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Wakley, Thomas (DNB00)

WAKLEY, THOMAS (1795–1862), reformer, born at Membury in Devonshire on 11 July 1795, was the youngest son of Henry Wakley (1750–1842) of Membury. He was educated at the grammar schools of Chard and Honiton, and at Wiveliscombe in Somerset. When fifteen years of age he was apprenticed to a Taunton apothecary named Incledon. He was afterwards transferred to his brother-in-law, Phelps, a surgeon of Beaminster, as a pupil, and from him passed to Coulson at Henley-on-Thames. In 1815 he proceeded to London to study at the united schools of St. Thomas's and Guy's, known as the Borough Hospitals. The greater part of his medical knowledge was gained, however, at the private school of anatomy in Webb Street, founded by Edward Grainger [q. v.], who was assisted by his brother, Richard Dugard Grainger [q. v.] In October 1817 he qualified for membership of the Royal College of Surgeons, and in the following year went into private practice in the city, taking up his residence in Gerard's Hall. In 1819, with the assistance of Joseph Goodchild, a governor of St. Thomas's Hospital, to whose daughter he was engaged, he purchased a practice at the top of Regent Street. About six months after his marriage, on 27 Aug. 1820, he was murderously assaulted by several men and his house burnt to the ground. The authors of these outrages were never traced, but by some it was conjectured that they were members of Thistlewood's gang, an unfounded rumour having gone abroad that Wakley was the masked man in the disguise of a sailor who was present at the execution of Thistlewood and his companions on 1 May 1820, and who decapitated the dead bodies in accordance with the sentence. Wakley had furnished his house handsomely and insured his belongings, but the Hope Fire Assurance Company refused payment, alleging that he had destroyed his own house. The matter was brought before the king's bench on 21 June 1821, when Wakley was awarded the full amount of his claim with costs. He found that his practice, however, had totally disappeared during the nine or ten months of enforced inaction that followed his wounds, and two years later he settled in practice at the north-east corner of Norfolk Street, Strand. Although the charge of incendiarism was impossible, it was several times revived by ungenerous opponents in the course of his controversies, and on 21 June 1826 Wakley obtained 100l. damages from James Johnson (1777–1845) [q. v.] for a libel in the ‘Medico-Chirurgical Journal,’ in which, with more malice than wit, he compared him to Lucifer.

During this period of his life Wakley made the acquaintance of William Cobbett [q. v.], who also believed himself destined to be a victim of the Thistlewood gang. Under Cobbett's radical influence he became more keenly alive to the nepotism and jobbery prevalent among leading surgeons. In 1823 he founded the ‘Lancet,’ with the primary object of disseminating recent medical information, hitherto too much regarded as the exclusive property of members of the London hospitals, and also with a view to exposing the family intrigues that influenced the appointments in the metropolitan hospitals and medical corporations. For the first ten years of its existence the ‘Lancet’ provoked a succession of fierce encounters between the editor and the members of the privileged classes in medicine. In the first number, which appeared on 5 Oct., Wakley made a daring departure in commencing a series of shorthand reports of hospital lectures. These reports were obnoxious to the lecturers, who feared that such publicity might diminish their gains and expose their shortcomings. On 10 Dec. 1824 John Abernethy (1764–1831) [q. v.], the senior surgeon of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, applied to the court of chancery for an injunction to restrain the ‘Lancet’ from publishing his lectures. The injunction was refused by Lord Eldon, on the ground that official lectures in a public place for the public good had no copyright vested in them. On 10 June 1825, however, a second application was granted, on the plea that lectures could not be published for profit by a pupil who paid only to hear them. The injunction was, however, dissolved on 28 Nov., because hospital lectures were delivered in a public capacity and were therefore public property. After this decision the heads of the medical profession decided to admit the right of the medical public to peruse their lectures, a right which the greatest of them, Sir Astley Paston Cooper [q. v.], had already tacitly allowed by promising to make no attempt to hinder the publication of his lectures, on condition that his name was omitted in the report.

