Wells, William Charles (DNB00)

WELLS, WILLIAM CHARLES (1757–1817), physician, second son of Robert and Mary Wells, emigrants from Scotland, was born in Charlestown, South Carolina, on 24 May 1757. His father, who had settled in Carolina in 1753, was a printer, and was so much attached to the loyalist cause that he made his son wear a tartan coat and blue bonnet, so that he might be known to be a Scot at heart and not an American. He was sent to school at Dumfries in 1768, and went thence to the university of Edinburgh in 1770, but in 1771 returned to Carolina, and was apprenticed to Dr. Alexander Garden [q. v.] of Charlestown, with whom he remained till the rebellion broke out in 1775, and then returned to Great Britain and began regular medical studies at Edinburgh, where he resided till 1778. He then attended Dr. William Hunter's lectures in London, and became a student of St. Bartholomew's Hospital. He went to Holland in 1779 as surgeon in a Scottish regiment in the Dutch service, but resigned in consequence of the tyrannical conduct of the colonel, and went to study medicine at Leyden in 1780 for three months. He there prepared a thesis ‘De Frigore,’ and graduated M.D. at Edinburgh on 24 July 1780. He returned to Carolina to look after his father's property in 1781, and went thence in December 1782 to St. Augustine, East Florida, where he put together a press, which he had brought in pieces, and published a weekly newspaper. He was also a volunteer captain, and acted, from his recollection of Garrick's performance of the rôle, the part of Lusignan in ‘Zara.’ He returned to England in May 1784, and, after three months in Paris in 1785, put his name on a door-plate in London, but passed several years without receiving a fee; and at the end of ten years earned a professional income of 250l. He was admitted a licentiate of the College of Physicians on 17 March 1788, was elected physician to the Finsbury Dispensary on 3 Sept. 1789, and held office till 11 Dec. 1799. In November 1795 he was elected assistant physician to St. Thomas's Hospital and in 1800 physician, which office he held till his death. He published in 1792 ‘An Essay upon Single Vision with Two Eyes,’ and in November 1793 was elected F.R.S. In the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ he published papers ‘On the Influence which incites the Muscles of Animals to contract, in Mr. Galvani's Experiments’ (1795), ‘On the Colour of the Blood’ (1797), ‘On Vision’ (1811). He began an inquiry into the nature of dew, and published ‘An Essay on Dew’ in 1814. He demonstrated, after a series of well-arranged observations made in the garden in Surrey of his friend James Dunsmure, that dew is the result of a preceding cold in the substances on which it appears, and that the cold which produces dew is itself produced by the radiation of heat from those bodies upon which dew is deposited. For this, the first exact explanation of the phenomena of dew, he was awarded the Rumford medal of the Royal Society. He also published twelve excellent medical papers in the second and third volumes of the ‘Transactions of a Society for the Promotion of Medical and Chirurgical Knowledge;’ two letters in reply to some remarks of Dr. Erasmus Darwin in his ‘Zoonomia,’ and several biographical notices in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine.’ He died on 18 Sept. 1817 in London, at his lodgings in Serjeants' Inn, and was buried in St. Bride's, Fleet Street, where a tablet was erected to his memory. During his last illness he dictated an autobiography to his friend Samuel Patrick, which was published with his chief works in 1818. The largest annual income he received was 764l. He never had a banking account and left about 600l., including his books, furniture, and gold medal. He was obliged to live very frugally, but was constant in devotion to science and most exact in his observations. He had a difference with the College of Physicians, the grounds of which he explained in a published letter to Lord Kenyon, and when asked if he wished to be a fellow, replied in the negative; but Matthew Baillie [q. v.], David Pitcairn [q. v.], and William Lister, all fellows of the college, were warmly attached to him, and helped him at much as was possible in practice.

[Works; Munk's Coll. of Phys. ii. 379.]

N. M.