of his argumentation for yellow fever may be judged of from the fact that there runs through it a side-contention for the identity of that disease with malarial fevers. In falling into that radical error, Bancroft only followed most of his contemporaries; but it was peculiarly unfortunate for him that he should have raised a lofty structure of dialectic upon that foundation of sand. The single fact, which he might easily have verified in the West Indies, that malarious conditions are irrelevant for yellow fever, should have kept him right. Murchison's statement that 'the doctrine of Bancroft was generally adopted, without investigation of the facts upon which it was founded,' may be accepted as true, without prejudice to the facts that may have been collected in support of the same dogma by subsequent writers. The popularity of the ab æterno doctrine of febrile contagion, which is said to have followed Bancroft's 'Essay on Yellow Fever,' &c., is rather an evidence of his skill in word-fence than of his scientific fairness of mind.

[Munk's Roll, iii. 31; Bancroft's works.]

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