On 9 Nov. 1823 Wakley commenced in the ‘Lancet’ a regular series of ‘Hospital Reports,’ containing particulars of notable operations in the London hospitals. The irritation produced by these reports, and by some remarks on nepotism at St. Thomas's, led to the order for his exclusion from the hospital on 22 May 1824, an order to which, however, he paid no regard. About 1825 he commenced making severe reflections on cases of malpraxis in the hospitals, which culminated on 29 March 1828 in a description of a terribly bungling operation of lithotomy by Bransby Blake Cooper, surgeon at Guy's Hospital, and nephew of Sir Astley Paston Cooper, in which it was plainly asserted that Bransby Cooper was ‘surgeon because he was nephew.’ Cooper sued Wakley for libel, and obtained a verdict, but with damages so small as practically to establish Wakley's main contention of malpraxis. Wakley's expenses were defrayed by public subscription.

These were not the only lawsuits in which Wakley was involved as editor of the ‘Lancet.’ On 25 Feb. 1825 Frederick Tyrrell [q. v.] obtained 50l. damages in an action for libel arising out of the ‘Lancet's’ review of his edition of Cooper's ‘Lectures,’ and somewhat later Roderick Macleod [q. v.] obtained 5l. damages for reflections in the ‘Lancet’ on his conduct as editor of the ‘London Medical and Physical Journal.’

In 1836 the ‘Lancet,’ which was at first published from Bolt Court by Gilbert Linney Hutchinson, was removed to offices in Essex Street, Strand, Wakley acting in reality as his own publisher. Six years later John Churchill undertook the responsibility from his own place of business in Prince's Street, Leicester Square. In 1847 Wakley again became his own publisher, and removed the ‘Lancet’ to its present offices at 423 Strand.

While Wakley was attacking hospital administration he was also carrying on a campaign against the Royal College of Surgeons. The contest arose out of the hospital controversy. In March 1824 the court of examiners issued a by-law making it compulsory for medical students to attend the lectures of the hospital surgeons, unless they obtained certificates from the professors of anatomy and surgery in the university of Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, or Aberdeen. Wakley, who remembered his own studies under Edward and Richard Grainger, censured the regulation because it excluded many of the best anatomists from teaching to the evident disadvantage of the students. On inquiry he found that the court of examiners, which was self-elected, was entirely recruited from the hospital surgeons. Seeing the hopelessness of redress from such a body, he shifted his ground and boldly assailed the constitution of the college. The college had been reconstituted by royal charter in March 1800 on an oligarchic basis, after an attempt to procure a similar constitution by act of parliament had been defeated in the House of Lords by a general petition of the ordinary members presented by Lord Thurlow. At the present crisis Wakley advised that the whole body of surgeons should again petition parliament, requesting it to abrogate the existing charter and grant a new one, in which it should be a fundamental principle that any official vested with power to make by-laws should be appointed by the suffrage of all the members of the college. Supported by James Wardrop [q. v.], surgeon to George IV, Wakley commenced an agitation against the governing body of the college, which received large support, especially from country surgeons. Vigorous protests against various abuses from correspondents in all parts of England appeared in the ‘Lancet,’ and on 18 Feb. 1826 the first public meeting of members of the college was convened by Wakley at the Freemasons' Tavern. The meeting were about to draw up a remonstrance to the council of the college, when Wakley, telling them that they ‘might as well remonstrate with the devil as with this constitutionally rotten concern,’ prevailed on them in an impassioned speech to petition parliament at once to abrogate the charter. The petition was presented in parliament by Henry Warburton [q. v.] on 20 June 1827, and the House of Commons ordered a return to be made of public money lent or granted to the college. The victory, however, proved barren, the influence of the council being too strong with government to prevent further steps being taken. Wakley's own relations with the governing body did not improve, and early in 1831, while protesting against a slight put upon naval surgeons by an order of the admiralty, he was ejected from the college theatre by a detachment of Bow Street officers, acting on the orders of the council. In 1843 a partial reform in the constitution of the college was effected by the abolition of the self-electing council and the creation of fellows with no limit of number, to whom the electoral privileges were confided. Wakley, however, denounced this compromise as creating an invidious distinction within the ranks of the profession, and his view is largely justified by the state of feeling at the present day.

