Thomas Wakley (11 July 1795 – 16 May 1862) was an English surgeon. He gained fame as a social reformer who campaigned against incompetence, privilege and nepotism. He was the founding editor of The Lancet , a radical Member of Parliament (MP) and a celebrated coroner.
He was born in Membury, Devon, to a prosperous farmer and his wife. His father, Henry Wakley (1750–26 August 1842), inherited property, leased neighbouring land and became a large farmer by the standards of the day and a government Commissioner on the Enclosure of Waste Land. He was described as a 'just but severe parent' and, with his wife, had eleven children, eight sons and three daughters. 3 Thomas was the youngest son, and attended the grammar school at Chard, then Taunton Grammar School. In his early teens, he was apprenticed to a Taunton apothecary. Young Wakley was a sportsman and a boxer: he fought bare-fisted in public houses.:
After a brief period at sea, he went to London, where he attended anatomy classes at St Thomas's Hospital, and he enrolled in the United Hospitals of St. Thomas's Hospital and Guy's. 15 The dominant personality at these two hospitals was Sir Astley Cooper FRS (1768–1841). Wakley qualified as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) in 1817. A surgeon at 22, he set up in practice in Regent Street and in 1820 married Elizabeth Goodchild, whose father was a merchant and a governor of St Thomas' Hospital. They had three sons and a daughter, who died young. His eldest son, Henry Membury Wakley, became a barrister and sat as deputy coroner under his father. His youngest son, James Goodchild Wakley, and his middle son, Thomas Henry Wakley, became joint editors of The Lancet.:
All through his career, Wakley proved to be a man of aggressive personality, and his experiences had a sensational beginning. In August 1820 a gang of men (reputedly, the Thistlewood gang) that had some imagined grievance against him burnt down his house and severely wounded him in a murderous assault. The whole affair is obscure. The assault may have been a follow-up to the Cato Street conspiracy, whose supporters believed (wrongly) that the hangman was a surgeon. 24–32 Wakley was indirectly accused by the insurance company, which had refused his claim, of setting fire to his house himself. He won his case against the company.:
Wakley's death, on 16 May 1862 in Madeira, was occasioned by pulmonary haemorrhage after a fall from a boat in the harbour. 494 Wakley's three sons survived him, and the Lancet remained in Wakley hands for two more generations. His funeral was a very private affair, attendance restricted to family and close friends; the long-term consequences of his radicalism were eventually appreciated, at least to some extent. Wakley is interred in the catacombs of Kensal Green Cemetery (alcove 59, compartment 13 ) alongside his wife Elizabeth (alcove 59, compartment 16), who had died three years earlier. There is a blue plaque on his house in Bedford Square, London, and further plaques in the grounds of the Harefield Hospital in Uxbridge, Land Farm in Membury, and Membury parish church .He had been in declining health for about ten years, the symptoms being entirely consistent with tuberculosis. :
In 1823, he started the now well-known medical weekly, The Lancet , with William Cobbett, William Lawrence, James Wardrop and a libel lawyer as associates. It was extremely successful: by 1830, it had a circulation of about 4,000. In 1828, one of his accounts of medical negligence accused Bransby Cooper (the nephew of Sir Astley Cooper, the General Surgeon) of incompetence in causing a patient immense suffering as he attempted to extract a bladder stone through a cut beneath the scrotum. Such operations were regularly completed in only a minute's time by excellent surgeons such as the previous century's William Cheselden, but Cooper took more than an hour and was seen to have great difficulty in locating the stone. The magazine account led to a libel case, Cooper v Wakley , which would raise the profile and popular prestige of Wakley and his magazine. The court found in Cooper's favor, but awarded him much smaller damages than requested, which was generally taken as an acknowledgment that Wakley's accusations of incompetence and nepotism were justified.
