Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Freke, John

FREKE, JOHN (1688–1756), surgeon, son of John Freke, also a surgeon, who died 28 July 1717, was born in London in 1688. A portrait of the father was engraved by Vertue in 1708. The son (Noble, Biog. Hist. ii. 236) was apprenticed to Mr. Blundell and was elected assistant-surgeon to St. Bartholomew's Hospital in 1726. Soon after he was appointed the first curator of the hospital museum, which was then located in a single room under the cutting ward. The calculi which the surgeons had before been accustomed to place in the counting-house when they received payment of their bills for operations were placed in this room, and probably arranged by Freke. In 1727 a minute records that 'through a tender regard for the deplorable state of blind people the governors think it proper to appoint Mr. John Freke one of the assistant-surgeons of this house to couch and take care of the diseases of the eyes of such poor persons as shall be thought by him fitt for the operation, and for no other reward than the six shillings and eightpence for each person so couched as is paid on other operations.' He was elected surgeon 24 July 1729, and held office till 1755, when gout and infirmity compelled him to resign. Besides being one of the chief surgeons within the city of London he was reputed in his day a man of parts, learned in science, a judge of painting and of music. He thought Hogarth superior to Vandyck, but was adversely criticised by Hogarth when he put Dr. Maurice Greene, organist of St. Paul's, above Handel as a composer. He was elected F.R.S. 6 Nov. 1729, and in the 'Philosophical Transactions' 1736, he described a case of bony growth seen in a boy aged 14 years at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, and on 23 June 1743 read before the Royal Society a description of an instrument he had invented for the reduction of dislocations of the shoulder joint. He was dexterous with his hands and carved a chandelier of oak, gilt, which at present hangs in the steward's office of the hospital, bearing the inscription 'Johannis Freke hujusce nosocomii chirurgi, 1735.' He made experiments in electricity and published in 1748 ' An Essay to show the Cause of Electricity and why some things are Non-Electricable, in which is also considered its Influence in the Blasts on Human Bodies, in the Blights on Trees, in the Damps in Mines, and as it may affect the Sensitive Plant.' Freke supposed that the cause of the closing of the leaves of the sensitive plant when touched was that it discharged electricity, and he devised an experiment to illustrate this, in which a small tree was placed in a pot upon a cake of resin and then electrified. He found that the leaves stood erect, falling down as soon as the electricity was discharged by touching the plant. He further conjectured that pollen was attracted from the stamen of one plant to the stigma of another by electricity. The phosphorescence of the sea which he had observed himself he attributed to the same cause, and went on to the still wilder suppositions that the insects in blighted leaves come there in electric currents, and that electricity is the cause of acute rheumatism. This essay with two others was republished in 1752 as 'A Treatise on the Nature and Property of Fire.' Fielding seems to have known Freke, and twice mentions him, once with his full name, in 'Tom Jones.' ' We wish Mr. John Fr— or some other such philosopher would bestir himself a little in order to find out the real cause of this sudden transition from good to bad fortune' (Tom Jones, 1st ed. i. 74), and in the fourth book, where the contagious effect of the blows of Black George's switch is described,' to say the truth, as they both operate by friction, it may be doubted whether there is not something analogous between them of which Mr. Freke would do well to enquire before he publishes the next edition of his book.' In 1748 Freko published 'An Essay on the Art of Healing, in which pus laudabile, or matter, and also incarning and cicatrising, and the causes of various diseases are endeavoured to be accounted for both from nature and reason.' He had accurately observed the difficulty of extirpating all infected lymphatics in operations for cancer of the breast and the danger of not removing them. The most original remark in the book is his recommendation of early paracentesis in empyema. His method was to divide the skin and muscles with a knife, to break through the pleura with his finger, and to insert a canula in the wound. He married Elizabeth, eldest daughter of his instructor, Richard Blundell. She died 16 Nov. 1741, and he obtained formal leave from the governors of St. Bartholomew's to bury her in the church of St. Bartholomew-the-Less. When he resigned the office of surgeon he asked permission to be buried there when he died, and dying 7 Nov. 1756 was entombed beside her under the canopy of a fifteenth-century tomb, the original owner of which was forgotten. A contemporary bust of Freke in the hospital library shows him to have had large irregular features and a somewhat stern expression.

[Works; Manuscript Minute Book of St. Bartholomew's Hospital; inscription on tomb in church of St. Bartholomew-the-Less; Wadd's Nugæ Chirurgicæ, 1824; Dr. W.S. Church's Our Hospital Pharmacopœia and Apothecary's Shop; St. Bartholomew's Hospital Reports, vol. xxii. 1886.]

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