Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bennett, John Hughes

1295944Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 04 — Bennett, John Hughes1885George Thomas Bettany

BENNETT, JOHN HUGHES, M.D. (1812–1875), physician and physiologist, was born in London on 31 Aug. 1812. He was educated at the grammar and Mount Radford schools, Exeter, but owed much to his mother's influence. She trained him both in literary and artistic tastes, and developed in him elocutionary talents of a high order. With his mother he spent much time on the continent, especially in France. After an apprenticeship with a surgeon at Maidstone, commencing in 1829, Bennett entered at Edinburgh in 1833. He was a zealous student of anatomy and physiology under Robert Knox and John Fletcher, both of whom influenced him greatly. The Goodsirs, Edward Forbes, J. H. Balfour, and John Reid were among his intimate associates, and he became one of the presidents of the Royal Medical Society. While a student he published a paper 'On the Anatomy and Physiology of the Otic Ganglion' {London Medical Gazette, 30 July 1836). He graduated M.D. in 1837, receiving a gold medal, on Syme's recommendation, for the best surgical report, while Sir Charles Bell declared his 'Dissertation on the Physiology and Pathology of the Brain' worthy of a second medal.

Bennett now proceeded to Paris, where he studied two years, and founded the Parisian Medical Society, becoming its first president. Another period of two years was spent in the principal German centres of medical study. Parisian methods of clinical study powerfully impressed him, and he acquired great skill in the application of the microscope in practical medicine. During his residence on the continent he wrote nearly a score of articles in Tweedie's 'Library of Medicine' (vol. ii.), including most of those on the diseases of the nervous system.

Returning to Edinburgh in 1841, Bennett published in October his 'Treatise on Codliver Oil as a Therapeutic Agent in certain forms of Gout, Rheumatism, and Scrofula.' He derived his knowledge on this subject from the German schools, although cod-liver oil had long been used as a remedy among the Scotch fishing populations, and had for many years been prescribed by Drs. Kay and Bardsley in the Manchester infirmary. Although this treatise excited much interest, a large part of the edition remained unsold in 1847, when an appendix of cases benefited by cod-liver oil was added, and it was stated that one house of druggists in Edinburgh had dispensed 600 gallons of it in the preceding twelvemonth, as compared with one gallon in 1841. In 1848 Dr. C. J. B. Williams of London published a series of cases in which he had prescribed cod-liver oil with benefit in phthisis, introducing a fresh and more palatable preparation; and the respective shares of praise due to Bennett and Williams in the introduction of the new drug were subsequently warmly disputed.

In November 1841 Bennett commenced lecturing on histology at Edinburgh, giving a series of microscopical demonstrations on; minute structures, illustrating anatomy, physiology, pathology, and the diagnosis of disease, and also taking private classes on microscopical manipulation. He was the first to give this instruction systematically, and great credit is due to him for his clear recognition of the importance of the microscope in the clinical investigation of disease. At that time, says Dr. McKendrick, 'so long as an organ showed no change in its material substance when examined by the naked eye, physicians called its affections functional, and the fact of microscopal changes of structure was overlooked.'

In 1842 Bennett unsuccessfully competed for the chair of general pathology at Edinburgh. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and also of the Edinburgh College of Physicians. About this time he became physician to the Royal Dispensary, and pathologist to the Royal Infirmary. At the former he gave courses of 'polyclinical medicine' for seven years, on the model of the German polyclinic, students examining patients exhaustively under the eye of the teacher; he also gave lectures on pathology and the practice of physic, with microscopical demonstrations, and accumulated a large museum of pathological specimens. During this period Bennett was incessantly occupied in medical literature. In 1846 he was appointed editor of the 'London and Edinburgh Monthly Journal of Medical Science,' later becoming also its proprietor. It became a good property in his hands, and he sold it to Messrs. Sutherland & Knox, publishers. Some years later he again became part proprietor, and then sole proprietor; finally, Messrs. Sutherland & Knox again purchased the journal. Bennett had been fortunate enough to find all his transactions in this matter pecuniarily profitable (see Dr. McKendrick in Edinburgh Medical Journal, November 1875, p. 468).