At first, the editor of the Lancet was not named in the journal, but after a few weeks, rumours began to circulate. After the journal began printing the content of Sir Astley Cooper's lectures without permission, the great man paid a surprise visit to his former pupil to discover Wakley correcting the proofs of the next issue. Upon recognising each other, they fell immediately into laughter 85or perhaps an altercation. Either way, they reached an agreement that was mutually satisfactory. :
The libel lawyer was certainly needed for a series of attacks on the jobbery in vogue among the medical practitioners of the day. In opposition to the hospital surgeons and physicians, he published reports of their lectures and exposed their malpractices. He had to fight a number of lawsuits, but they only increased his influence. He attacked the whole constitution of the Royal College of Surgeons and obtained so much support from among the general body of the profession, now roused to a sense of the abuses that he exposed, that in 1827, a petition to Parliament resulted in a return being ordered of the public money granted to it.
Wakley's campaigning was rough and outspoken:
He was especially severe on whomever he regarded as quacks. The English Homeopathic Association were "an audacious set of quacks" and its supporters "noodles and knaves, the noodles forming the majority, and the knaves using them as tools". 145:
One of Wakley's best ideas came in 1831, when a series of massive meetings were held to launch a rival to the Royal Colleges. Though successful, not eventually unsuccessful, and the LCM incorporated ideas that formed the basis of reforms in the charters of the main licensing bodies, the Apothecaries, the Royal Colleges of Surgeons and Physicians. Firstly, there was to be one Faculty: the LCM was to include physicians, surgeons and general practitioners; teachers at private medical schools and naval surgeons would also be included. Secondly, the structure was to be democratic: there would be no restrictions by religion (e.g. the Anglican restrictions of Oxford and Cambridge Universities) or by institution (e.g. membership of hospitals). Its officers and Senate would be decided by annual ballot. The cost of diplomas would be set low; those already qualified would be eligible to become Fellows so, for instance, those qualified in Scotland would be received without re-examination. Appointments to official (public) positions were to be by merit, eliminating nepotism and the hand-placing of protégées. All Fellows would carry the prefix 'Dr', removing artificial divisions between members.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the LCM did not succeed against the united opposition of the established Colleges and other institutions. Nevertheless, the strong case for reform had been made in the most public manner. Subsequent legislation and reforms in governing charters were, for many years, influenced by this campaign. 104–7:
In its early years, the Lancet also had other content of a non-medical kind. There was a chess column, the earliest regular chess column in any weekly periodical: The Chess Table.There were also occasional articles on politics, theatre reviews, biographies of non-medical persons, excerpts of material in other publications &c. None of that diminished its huge impact on surgery, hospitals and the Royal Colleges, which were opened up to public view as never before. Wakley also played a leading role in the reform of the London Veterinary College and the creation of the Society of Coroners. In addition to his work on The Lancet he also published a number of pamphlets and short guides, including "The Mother's Medical Adviser", published by Wilson and Company, New York, 1844.