Finding himself thwarted in his efforts by the coldness of politicians, he resolved himself to enter parliament. He removed from Norfolk Street about 1825 to Thistle Grove (now Drayton Gardens), South Kensington, and in 1828 to 35 Bedford Square. He first made himself known in Finsbury by supporting the reduction of the local rates. In 1832 and 1834 he unsuccessfully contested the borough, but on 10 Jan. 1835 he was returned. He made a great impression in the House of Commons by a speech delivered on 25 June 1835 on behalf of six Dorset labourers sentenced to fourteen years' transportation under the law of conspiracy for combining to resist the reduction of their wages. The effect produced by his speech eventually led to their pardon. He soon gained the respect of the house as an authority on medical matters, and was able by his forcible eloquence to command attention also on general topics. In 1836 he successfully introduced the medical witnesses bill, providing for the proper remuneration of medical men called to assist at post-mortem examinations. In 1840 he succeeded in preventing the post of public vaccinators being confined to poor-law medical officers alone by obtaining a modification of the wording of Sir James Graham's vaccination bill. In 1841 he strongly supported the extramural burial bill [see Walker, George Alfred]. In 1846 he brought in a bill to establish a uniform system of registration of qualified medical practitioners in Great Britain and Ireland. Though the bill did not pass, it led to the thorough sifting of the question before a select committee, whose deliberations resulted in the Medical Act of 1858, in which Wakley's registration clauses were adopted almost entire. Wakley did not, however, entirely approve of that act, holding that there should be more direct representation of the body of the profession in the medical council instituted by the act. Among other important parliamentary work, he obtained the material reduction of the newspaper stamp duties in 1836. He was an ardent reformer with strong sympathies with the chartists, an advocate for the repeal of the Irish union, a strenuous opponent of the corn laws, and an enemy to lawyers. He retired from parliament in 1852, finding that the pressure of work left him no leisure for his duties. On the foundation of ‘Punch’ in 1841 Wakley's parliamentary action became a favourite theme of satire, and he was constantly represented in the pages of the new journal. His assertion in speaking against the copyright act in 1842 that he could write ‘respectable’ poetry by the mile was singled out for special ridicule, and received a genial reproof from Tom Hood in his ‘Whimsicalities’ (London, 1844).

In 1851 he commenced in the ‘Lancet’ a most useful movement by issuing the results of analyses of food-stuffs in general consumption by the nation. The inquiry, conducted under the title ‘The “Lancet” Analytical Sanitary Commission,’ was an uncompromising attack on the prevalent adulteration and sophistication of food. The investigation, commencing in London, was carried in 1857 into several of the great provincial towns. It immediately caused considerable diminution in adulteration, and in 1855 a parliamentary committee was appointed to consider the subject. The result of the inquiry was the adulteration act of 1860, known as Scholefield's Act [see Scholefield, William], which rendered penal adulterations which affected the health of consumers. Wakley was only moderately satisfied with the act, which did not deal with the fraudulent aspect of adulteration, and which left the appointment of analysts to the option of the local authorities. The former defect was amended in the Sale of Foods and Drugs Acts of 1875 and 1879.

