Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Graves, Robert James

GRAVES, ROBERT JAMES (1796–1853), physician, third son of Richard Graves, D.D. [q. v.], professor of divinity in Dublin University and dean of Ardagh, descendant of one of Cromwell's colonels, was born in 1796. He went through a complete arts and medical course at Dublin, graduating M.B. there in 1818. He then studied in London, on the continent, and in Edinburgh for three years. His faculty for languages was such that he was taken for a German in Austria, and consequently imprisoned for ten days as a spy. In the Alps Graves, who had good artistic faculties, accidentally met J. M. W. Turner the painter, and they travelled together for months, neither asking the other's name. The crew of a ship in which they were sailing from Genoa to Sicily were about to desert them in a storm, when Graves, though ill, seized an axe and stove in the boat. Then, taking command, he repaired the pumps from the leather of his own boots, and so saved the ship.

Returning to Dublin in 1821 Graves at once took a leading position; he was elected physician to the Meath Hospital, and became one of the founders of the Park Street School of Medicine. In his introductory lecture at the Meath Hospital in 1821 he boldly avowed that many lives were annually lost owing to maltreatment by doctors, praised the continental methods of clinical instruction, and censured the coarse language used to hospital patients by Irish medical men. He required the advanced students to take charge of, observe, and report on special patients; and, though his new plan was opposed, it was justified by the success of pupils and the growth of the school. Having been elected a fellow of the Irish College of Physicians, he was subsequently appointed professor of the institutes of medicine in it, and gave lectures, chiefly physiological. From 1828 to 1836 he wrote many physiological essays in the ‘Dublin Journal of Medical Science,’ which he helped to found, and of which he was one of the editors until his death. In 1843 his ‘Clinical Lectures’ were published, and he was president of the Irish College of Physicians in 1843 and 1844. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1849. He was an energetic worker, corresponded with old pupils all over the world, and wrote largely for periodical literature on miscellaneous subjects, at one time doing the literary work of a poor patient. His work shortened his life, and he died after a long illness from a disease of the liver on 20 March 1853.

Graves's permanent reputation chiefly rests upon his ‘Clinical Lectures,’ respecting which Trousseau, the great French physician, in a letter to the French translator, said that he had read it again and again, and had become inspired by it in his teaching. He refers to the European reputation of many of the lectures. One of Graves's greatest reforms was the substitution of adequate nourishment and stimulants for the old lowering treatment in cases of fever. Graves, telling his students that his success in some cases of typhus was ‘the effect of our good feeding,’ suggested for his own epitaph ‘He fed fevers.’ Trousseau termed him a therapeutist full of resources, a perfect clinical teacher, an attentive observer, and a profound philosopher. He was quick to apply the discovery of reflex action by Marshall Hall [q. v.] to the diseases of the nervous system. In his papers on cholera, embodied in his ‘Clinical Lectures,’ he gave a history of its progress, and he urged the formation of a complete network of medical observatories to record especially the rise, progress, and character of diseases. He held strongly the belief that typhus and typhoid fevers are not distinct. As a lecturer his style was massive, nervous, forcible, and earnest. He was sarcastic at times in defence of truth, but warm-hearted and sensitive, showing lasting gratitude for the smallest kindness. In person he was tall and dark-complexioned. His bust by Hogan is in the Irish College of Physicians; a statue of him by Joy was unveiled in the hall of the college on 19 Dec. 1877.

Graves wrote: 1. ‘Clinical Lectures, 1834–1835, 1836–7,’ Philadelphia, 1838. 2. ‘A System of Clinical Medicine,’ 1843. 3. ‘Clinical Lectures on the Practice of Medicine,’ 1848; 2nd edition, 2 vols., edited by J. M. Neligan; republished by the New Sydenham Society, 1884; French translation, translated and annotated by Dr. Jaccoud, 1862. 4. ‘Studies in Physiology and Medicine,’ edited by Dr. W. Stokes, 1863, a very interesting volume of miscellaneous essays which appeared in various periodicals.

[The Life and Labours of Graves, by W. Stokes, prefixed to Studies in Physiology and Medicine, 1863; Dublin Journal of Medical Science, 1878, lxv. 1–12; Medical Times and Gazette, 1854, viii. 1–5.]

G. T. B.