Briggs, William (DNB00)

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BRIGGS, WILLIAM (1642–1704), physician and oculist, was born at Norwich, for which city his father, Augustine Briggs, was four times M.P. At thirteen he was entered at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, under Tenison, became a fellow of his college in 1668, and M.A. in 1670. After some years spent in tuition and in studying medicine, he went to France and attended the lectures of Vieussens at Montpellier, under the patronage of Ralph Montagu (afterwards Duke of Montagu), then British ambassador to France. To him Briggs dedicated his 'Ophthalmographia,' an anatomical description of the eye, published at Cambridge in 1676, on his return from France. He proceeded M.D. at Cambridge in 1677, and was elected a fellow of the London College of Physicians in 1682. In the latter year the first part of his 'Theory of Vision' was published by Hooke (Philosophical Collections, No. 6, p. 167); the second part was published in the 'Philosophical Transactions' in 1683. The 'Theory of Vision' was translated into Latin, and published in 1685 by desire of Sir Isaac Newton, who wrote a commendatory preface to it, acknowledging the benefit he had derived from Briggs's anatomical skill and knowledge. A second edition of the 'Ophthalmographia' was published in 1687. Several points in Briggs's account of the eye are noteworthy, one being his recognition of the retina as an expansion in which the fibres of the optic nerve are spread out ; another, his laying emphasis upon the hypothesis of vibrations as an explanation of the phenomena of nervous action. Briggs practised with great success in London, especially in diseases of the eye ; was physician to St. Thomas's Hospital 1682-9, physician in ordinary to William III from 1696, and censor of the College of Physicians in 1685, 1686, 1692. In 1689, according to a curious memorial on one sheet preserved in the British Museum, Dr. Briggs was at great expense in vindicating the title of the crown to St. Thomas's Hospital, but was himself dismissed from his post, owing, as he states, to the machinations of a rival physician. From the same sheet we learn that, although he attended the royal household with great zeal for five years, he could get no pay ; and notwithstanding that in 1698 William III promised that he should be considered, this was of no avail. In consequence of these circumstances, apparently early in Anne's reign, he begs for consideration in regard to the hospital appointment. He died 4 Sept. 1704, at Town Mailing in Kent. His son, Henry Briggs, chaplain to George II, and rector of Holt in Norfolk, erected a cenotaph to his father's memory in Holt church in 1737. The inscription is quoted by Munk. His portrait, by R. White, was engraved by Faber.

[Bayle, Lond. 1735. iii. 592 ; Biog. Brit. 1747, i. 982; Memorial of Dr. W. Briggs relating to St. Thomas's Hospital, n.d. (about 1702) ; Munk's Coll. of Phys. (1878), i. 424.]

G. T. B.