Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lettsom, John Coakley

LETTSOM, JOHN COAKLEY (1744–1815), physician, was born on 22 Nov. 1744 at Little Vandyke, one of the Virgin Islands, West Indies, of a quaker family of Cheshire origin. When six years old he was sent to England for his education, and came under the notice of Samuel Fothergill [q. v.], the quaker preacher. He was placed at school with Gilbert Thompson, afterwards a physician, whose academy was celebrated among the Society of Friends. In April 1761 he was apprenticed to Abraham Sutcliff, a surgeon and apothecary at Settle, Yorkshire. Here Lettsom acquired a good knowledge of Latin, and became well versed in botany. At the end of five years' apprenticeship he went to London, introduced by Samuel Fothergill to his brother, Dr. John Fothergill [q. v.], the physician. He became a pupil at St. Thomas's Hospital, under Benjamin Cowell the surgeon, with the physicians Russell, Grieve, and especially Mark Akenside, of whose manners in the hospital he has left an amusing description. He also attended the lectures of Dr. Fordyce, but occupied himself chiefly with carefully studying and taking notes of the cases, at that time an unusual practice, and not pursued by any other pupil of the hospital.

In October 1767 he returned to the West Indies to take possession of a small property left him by his father, the most valuable portion of which consisted of fifty slaves, whom Lettsom, though possessed of no other resources, at once emancipated. He then went into practice at Tortola, and in six months made about 2,000l., on the strength of which capital he returned to London to follow in the steps of the great Fothergill. In October 1768 he entered the university of Edinburgh, where he studied under Cullen and Home. After visiting several universities and health resorts on the continent he graduated M.D. at Leyden on 20 June 1769, with a dissertation, ‘Observationes ad vires Theæ pertinentes,’ 4to, Leyden, 1769. In 1770 he became licentiate of the College of Physicians, and commenced practice in the city of London. By his marriage in the same year with the daughter of John Miers he acquired a considerable fortune. Thus favourably launched, his quaker connections and the recommendation of Dr. Fothergill, who was at that time leaving the city, soon brought him a large practice. In 1770 he became F.S.A., and in 1771 F.R.S., and afterwards joined many other medical and scientific societies. For many years his income amounted to several thousands, but his great munificence, and still more his lavish expenditure, kept him in continual pecuniary difficulties, so that (as he himself explains) constant occupation became a necessity, and for nineteen years he never took a holiday. Towards the close of his life he was compelled to part with his suburban house, Grove Hill, Camberwell, where he had spent immense sums on a museum, library, and botanical garden. This remarkable mansion was described in ‘Grove Hill, a Poem,’ 4to, 1799 [by the Rev. T. Maurice]; ‘Grove Hill, an Horticultural Sketch,’ 4to, 1804. Shortly before his death he came into a large West Indian fortune bequeathed to him and his grandson by the widow of his son, Pickering Lettsom, but did not live long enough to profit by it.

After forty-five years' incessant occupation in his profession, Lettsom died at his house, Sambrook Court, Basinghall Street, on 1 Nov. 1815, and was buried in the Friends' Burying-ground, Coleman Street, Bunhill Row. Lettsom had a large family. One son, Samuel Fothergill, and two daughters, married respectively to Dr. Philip Elliott and Mr. John Elliott of Pimlico, survived him, and left issue. Several children died before him, including his eldest son, John Miers Lettsom (1771–1799), a physician of promise (Gent. Mag. January 1800), and father of William Nanson Lettsom [see ad fin.]

Lettsom was one of the most successful of the long roll of quaker physicians. He was not a rigid quaker, being, to use his own words, ‘a volatile creole, in his nature and essence changeable,’ but he always attended worship, and retained the quaker dress even in the presence of royalty. He was a man of warm heart, active benevolence, and so much perseverance and practical skill as to secure him a very large practice.

In medical science Lettsom achieved nothing of moment, but he rendered important public services as a philanthropist, taking part in the foundation of several valuable institutions. In 1770 he united with others in founding the General Dispensary in Aldersgate Street, the first of its kind in London, and in 1773 became one of its physicians, when he published an anonymous pamphlet advocating its claims (‘On the Improvement of Medicine in London on the basis of the Public Good,’ 8vo, London, 1773). In the next year he brought out ‘Medical Memoirs of the General Dispensary,’ containing records of cases observed there. He also assisted Dr. Hawes and others in founding the Royal Humane Society, and the establishment of the Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary at Margate was largely due to him. Lettsom's name is, however, chiefly connected with the Medical Society of London, of which he was one of the original founders, and which he enriched by the gift of a freehold house in Bolt Court, Fleet Street, of a considerable library, and by the foundation of a gold medal (called after his patron ‘the Fothergillian’) to be given annually for a medical essay. His own name is still commemorated in the ‘Lettsomian Lectures’ given in the society. In 1812 he became president of the newly founded Philosophical Society of London, and contributed to it several lectures.

In early life Lettsom was a supporter of inoculation for the small-pox, aiding in the foundation of the Society for General Inoculation, and publishing pamphlets on the subject, one of which brought him into a controversy with Henry, baron Dimsdale [q. v.] But when vaccination was introduced he became an ardent advocate in print and otherwise of the new practice, and warmly supported Jenner's claims to public recognition. He took also an active part in promoting the erection of a memorial to John Howard. Another subject in which he interested himself was the introduction of the mangel-wurzel, first brought into notice by Sir Richard Jebb in 1786. Lettsom translated a pamphlet on the subject (‘An Account of the Mangel-Wurzel, or Root of Scarcity,’ from the French of the Abbé de Commerell, 8vo, 1787), grew the seed himself, and imported a large quantity, which he distributed to farmers and others in this country as well as in Europe, America, and the West Indies. The diminution of intemperance, the study of anatomy, the relief of distress, the reform of prisons, the keeping of bees, &c., were other topics which his indefatigable public spirit led him to take up and write about.

