Beddoes, Thomas (1760-1808) (DNB00)

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BEDDOES, THOMAS (1760–1808), physician, was born at Shiffnal in Shropshire, 13 April 1760. Through the interposition of his grandfather, a self-made man of vigorous intellect, he was educated at Bridgnorth Grammar School and at Pembroke College, Oxford. While at the university he taught himself French, Italian, and German, and shortly after quitting it translated or annotated several works of Bergman, Scheele, and Spallanzani. He received his medical education in London and Edinburgh, and, after taking his M.D. degree at Oxford, was appointed in 1788 reader in chemistry, attracting, he says, the largest class that had been assembled in the university since the thirteenth century. He resigned this post in 1792, partly on account of his sympathy with the French revolution. He had previously, in 1790, pointed out the merits of the great and then forgotten chemist, Mayow, the discoverer of the true theory of combustion, and had, in 1792, composed a poem on the conquests of Alexander, partly to denounce English aggrandisement in India, partly as what now seems a highly superfluous demonstration of the possibility of imitating Darwin's 'Botanic Garden.' The poem is in every way a curiosity, having been printed by a woman and illustrated with woodcuts by a parish clerk. In 1793 he produced his treatise on calculus, and his moral tale 'Isaac Jenkins,' describing the reclamation of a drunken labourer, which went through numerous editions. In the same year he removed to Clifton, with the view of establishing a 'Pneumatic Institute' for the treatment of disease by inhalation. Watt constructed his apparatus, Wedgwood contributed a thousand pounds, and the institute was ultimately established in 1798. It failed in its professed object, but is memorable for having fostered the genius of Davy, whom Beddoes had engaged as his assistant, and who discovered the properties of nitrous oxide there in 1799. In the same year Davy's first work, an essay on heat and light, was given to the world in 'Contributions to Physical and Medical Knowledge, principally from the West of England,' a collection edited by Beddoes. Before this he had married Anna, sister of Maria Edgeworth, 'the best and most amiable woman in the world,' says Davy, and had produced several medical works and some political pamphlets, in the latter assailing Pitt with extreme virulence. He had also, in 1795, edited the 'Elements of Medicine' of John Brown, the founder of the Brunonian system of medicine, with a memoir, certainly well intended, but unduly depreciatory of Brown's character in some respects. In 1801 he published his 'Hygeia,' popular essays in medicine, rich in valuable sanitary precepts and eloquent pathological descriptions. In the same year Davy left Clifton for London,and the institute was virtually given up. Beddoes continued to enjoy a considerable practice, but from this time he added little to medical literature. In 1808 his health failed, and he died on 24 Dec., 'at the moment,' says Davy, 'when his mind was purified for noble affections and great works:' 'literally worn out,' says Atkinson, 'by the action and reaction of an inquisitive nature, and of restlessness for fame.' 'From Beddoes,' wrote Southey on hearing of his death, 'I hoped for more good to the human race than any other individual.' 'I felt,' wrote Coleridge on the same occasion, 'that more had been taken out of my life by this than by any former event.' Yet Beddoes had not succeeded in impressing himself powerfully upon the history of science, and he is now chiefly remembered as the father of the author of 'Death's Jest-Book,' and to some extent the discoverer of Davy. He was, nevertheless, a remarkable and highly interesting man; an enthusiast and a philanthropist; vigorous, original, and independent. The distinguishing merit of his medical writings is their vivid presentation of the phenomena of disease. 'They embrace,' says Atkinson, 'a most extensive surface of queries and inquiry; touching, like a vessel of discovery, upon every little topic or island; but yet with top-sails set, as if stinted to time.' 'He was,' says Davy, 'reserved in manner and almost dry. Nothing could be a stronger contrast to his apparent coldness in discussion than his wild and active imagination, which was as poetical as Darwin's. He had talents which would have raised him to the pinnacle of philosophical eminence, if they bad been applied with discretion.' It is extremely interesting to compare these traits with similar manifestations of character in his son.

[Stock's Memoirs of the Life of Thomas Beddoes, 1811; John Davy's Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy, 1839; Fragmentary Remains of Sir H. Davy, 1858; Atkinson's Medical Bibliography, 1834.]

R. G.