Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Forbes, John (1787-1861)

FORBES, Sir JOHN (1787–1861), physician, fourth son of Alexander Forbes, was born in December 1787 at Cuttlebrae, Banffshire, N.B. In 1799 he went to the academy of Fordyce, where he passed three years. Here he was a schoolfellow of Sir James Clark [q. v.], with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. Having obtained a bursary to the grammar school at Aberdeen, he proceeded thither in 1802, and in the following year entered Marischal College, where he remained till 1806. He then went to Edinburgh, and took the diploma of surgery, and entered the navy as assistant-surgeon in 1807. He used to mention that he came up to London by a Leith smack, and was fourteen days on the passage, and that he spent three more days and nights on the journey to join his ship at Plymouth. He served chiefly in the North Sea and in the West Indies, and remained in the navy till the reduction in 1816, when he was placed on half-pay. He then returned to study in Edinburgh, and graduated there as M.D. in 1817. His inaugural dissertation, ‘De Mentis Exercitatione et Felicitate exinde derivanda,’ was characteristic of the man, and served as the basis of a little work published many years afterwards, ‘Of Happiness in its Relation to Work and Knowledge,’ 1850. He settled as a physician at Penzance, where he succeeded Dr. J. A. Paris [q. v.], who had recently removed to London. Here he remained about five years, and during the greater part of this time devoted himself chiefly to meteorological and geological pursuits, the results of which were his ‘Observations on the Climate of Penzance’ (1821) and two elaborate papers in the ‘Transactions of the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association’ (vol. ii. 1834, vol. iv. 1836) on ‘The Medical Topography of the Hundred of Penwith, comprising the District of the Landsend in Cornwall.’ In 1820 he married a daughter of John Burgh, esq., H.E.I.C., who died in 1851, and by whom he had one son, who survived him. In 1822 he removed to Chichester, as successor to Dr. (afterwards Sir William) Burnett [q. v.], who had recently removed to London. Here he had for about a year a rival in Dr. John Conolly [q. v.], but as there was not room for two physicians Conolly left the place, continuing, however, to be his intimate friend and literary co-operator. Forbes had a good practice at Chichester, amounting frequently to 1,500l. a year, and was very popular, both as a man and as a physician. He was an active supporter of the charitable, scientific, and literary institutions of the place, and especially was mainly instrumental in founding the infirmary in 1827, which was the first general hospital established in the county. His principal professional works were undertaken and partly completed at Chichester. He had in 1821 published a translation of Laennec's great work on ‘Mediate Auscultation,’ with the description of the newly invented stethoscope. Forbes executed his translation well, and it reached a fifth edition in 1838; but it is chiefly creditable to him as showing how much he was in advance of most of the physicians of the day, by many of whom Laennec's great discovery was treated with contempt and ridicule. It is curious, after the lapse of nearly seventy years, to see how entirely Forbes's anticipations (as expressed in his preface) have been falsified by the result, but only because the instrument has obtained a success so far exceeding his most sanguine expectations. Although certain that the stethoscope will be acknowledged to be one of the greatest discoveries in medicine, he doubts whether it will ever come into general use. In 1824 he followed up the subject by a translation of Auenbrugger's remarkable work, ‘Inventum novum ex Percussione Thoracis Humani ut signo abstrusos interni pectoris morbos detegendi’ (Vienna, 1761), which was comparatively unknown in England. He added to the translation some ‘Original Cases … illustrating the Use of the Stethoscope and Percussion in the Diagnosis of Diseases of the Chest.’ He next undertook, in conjunction with Drs. Tweedie and John Conolly, the ‘Cyclopædia of Practical Medicine,’ which was begun in 1832, issued in parts with remarkable regularity, and finished in four large octavo volumes in 1835. It was the work of sixty-seven writers, including some of the most eminent physicians of the day. Forbes himself was said to be ‘the life of the work,’ and contributed to it several excellent articles, besides a ‘Select Medical Bibliography,’ which was afterwards published in a separate form (1835). When this great work was nearly completed, Forbes planned a continuation, with improvements, of the ‘Medical Quarterly Review,’ in hopes of supplying the profession with a journal of a higher critical and scientific character than was then in existence. He induced many of the writers in the ‘Cyclopædia’ to contribute articles to the ‘British and Foreign Medical Review’ from the beginning, and John Conolly's name appeared with his own in the title-page of the first seven volumes. The numbers appeared quarterly; the first was published in January 1836. For four years Forbes continued to reside at Chichester, but in 1840 he removed to London, chiefly with the object of improving the ‘Review.’ This move no doubt entailed upon him a considerable pecuniary loss, for he could never expect at the age of fifty-three (even though, through the influence of his friend, Sir James Clark, he was appointed physician to the queen's household) to obtain a London practice equal to what he had enjoyed at Chichester. But he was at this time entirely engrossed in the ‘Review,’ the establishment of which was indeed a great event both in his own life and also in medical literature. It soon became the leading medical journal in this country, and its reputation spread not only all over Europe but also in America, where it was reprinted. It continued in existence for twelve years, and was at last terminated by himself when the circulation began to fall off continuously. In the last number (October 1847) he gives a very interesting history of the ‘Review’ from its beginning, from which it appears that, though it was for about eight years self-supporting, yet altogether he lost about 500l. by the undertaking. Notwithstanding this he completed the work by the addition of an excellent index, which entailed upon him a considerable expense. This he dedicated to 264 old contributors, friends, and readers, who had combined to present him with a memorial of their approval and esteem in reference to his management of the ‘Review.’ The circulation of the ‘Review’ was never so large as had been reached in former years by its rival, Johnson's ‘Medico-Chirurgical Review,’ and its discontinuance was no doubt connected with the offence taken by the profession at his article (January 1846) entitled ‘Homœopathy, Allopathy, and “Young Physic.”’ The article was probably much misunderstood, and the outcry swelled by writers who had been personally aggrieved by other articles in the ‘Review.’ But it is admitted, even by his admirers (including the late Edmund Parkes), that he was carried too far by his love of fairness in approving what could only be accepted by professed homœopathists, though he denounced some of the absurdities of Hahnemann's system. The article undoubtedly did good in helping to prove that far too much medicine was habitually given to patients. When Forbes gave up the ‘Review’ it was amalgamated with Johnson's, under the title of ‘The British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review,’ and continued on the same lines till the end of 1877. In 1845 Forbes was made a fellow of the London College of Physicians, in 1852 an honorary D.C.L. of Oxford, and in 1853 he was knighted. He was also a member of various learned and scientific societies both in Europe and America. He continued to live in London till 1859, employing himself chiefly in benevolent and literary works, and occasionally making short tours on the continent, of some of which he wrote an account. Among other inquiries he gave a good deal of attention to mesmerism, attempting to separate the truth from the superincumbent mass of imposture. He carefully investigated cases of clairvoyance, and gave a very amusing account of his detection of the impostors in some letters originally published in the ‘Athenæum’ and the ‘Medical Gazette,’ and afterwards in a collected form, with the title ‘Illustrations of Modern Mesmerism from Personal Investigation,’ 18mo, 1845. His last medical work was published in 1857 with the title of ‘Nature and Art in the Cure of Disease,’ which he ‘bequeathed as a legacy to his younger brethren,’ explaining in it more fully than had been done in his article in the ‘Review’ his ideas on the nature of diseases, and especially their curability by the powers of nature alone. Not long after the publication of this work he began to suffer from symptoms of softening of the brain; and in 1859 he left London, and went to live with his only son (his wife having died some years before) at Whitchurch, near Reading, where he died, 13 Nov. 1861. In private life, while professing, as it is said (Med. Times and Gaz.), too little perhaps of the Christian faith, Forbes was a man to be both loved and honoured, and few men in the present century have done more to promote the cause of sound medical literature. Besides the works already mentioned the two following may be noticed:

  1. ‘A Physician's Holiday, or a Month in Switzerland in the Summer of 1848.’
  2. ‘Sight-seeing in Germany and the Tyrol in the Autumn of 1855.’

[Obituary notice in the Lancet; Med. Times and Gazette; Edinb. Med. Journal; Brit. Med. Journal (and also 5 Aug. 1876, p. 174); Brit. and For. Med.-Chir. Rev. by E. A. Parkes, reprinted in a separate form, 1862; article by Forbes in the last vol. of the Brit. and For. Med. Rev.; personal knowledge and recollection.]

W. A. G.