Reform in the College of Surgeons was slow, and Wakley now set himself to rouse the House of Commons from within. He became a radical candidate for Parliament and in 1835 was returned for Finsbury; he retained his seat till 1852. Even after his departure, his work was largely responsible for the content of the Medical Act of 1858. 428 All the topics were vigorously debated and fought over, for the 1830s was a turbulent decade; the origin of the difficulties lay in the massively expensive Napoleonic Wars, and in the inherent injustice of the way British law and Parliament operated. The Chartist demands were 1. Universal suffrage for adult men 2. Annual Parliaments 3. Payment for members of Parliament 4. Abolition of property qualifications for candidates 5. Vote by ballot (i.e. secret voting) 6. Abolition of rotten boroughs (rough equalisation of electoral districts). Apart from annual Parliaments, but it took time. The effect was to give ordinary citizens a direct say in how the country was governed. Wakley was one of many campaigners; his influence was greater than most because he was now inside Parliament.He spoke in the House of Commons against the Poor Laws, police bills, newspaper tax and Lord's Day observance and for Chartism, Tolpuddle Martyrs, free trade, Irish nationalism and, of course, medical reform. :
As an Anglican and a regular church-goer, Wakley's opposition to aspects of the Lord's Day Observance legislation was based not on secularism but on his sympathy for the ordinary man. In his day, men worked a full six days each week and could not shop on pay nights. If all shops closed for the whole of Sunday, it was clearly unfair to working men. Also, he advocated that places of education, such as museums and zoos, should be open to all on Sundays. 304 The working week became five days long around 1960, and it was even later before shops were able to open on Sundays.:
Wakley also argued for medical coronerships, and when they were established, he was elected Coroner for West Middlesex in 1839. Consistent with his views, he held inquests into all sudden deaths, including deaths in police custody. He was indefatigable in upholding the interests of the working classes and advocating humanitarian reforms as well as in pursuing his campaign against medical restrictions and abuses, and he made the Lancet not only a professional organ but a powerful engine of social reform. During his term as coroner he held between 25,000 and 30,000 investigations, sometimes delegating responsibility to his son Henry Membury Wakley. Charles Dickens, a frequent guest at Wakley's dinner table, is said to have derived material for "Oliver Twist" from Wakley (inquest on Eliza Burgess, held St. Marylebone Workhouse, January 1840) and was juror on more than one Wakley inquest. Details of many of his cases are held in the reference sections of a number of north and west London reference and local history libraries under the collective title of "Coroner Wakley's Casebook" - a series of books published by CB Wakley between 2015 - 2017.
Wakley campaigned against flogging as a punishment for many years. Deaths from flogging in the British Army were not unknown and not surprising when one reads the details. Wakley was Coroner when Private James White, after committing a disciplinary offence, was subjected to 150 lashes of the cat-o'-nine-tails in the Seventh Hussars in 1846 and died a month later after symptoms of 'serious cardiac and pulmonary mischief' were followed by pleurisy and pneumonia. The army doctors, under direct pressure from the colonel of the regiment, signed the certificate saying 'cause of death was in no way connected with the corporal punishment'. Before burial, the vicar communicated with Wakley, who issued a warrant for an inquest. Evidence was given by the Army surgeons, by the hospital physician and orderlies and by independent experts. In the event, it was the evidence of Erasmus Wilson, consulting surgeon the St Pancras Infirmary, who made it clear that the flogging and the death were causally connected. 404 The jury concurred and added a strongly worded rider that expressed their 'horror and disgust that the law of the land provided that the revolting punishment of flogging should be permitted upon British soldiers'. Sprigge added that it was not Wilson's able scientific arguments that convinced the jury, but it was his assertion that had it not been for the flogging, White would be alive. The Army Act of 1881 abolished flogging as a punishment.:
Wakley's last campaigns were against the adulteration of foodstuffs. This was common in Wakley's day, and his opposition was significant in bringing about much-needed reforming legislation. 159–75 To provide evidence, Wakley set up The Lancet Analytical and Sanitary Commission, which provided 'records of the microscopical and chemical analyses of the solids and fluids consumed by all classes of the public'. The methods were devised by Wakley, Sir William Brooke O'Shaughnessy and Dr Arthur Hill Hassall, who was the Commissioner.:
The first investigation showed that "it is a fact that coffee is largely adulterated".Of 34 coffees, 31 were adulterated; the three exceptions were of higher price. The main adulteration was chicory, otherwise bean-flour, potato-flour or roasted corn was used. Moreover, it was found that chicory itself was usually adulterated. The Lancet published the names of the genuine traders and threatened the others with exposure if they failed to mend their ways. A second report (26 April 1851) actually carried out the threat. A third report showed that canister coffee was even more adulterated. Investigations of sugar, pepper, bread, tobacco and tea followed, then finally the purity of the water supply. The first Adulteration Act became law in 1860, the second in 1872. The Sale of Food and Drugs Acts of 1875 and 1879 followed. All was achieved by Wakley and his associates.
