Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Clark, James (1788-1870)

CLARK, Sir JAMES (1788–1870), physician, was born at Cullen, Banffshire, 14 Dec. 1788. After education at the parish school, he went to the university of Aberdeen, where he graduated M.A., and returning to his native county entered the office of a writer to the signet. Law did not suit him, and he soon determined to make medicine his profession. In 1809 he became a member of the College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and at once entered the navy as assistant-surgeon. His first ship was wrecked on the coast of New Jersey, and when he was promoted and appointed to another ship she also was wrecked. He served without casualty in two more vessels, and made, in conjunction with Parry, the Arctic voyager, some experiments on the temperature of the Gulf Stream. At the end of the war he was put on half-pay, and made use of his leisure by attending the university of Edinburgh, where he graduated M.D. in 1817. In 1818 he took a phthisical patient to the south of France, and thence to Switzerland, and began to accumulate observations on the effect of climate upon phthisis. In 1819 Clark settled in Rome, where he continued to practise till he moved to London in 1826. In summer he visited the mineral springs and universities of Germany, studied climate, and enlarged his acquaintance with the wealthy part of English society. Prince Leopold, afterwards king of the Belgians, whom he had met at a German bath, made him his physician, and in 1834 obtained for him the appointment of physician to the Duchess of Kent. On Queen Victoria's accession he was made physician in ordinary, and in October 1837 was created a baronet. He was generally esteemed, and was especially trusted at the court; his practice steadily increased till he became unpopular owing to his supposed conduct in the case of Lady Flora Hastings. The growth of a fatal abdominal tumour had led to the unjust suspicion that she was pregnant, and Sir James Clark was called upon to express an opinion upon her condition. Naval surgeons are usually ignorant of the diseases of women, and since leaving the navy Clark's practice had probably taught him little of this part of medicine. He gave an erroneous opinion and incurred much unpopularity. His probity was known at court, and in spite of this grave professional mistake he continued to be trusted there, but the public ceased to seek his advice, and it was long before he had many patients again. In 1832 he was elected F.R.S. He served upon several royal commissions, on the senate of London University (1838–65), and on the general medical council (1858–60). He married Barbara, daughter of Rev. John Stephen, and left a son, the present Sir J. F. Clark. In 1860, having long lived in Brook Street, Grosvenor Square, he gave up practice and retired to Bagshot Park, lent to him by the queen. He died there 29 June 1870. His first publication was his Edinburgh M.D. dissertation, ‘De Frigoris Effectibus,’ 1817; the next ‘Notes on Climate, Diseases, Hospitals, and Medical Schools in France, Italy, and Switzerland,’ 1820; and in 1822 he printed at Rome a letter in Italian on ‘Medical Education at Edinburgh.’ His book ‘The Influence of Climate in the Prevention and Cure of Chronic Diseases,’ 1829, is an enlargement of his publication of 1820, and has the merit of giving information on a subject on which at the time of its publication few English physicians had written anything. His ‘Treatise on Pulmonary Consumption,’ 1835, is chiefly a compilation. In 1842 he issued ‘Remarks on Medical Reform, in a letter addressed to Sir James Graham,’ and in 1843 an enlarged edition of the letter. The first edition proposed that there should be but two medical qualifications, a degree of M.B. for general practitioners, and one of M.D. for teachers of medicine and consultants, both degrees to be given by a central examining board. In the second edition this definite idea is modified and obscured. Both editions make it clear that the writer's knowledge of university education and of medical teaching was inadequate, and that he shared the excessive estimate then prevalent of the value of examination. Clark was famous for the care he took in his prescriptions to conceal the nauseous flavour of drugs, and a general desire to conciliate his contemporaries is apparent in his works. He has made no addition to medical knowledge, but he occupied an important public position with integrity, and fully deserved the royal favour he enjoyed.

[Royal Society's Obituary Notices, 1871; Munk’s Coll. of Phys. 1878, vol. iii.]

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