Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Heberden, William (1710-1801)

HEBERDEN, WILLIAM, the elder (1710–1801), physician, born in London in August 1710, and descended from an old family, was son of Richard Heberden, whose profession is not recorded. He was educated at St. Saviour's Grammar School, Southwark, and, showing considerable promise, was sent at an early age to St. John's College, Cambridge, in December 1724. He graduated B.A. 1728, was elected fellow of his college 6 April 1731, after which he studied medicine, partly in Cambridge and partly in a London hospital, and in 1739 proceeded M.D. He became senior fellow of his college 3 July 1749, and practised medicine for about ten years in the university. He gave an annual course of lectures on materia medica, a manuscript copy of which was formerly in the possession of Dr. Pettigrew. His tract on ‘Mithridatium and Theriaca,’ published in 1745, is supposed to contain the substance of one of these lectures. While at Cambridge he acquired the reputation of a good classical scholar, and contributed a letter from Cleander to Alexias on ‘Hippocrates and the state of Physic in Greece’ to the collection called ‘Athenian Letters’ (1741), written by a group of Cambridge scholars. Having been admitted candidate of the College of Physicians in 1745 and fellow in 1746, Heberden in 1748 came to London, on the advice of Sir Edward Hulse, and settled in Cecil Street, where he soon began to get into practice, and gave up his fellowship at St. John's in 1752, when he married. In 1761 he declined the king's offer of the post of physician to Queen Charlotte, then coming to England. In the College of Physicians Heberden held successively various important offices, such as Gulstonian lecturer in 1749, Harveian orator in 1750, Croonian lecturer in 1760, censor and elect. He was made fellow of the Royal Society in February 1749, and honorary member of the Royal Society of Medicine (Paris) in 1778. After more than thirty years' continuous practice in London, when in his seventy-third year, he gave himself partial rest by retiring for the summer months to a house which he had bought at Windsor, but returned to town for the winter. He retired completely from practice some years before his death, which happened at his house in Pall Mall, 17 May 1801. He was buried in the parish church at Windsor, where a monument was erected to his memory.

Heberden was one of the most eminent English physicians of the eighteenth century, and made valuable contributions to the science of medicine. Cowper, Johnson, and Warburton, among others, have commemorated his kindness and skill. It was always his custom to take careful written notes of all noteworthy cases under his care, and these records formed the basis of his famous ‘Commentaries,’ which he began to compile when over seventy years of age, and left to his son to publish after his death. They passed through several editions, English or Latin, both in this country and abroad. Earlier papers were published by him in the ‘Medical Transactions of the College of Physicians,’ a publication of which Heberden was, in 1763, the first promoter. Among these the account of angina pectoris is important as being the first description of that disease; and the paper on chicken-pox is hardly less original. Others with less novelty show conscientious accuracy. He wrote also four papers in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ two of which are on medical subjects. The writings of his Cambridge period, and the lectures of which extracts are given by Pettigrew, are chiefly notable for erudition, which is, however, dominated by a rational scepticism. Heberden was not only a good scholar but a patron of learning. He had printed at his own expense two editions of Euripides—‘Supplices Mulieres,’ 1763; the two plays of ‘Iphigenia,’ 1771—edited by Markland, a scholar whom he held in high esteem, and whose epitaph in Dorking Church he wrote. Heberden also published from a Harleian manuscript in the British Museum Conyers Middleton's ‘Appendix to his Dissertation on the servile Condition of Physicians among the Ancients,’ with a narrative of the curious circumstances which had prevented its earlier publication. It is recorded, on the other hand, that he burned an unpublished manuscript of Middleton's on the ‘Inefficacy of Prayer,’ which he judged to be of an unedifying character, and paid Middleton's widow the sum offered by a bookseller for the manuscript (variously stated as from 50l. to 200l.) He was extremely charitable.

Dr. Johnson spoke of Heberden as ‘Ultimus Romanorum, the last of our learned physicians,’ but he might almost as well have been called the first of the moderns. Soemmering, who brought out his works in Germany, characterised him more aptly as ‘Medicus vere Hippocraticus.’ Dr. W. C. Wells (Works, p. 375) justly says: ‘No other person, either in this or any other country, has ever exercised the art of medicine with the same dignity, or contributed so much to raise it in the estimation of mankind.’

Heberden married (1) in 1752 Elizabeth, daughter of John Martin, M.P.; she died in 1754, leaving him one son, Thomas, canon of Exeter, who was father of Thomas Heberden (d. 1877), physician; (2), in 1760, a daughter of William Wollaston, by whom he had eight children, of whom only two survived their father, one being Dr. William Heberden the younger [q. v.] His portrait, by Sir W. Beechey, is at the College of Physicians, and has been engraved by W. Ward, and also in Pettigrew's collection.

His chief works were: 1. ‘Ἀντιθηριακά, an Essay on Mithridatium and Theriaca,’ 8vo, 1745. 2. ‘Commentarii de Morborum Historia et Curatione,’ 8vo, London, 1802, 1807; Frankfort, 1804; Leipzig, 1805, 1827; English translation (ascribed to Dr. William Heberden, jun.), London, 1803, 1806. 3. In ‘Medical Transactions of College of Physicians:’ vol. i., ‘Of the Night Blindness,’ ‘On the Chicken Pox,’ ‘On the Epidemical Cold of 1767,’ &c.; vol. ii., ‘Of the Hectic Fever,’ ‘Remarks on the Pulse,’ ‘Some Account of a Disorder of the Breast’ (angina pectoris, read 21 July 1768), ‘Of Diseases of the Liver,’ ‘Of the Nettle Rash,’ &c.; vol. iii., ‘Account of the Dissection of one that had been troubled with Angina pectoris’ (dissection by John Hunter), ‘Of the Measles,’ &c. 4. In the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ he wrote: ‘An Account of a very large Human Calculus’ (xlvi. 596), and other papers. 5. ‘A Dissertation on the Daphne [of the Ancients], with a Letter to Dr. Mead, 18 Dec. 1741,’ Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 6269. Letters of Heberden are in Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 29601, f. 285; Eg. MS. 2185, f. 128.

[A short autobiography in Latin is given in facsimile of Heberden's handwriting in Pettigrew's Medical Portrait Gallery, 1839; and a short memoir by his son is prefixed to the Commentaries. Nichols's Lit. Anecd. and Illustr. of Lit., passim; Dr. Macmichael's Gold-headed Cane, 2nd ed. 1828, p. 167; Lives of British Physicians, 1830, p. 198; Munk's Coll. of Phys. 1878, ii. 159; A. C. Buller's Life and Works of Heberden, London, 1879 (gives pedigree); cf. Baker's Hist. of St. John's College, Cambridge, ed. Mayor.]

J. F. P.