Guy's Hospital is an NHS hospital in the borough of Southwark in central London. It is part of Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust and one of the institutions that comprise the King's Health Partners, an academic health science centre.
The Lancet is a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal. It is among the world's oldest and best-known general medical journals. It was founded in 1823 by Thomas Wakley, an English surgeon who named it after the surgical instrument called a lancet (scalpel), as well as after the architectural term lancet window, a window with a sharp pointed arch, to indicate the "light of wisdom" or "to let in light".
Sir Astley Paston Cooper, 1st Baronet was an English surgeon and anatomist, who made historical contributions to otology, vascular surgery, the anatomy and pathology of the mammary glands and testicles, and the pathology and surgery of hernia.
The United Medical and Dental Schools of Guy's and St Thomas' Hospitals was the name given to the joint medical and dental school formed in London as a result of the merger of Guy's Hospital Medical School, St Thomas's Hospital Medical School and the Royal Dental Hospital of London.
St Thomas's Hospital Medical School in London was one of the oldest and most prestigious medical schools in the UK. The school was absorbed to form part of King's College London.
Arthur Hill Hassall was a British physician, chemist and microscopist who is primarily known for his work in public health and food safety.
Thomas Wharton Jones was an eminent ophthalmologist and physiologist of the 19th century.
Membury is a village three miles north west of Axminster in East Devon district. The population at the 2011 Census was 501.
Sir William Lawrence, 1st Baronet was an English surgeon who became President of the Royal College of Surgeons of London and Serjeant Surgeon to the Queen.
Edward Grainger (1797–1824) was an English teacher of anatomy and dresser to Sir Astley Cooper. Grainger opened an anatomical school in Webb Street, Southwark, London in 1819 after his offer to teach at Guy's Hospital was rejected.
Dr James Wardrop or Wardrope FRSE FRCSEd FRCS (1782–1869) was a Scottish surgeon and ophthalmologist.
Joseph Henry Green was an English surgeon who became the literary executor of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
William Coulson was an English surgeon.
John Postgate (1820–1881) was an English surgeon and academic, a campaigner against food adulteration.
James Fernandez Clarke (1812–1876) was an English surgeon and medical writer,
John Robert Hume (c.1781–1857) was a Scottish surgeon and physician. He is cited as an example of a 19th-century medical career that arrived at a high position in the profession, without early qualifications.
Dr Robert Mortimer Glover FRSE (1815-1859) was an English physician. In 1838 he co-founded the Paris Medical Society and served as its first Vice President. He won the Medical Society of London’s Fothergill Gold Medal in 1846 for his lecture "On the Pathology and Treatment of Scrofula". Some 5 years prior to James Young Simpson’s use of chloroform on human patients in 1842 Glover discovered its anaesthetic qualities on laboratory animals. He is sometimes called "the true discoverer of chloroform". In an ironic twist of fate he died from a chloroform overdose.
George Danford Phillips Thomas was the coroner for Central Middlesex in London who estimated that he conducted around 40,000 inquests during his career. He was appointed to hear the enquiry into the human remains found in the basement of Dr. Crippen's home but he died before the enquiry could be completed.
John Rutherford Ryley was an Irish-born surgeon who studied medicine in Glasgow, where he learned about Listerian antisepsis from Joseph Lister. He emigrated to New Zealand and introduced antiseptic surgery there in January 1868. Most of his career was then spent in Australia. He took his own life at the age of 46.
Frederick John White was a private in the British Army's 7th Hussars. While serving at the Cavalry Barracks, Hounslow, in 1846, White touched a sergeant with a metal bar during an argument while drunk. A court-martial sentenced him to 150 lashes with a cat of nine tails. The flogging was carried out on 15 June with White tied to a ladder in front of the regiment. White was afterwards admitted to hospital where he initially progressed well but eventually deteriorated and died on 11 July.
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