Lettsom's literary activity was the more remarkable, because most of his works as well as his private letters were written in his carriage while driving about to see his patients. His multifarious writings may be arranged under three heads: I. Medical and scientific; II. Biographical; III. Popular and philanthropic. Of the first class the following may be mentioned: 1. ‘Reflections on the General Treatment and Cure of Fevers,’ 8vo, 1772. 2. ‘The Natural History of the Tea Tree, with Observations on its Medical Qualities,’ &c., 4to, London, 1772; 2nd edit. 1799. An expansion of his Leyden dissertation, containing an accurate botanical description of the plant, by which Linnæus, in a complimentary letter, allowed himself corrected (Pettigrew, Life, ii. 583). 3. ‘The Naturalist's and Traveller's Companion,’ 8vo, 1773; 3rd edit. 1799. 4. ‘History of the Origin of Medicine, an Oration at the Medical Society,’ 4to, 1778. The notes show much miscellaneous learning. French translation by M. H***, London and Paris, 1787. 5. ‘Hints respecting the Chlorosis of Boarding Schools,’ 8vo, 1795. 6. ‘Observations on the Cow Pock,’ 1st edit. 4to, 1801 (privately printed); 2nd edit. 8vo, 1801. He published also twenty-seven papers in the ‘Memoirs,’ 1792–1805, and the ‘Transactions of the Medical Society of London,’ 1810. The most important observation is that on the effects of alcoholic excess on the nervous system in women, contained in a paper, ‘Some Remarks on the Effects of Lignum Quassiæ Amaræ’ (Memoirs, vol. i.), and repeated in a pamphlet ‘On the Effects of Hard Drinking,’ 4to, 1791. He also wrote in other medical journals, and one paper of no moment in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ 1786.

II. His biographical writings were: ‘Life of John Fothergill,’ in his ‘Works’ (edited by Lettsom, 3 vols. 8vo, 1783); one vol. 4to, 1784. The fourth edition of the ‘Memoirs,’ 8vo, 1786, contains also memoirs of William Cuming, George Cleghorn, Alexander Russell, and Peter Collinson. He wrote also memoirs of William Hewson (‘Trans. Med. Soc.’ vol. i. pt. i.), of James Johnstone (ib. vol. i. pt. ii.), and of Edward Jenner (oration at Medical Society, 8 March 1804); obituary notice of Baron Dimsdale (anonymous, in ‘European Magazine,’ August 1802); ‘Recollections of Dr. Rush,’ 8vo, London, 1815.

III. Lettsom was a frequent contributor to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ either in his own name or using a pseudonym, such as ‘One of the Faculty,’ ‘J. C. Mottles,’ &c., and also to the ‘Monthly Ledger,’ a quaker magazine, there also using various signatures. Many of these productions were collected and published with the title ‘Hints designed to Promote Beneficence, Temperance, and Medical Science,’ 3 vols. 8vo, 1801. He carried on a copious correspondence with scientific men and doctors in various parts, much of which is printed in Pettigrew's ‘Life.’ Lettsom's own letters are lively and interesting, containing vivid descriptions of contemporaries.

Of Lettsom's manuscripts the library of the Medical Society contains a quarto volume of his notes of Fordyce's ‘Lectures on Medicine and Materia Medica;’ and another containing notes on the ‘Practice of Physick,’ probably Cullen's lectures at Edinburgh. The Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society possesses six vols. 4to of ‘Materia Medica, imitated after the manner of Dr. Francis Home,’ founded apparently on Home's lectures at Edinburgh, 1768–9.

The Medical Society possesses an interesting oil painting by Medley of its early members, in which Lettsom occupies a prominent place, and another portrait of him in oils. There is an engraved portrait by W. Skelton, 1817, in Pettigrew's ‘Life,’ one by Holloway, ad vivum, in Nichols's ‘Literary Illustrations,’ ii. 657, and another by Holloway in ‘European Magazine,’ December 1876.

Lettsom's eldest grandson, William Nanson Lettsom (1796–1865), man of letters, was son of John Miers Lettsom, M.D., by Rachel, daughter of William Nanson, and was born 4 Feb. 1796. He passed from Eton to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1818 and M.A. in 1822, and won the prizes for the Latin ode and two epigrams in 1816, and that for the ode again in 1817. Possessed of ample means, he devoted his life to a study of literature, both ancient and modern. He published an able translation of the ‘Nibelungenlied’ with the title ‘The Fall of the Nebelungers; otherwise the book of Kriemhild’ in 1850, and carefully edited from the author's manuscripts William Sidney Walker's ‘Shakespeare's Versification’ (1854) and his ‘Critical Examination of the Text of Shakespeare’ (1860). His friend, Alexander Dyce [q. v.], acknowledged much aid from Lettsom in his preparation of his edition of ‘Shakespeare.’ Lettsom also interested himself in textual criticism of the New Testament. He died on 3 Sept. 1865 at Westbourne Park, Paddington (Gent. Mag. 1865, ii. 790–1).

[Memoirs of J. C. Lettsom, with a selection from his Correspondence, by T. J. Pettigrew, 3 vols. 8vo, 1817; Nichols's Lit. Illustr. ii. 657; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. vols. ii. iii. iv. (see Index); Gent. Mag. November 1815; European Mag. June 1783, December 1786, November 1815; Authentic Memoirs of Physicians and Surgeons, 2nd edit., 8vo, 1818, p. 100; Munk's Coll. of Phys. ii. 287; Georgian Era, ii. 417–21; Smith's Friends' Books, ii. 101–7; Gent. Mag. 1791, i. 367.]

J. F. P.