Wakley is perhaps better known to memory as coroner for West Middlesex than as radical politician or medical reformer. He held the opinion that the duties of corner required a medical rather than legal education. He supported his views in the ‘Lancet’ by numerous examples drawn from contemporary inquests, and on 24 Aug. 1830 presented himself to a meeting of freeholders at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, Strand, as the first medical candidate for the post of coroner of East Middlesex. He was narrowly defeated at the poll, but on 25 Feb. 1839 he was elected coroner for West Middlesex. His efforts to raise the status of coroner's juries and establish a decorous mode of procedure at inquests aroused considerable dislike, and he was accused of holding too frequent inquests, especial objection being taken to his holding inquests on those who died in prisons, asylums, and almshouses. On 10 Oct. 1839 the Middlesex magistrates refused to pass the coroner's accounts, but a committee from their body, appointed to investigate the charges, completely justified Wakley's procedure. His position was finally established on 27 July 1840 by the favourable report of a parliamentary committee appointed to inquire into these and subsequent points of dispute. The numerous instances of practical sagacity and of professional skill which Wakley gave in conducting inquests gradually won popular opinion completely to his side. His humanity gained enthusiastic praise from Dickens, who was summoned to serve on a jury in 1841. The most conspicuous example of his power was in 1846 in the case of Frederick John White. In the face of the testimony of army medical officers, the jury, instructed by independent medical witnesses, returned a verdict that the deceased, a private soldier, died from the effects of a flogging to which he had been sentenced. Their verdict produced such an impression that this method of military punishment fell almost at once into comparative disuse, and was almost unknown when formally abolished by the Army Act of 1881.

Wakley acquired some fame as an exposer of charlatans. It was chiefly through his action that John St. John Long [q. v.] was brought to justice in 1830. In the same year, on 4 Feb., he discredited Chabert, the ‘Fire King,’ in the Argyll Rooms, and on 16 Aug. 1838 he conclusively showed at a séance held at his house in Bedford Square that John Elliotson [q. v.], the senior physician of University College Hospital, a believer in mesmerism, had been duped in his experiments by two hysterical girls. His remonstrances concerning the unfair treatment of medical referees by assurance companies led to the establishment in 1851 of the New Equitable Life Assurance Company, and to a great improvement in the conduct of assurance agencies in general. At the time of his death he projected an inquiry into the working of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which he thoroughly detested. The inquiry, however, did not take place until three years later.

Wakley died at Madeira on 16 May 1862, and was buried on 14 June at Kensal Green cemetery. On 5 Feb. 1820 he married the youngest daughter of Joseph Goodchild, a merchant of Tooley Street, London. She died in 1857, leaving three sons. The eldest son, Thomas Henry Wakley, senior proprietor of the ‘Lancet,’ born 20 March 1821, died 6 April 1907. The youngest, James Goodchild, succeeded his father as editor of the ‘Lancet.’ On his death in 1886 his brother Thomas Henry and his son Thomas became co-editors.

The interests of Wakley's life were various, but the motives governing his action were always the same. He hated injustice, especially when he found it in alliance with power. Athletic in bodily habit, he possessed a mind no less fitted for successful strife. Though he aroused strenuous opposition and bitter ill will among his contemporaries, time has proved his contentions in every instance of importance to be just. Some of the abuses he denounced are still in existence, but their harmfulness is acknowledged; the greater number have been swept away, chiefly through his vigorous action. He was not accustomed to handle an opponent gently, and many passages in his earlier diatribes are almost scurrilous. But no feeling of personal malice entered into his controversies; he spoke or wrote solely with a view to portraying clearly injustice or wrongdoing, and never with the purpose of paining or humiliating an enemy. Many who opposed him on particular questions became afterwards friends and supporters. A bust of Wakley by John Bell stands in the hall of the ‘Lancet’ office. A portrait, painted by K. Meadows, has been engraved by W. H. Egleton.

[Sprigge's Life of Wakley, 1897 (with portraits); Report of the Trial of Cooper v. Wakley, 1829; Francis's Orators of the Age, 1847, pp. 301–21; Lancet, 1862, i. 609; Gent. Mag. 1862, ii. 364; Corrected Report of the Speeches delivered by Mr. Lawrence at Two Meetings of Members of the Royal College of Surgeons, 1826; Day's Brief Sketch of the Hounslow Inquest, 1849; Gardiner's Facts relative to the late Fire and Attempt to murder Mr. Wakley, 1820; Wallas's Life of Francis Place, 1898.]

E. I. C.