Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Percival, Thomas (1740-1804)

PERCIVAL, THOMAS (1740–1804), physician and author, born at Warrington, Lancashire, 29 Sept. 1740, was son of Joseph Percival, who was engaged in business in Warrington and married Margaret Orred. His grandfather, Peter Percival, younger son of an old Cheshire yeoman family farming an estate they had long held near Latchford, practised physic in Warrington. Both his parents dying within a few days of one another, when Thomas, their only surviving son, was three, he was left to the care of an elder sister. His education was begun at the grammar school at Warrington, but in 1750, when he was ten, Thomas Percival, M.D., his father's eldest brother, a physician in the town and district round Warrington, died, and left him a valuable library and a moderate competency. Percival resolved to qualify himself for the profession of medicine. He was a dissenter, and was known in later life as a staunch unitarian. In 1757 he is said to have been the first student enrolled at the newly established Warrington academy which was founded to give a collegiate education to those who were debarred by the necessity of subscription to the Thirty-nine articles from entering the English universities. On the completion of his course at Warrington he proceeded to the university of Edinburgh, where he formed lasting friendships with Robertson the historian, David Hume, and other distinguished men. While still a student at Edinburgh he spent a year in London, where he became known to many scientific men, and through the influence of its vice-president, Lord Willoughby de Parham, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. It is said that he was the youngest man at that time on whom that honour had been conferred. From Edinburgh he proceeded to Leyden, where he completed his medical studies, and took his degree 6 July 1765. For two years he practised his profession in his native town, and married Elizabeth, the only surviving child of Nathaniel Basnett, merchant, of London. In 1767 he removed to Manchester, where he at once made many friends. Abandoning an original intention of going to London, he resided in that town the remainder of his life. He soon made a reputation by contributing papers to ‘Philosophical’ transactions, and various periodicals, and his essays, medical and experimental, issued 1767–76, attracted wide attention. In 1775 he published the first of three parts of ‘A Father's Instructions;’ the concluding part was not issued till 1800. This book for children achieved great popularity. In reply to Dr. Price's ‘Treatise on Reversionary Payments,’ Percival wrote his ‘Proposals for establishing more accurate and comprehensive Bills of Mortality in Manchester.’

Keenly sympathising with the poor and the quickly growing artisan population of the town and district, he helped to form a committee to enforce proper sanitation in Manchester. He advocated the establishment of public baths, and may also be considered as the earliest advocate of factory legislation. On 25 Jan. 1796 he addressed the Manchester committee or board of health on certain evils which had been developed by the growth of the factory system, and recommended legislative interference with the conditions of factory labour. In other directions his energy was no less apparent. At his house the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society was brought into being in 1781. He was elected a vice-president on its foundation, and from 1782, with one exception, he occupied the presidential chair till his death. In 1785 Percival aided in the removal to Manchester of the Warrington academy, and took a great interest in its management. An endeavour on the part of Percival and his friends to found a college of arts and sciences proved unsuccessful, but the scheme was accomplished half a century later under the will of John Owens [q. v.] Percival's charm of manner and wide learning gained him friends and correspondents among the most distinguished men and women of his time, both in Europe and America. He died at his house in Manchester 30 Aug. 1804, leaving a widow and three surviving sons. He was buried in Warrington church, where there is an epitaph by his friend, Dr. Samuel Parr. Another memorial tablet is placed above the president's chair in the rooms of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. The society possesses a portrait of Percival painted from a miniature in the possession of his grandson. A silhouette portrait is given in Kendrick's ‘Warrington Worthies.’

Percival published ‘Medical Ethics,’ 1803; it was republished in 1827 and edited by Dr. Greenhill in 1849. A series of extracts came out at Philadelphia in 1823. Percival's son, Edward Percival, M.D., wrote ‘Practical Observations on Typhus Fever,’ 1819, and contributed to vol. ii. of the ‘Edinburgh Review’ an essay on Dr. William Shepherd's ‘Life of Poggio.’ He also edited the works of his father, with a prefatory memoir, published at Bath in 1807, in four volumes.

[Memoir by his son; Angus Smith's Centenary of Science in Manchester; Espinasse's Lancashire Worthies, 2nd ser.; Hunter's Familiæ Minorum Gentium (Harleian Soc.), i. 121; British Museum Catalogue; Catalogue of Surgeon-Generals' Library, Washington, x. 683; Kendrick's Warrington Worthies; family notes in the writer's possession.]

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