In 1845 Bennett published a case of 'Hypertrophy of the Spleen and Liver,' which is the first recorded case of leucocythæmia, a disease in which a very large proportion of white corpuscles exists in the blood. Virchow and others subsequently did much to explain and describe this disease, and Bennett did not at first recognise its true nature. His labours, both in 1845 and subsequently, are, however, of such value as to associate his name very honourably with the investigation. In 1848 Bennett was unanimously elected professor of the Institute of Medicine at Edinburgh. He threw himself with characteristic energy into his new duties, teaching physiology and pathology in their especial bearing on medicine. Every lecture was a work of art, finished in delivery, and illustrated by excellent diagrams and by abundant specimens. He lectured chiefly from manuscript, but when he put this aside to discuss some controversial point, he became vivacious and too often condemnatory of others, and hence did not fail to stir up antagonism. His leading idea was to teach his students to observe precisely and methodically for themselves, and to employ all modern instruments of precision.

As a consulting practitioner Bennett never attained very great success. His sceptical tone of inquiry did not win confidence among patients, and his critical and sarcastic remarks on the works of others did not make him a favourite among his professional brethren. In 1855 he became a candidate for the chair of the practice of physic at Edinburgh. Dr. Laycock was successful after an exciting contest. Bennett had set his heart on this chair for many years, and the disappointment embittered his after life. He was till this period robust and indefatigably energetic, and continued so for ten years more; but about 1865 he began to suffer from an obscure bronchial and throat affection; subsequently he had attacks of diabetes, and was compelled to winter abroad for some years. In 1874 he resumed his chair at the Institute of Medicine. In August 1875 he received the LL.D. degree from Edinburgh University, and his bust by Brodie was presented to the university by old pupils.

He died at Norwich on 25 Sept. 1875, nine days after an operation for stone, performed by Mr. Cadge, from which his enfeebled strength did not enable him to recover. He was buried in the Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh, on 30 Sept. by the side of his friends Goodsir and Edward Forbes. His wife, together with a son and four daughters, survived him. The 'Lancet' says (1875, i. 534): 'He reduced the mortality of uncomplicated pneumonia to nil; he demonstrated not only the dispensableness, but the injuriousness, of the antiphlogistic treatment which had ruled the best minds of the civilised world for ages. Doubtless other physicians were working in the same direction even before Bennett. But he devised a treatment of his own which has given most brilliant results, and he adhered to it and to the pathological views on which it was based so steadily, and over so long a series of years, as to establish its truth, and so largely revolutionise the practice of medicine in acute diseases. … What praise could we give too much to the physician who taught us to treat phthisis, not antiphlogistically, but with fresh air and cod-liver oil? It is admitted on all hands that this praise is due to Dr. Bennett.'

Dr. McKendrick gives a list of 106 papers and memoirs by Bennett in the 'British Medical Journal,' 9 Oct. 1875. So many are important that it is impossible to mention them here. The principal results of his work are given in the following larger treatises, all published in Edinburgh:

  1. 'An Introduction to Clinical Medicine,' 2nd ed. 1853; 4th ed. 1862.
  2. 'Lectures on Clinical Medicine,' 1850-6; second and subsequent editions entitled 'Clinical Lectures on the Principles and Practice of Medicine;' 5th ed. 1868. Six editions were published in his lifetime in the United States, and translations have been published in French, Russian, and Hindoo.
  3. 'Leucocytheemia, or White-Cell Blood,' 1852.
  4. 'On Cancerous and Cancroid Growths,' 1849.
  5. 'Outlines of Physiology,' 1858 (a reprint of the article 'Physiology' in the eighth edition of the 'Encyclopœdia Britannica').
  6. 'Pathology and Treatment of Pulmonary Tuberculosis,' 1853.
  7. 'The Restorative Treatment of Pneumonia,' 3rd ed. 1866.
  8. 'Text-book of Physiology,' 1871-2; published simultaneously in Edinburgh and in America, and also translated into French.

To these should be added his article on Phthisis in Reynolds's 'System of Medicine,' vol. iii.; the 'Report on the Action of Mercury on the Liver to the British Medical Association in 1867 and 1869, the latter published in 'Medicine in Modern Times,' 1869, and in a separate form in Chicago, 1873: 'Researches into the Antagonism of Medicines,' a report to the British Medical Association, 1875.

[Obit. Notice, Brit. Med. Journ. 9 Oct. 1875. pp. 473-8; Edin. Med. Journ. Journ. November 1875, pp. 466-74, both by Dr. McKendrick (for some years his assistant and deputy); Scotsman, 27 Sept. 1875; Lancet, 9 Oct. 1875; account of his case and post-mortem examination, by Mr. W. Cadge, Brit. Med. Jour. 9 Oct. 1875, p. 453.]

G. T. B.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.22
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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245 i 3 f.e. Bennett, John H.: for the Institute read the Institutes
ii 32 for at the Institute read of the Institutes