Thomas Wakley (1795-1862)

Founding editor of the Lancet

Thomas Wakley was the founding editor of the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, a member of parliament, a coroner and a strong voice for social reform. Today he is largely forgotten but featured as a Victorian ‘do-gooder’ in the BBC programme by Ian Hislop.

Thomas was the youngest of 11 children born to a farmer in Membury, Devon. The house, Land Farm, is still a family home and retains some features from the 18th century including the 3 seater WC placed over a running stream in the garden. The main source of information about him comes largely from a biography written in 1897 by Samuel Squire Spriggs. It has recently come to light from the study of East India company lists that he had a remarkable 17 month journey to Calcutta with the royal navy as an 11 year old boy. He did not discuss this as an adult but it is tempting to speculate that the hardship and cruelty observed on that voyage had a profound effect on his character.

Wakley chose to study medicine and was apprenticed initially to a druggist in Taunton, then to his brother in law Richard Phelps who was a surgeon apothecary in Beaminster and finally to a surgeon called William Coulson. In 1815 he moved to London and enrolled at the united hospitals of Guys and St.Thomas’s and qualified as a surgeon in 1817. He set up a practice in Regent Street and married Miss Goodchild, whose father was a merchant and a governor of St.Thomas’s hospital. He looked set for an uneventful moderately prosperous life but he had a combative personality and a zeal for reform.

The young Wakley was tall, well built and athletic. He enjoyed boxing, billiards and regularly walked from Devon to London. He was a clean living young man with a slightly puritanical bent who was unafraid to speak his mind. Consequently contemporary impressions of him varied depending on whether the author shared his views. He was variously described as a provincial with an accent to match or: – ‘a zealous advocate of the working classes’ and an ‘honest denouncer of invidious distinctions betwixt rich and poor’

In August 1820 he was seriously assaulted and his house and medical practice in Argyle Street was set on fire and destroyed. It is suggested that he was targeted by supporters of the Cato Street gang. In the wake of the arson attack there was a legal battle with the insurance company who accused him of setting fire to his own house. The Wakleys led a nomadic existence eventually settling down in the unfashionable Norfolk Street much to the distress of the genteel Mrs Wakley. He decided to give up clinical practice and to seek, via journalism, change in the way medicine was organised and taught.

Most medical journals in the 18th and early 19th centuries were short lived with the exception of the New England Journal of Medicine founded in the USA in 1812. It is hinted at in an unfinished biography of Wakley by Mary Bostetter that Wakley met the editor, Walter Channing, in 1823 when he was visiting London with his young pregnant wife who was dying of tuberculosis.

The Lancet was started in 1823 with William Cobbett (journalist), William Lawrence, James Wardrop and a libel lawyer as associates. The name lancet refers to the surgical instrument use to lance boils but also describes a church window and from the start the journal set out to tackle corruption in Medicine. Important Lancet campaigns included reform of the royal College of Surgeons and other Royal Colleges, exposure of mishaps at London teaching hospitals, campaigns to ensure the proper supply of bodies for dissection, the establishment of a medical register and the publication of the text of lectures given by hospital staff. The latter activity caused great annoyance as staff could earn substantial fees from attendance at lectures. The journal had initially had a gossip column, theatre reviews and chess problems but these were soon dropped. Wakley campaigned against those he regarded as quacks including the English Homeopathic association. His journal publicised and deplored the adulteration of food, the serious failings of the poor law and problems with the coroner’s courts. The reporting of advances in clinical practice came much later in the journal’s history. However, Wackley’s writing obviously struck a chord. He soon found a ready paying readership and the circulation quickly reached 8000.

It is not surprising that a man of such conviction and passion would want to stand for parliament. The Finsbury parliamentary constituency was created after the reform act of 1832 and had a population of 300,000 of whom only 5% were eligible to vote. Wakley became one of Finsbury’s 2 members of parliament on his 3rd attempt in 1835 and never lost his seat. He hated the Tories and despised the Whigs and sat as an independent radical. He made more than 900 contributions to debates speaking against the poor laws, police bills, newspaper tax and the Lord’s Day observance society. He spoke in favour of condemned chartists and against the deportation of the Tolpuddle martyrs. He was described as having : ‘plain, simple blunt downright style…allied to shrewdness and common sense’ He stood down due to illness in 1851 so was not in parliament to see the Medical Act 1858 passed which introduced compulsory registration of medical practitioners for which he had campaigned.

In addition to his roles in parliament and the Lancet Wakley was also the coroner for West Middlesex from 1839 until his death in 1862. He fulfilled his role without fear or favour and campaigned against flogging as a punishment in the British Army. He presided over the inquest of Private James White who died in 1846 1 month after receiving 150 lashes with the cat of nine tails whist serving in the 7th Hussars. The jury was persuaded by the one medical witness (chosen by Wakley) that the flogging had been instrumental in the private’s death. It took until 1881 for flogging to be finally abolished in military prisons.

Wakley was also a churchwarden, an early member of the council of the British medical association (not the same as the modern BMA), was involved in the Royal Medical Benevolent Society, was a director of a private cemetery company and a supporter of the British Swimming society (founded 1841)

Wakley was unwell in 1862 and had been advised by his physician to relax in a mild climate. He chose to visit Madeira and despite his illness threatened to investigate malpractice in the local wine trade. He had a fall whist beaching a small boat, had a pulmonary haemorrhage and died.

Today the journal he founded is one of the most respected medical journals in the world.

Principal Sources Vol 379 May 19 2012 Thomas Wakley: a biographical sketch by David Sharp &





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