Levett, Robert (DNB00)

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LEVETT or LEVET, ROBERT (1701?–1782), ‘that odd old surgeon whom Johnson kept in his house to tend the out-pensioners,’ a native of Hull in Yorkshire, was born about 1701. Some part of his early life was spent in Paris. There he became a waiter in a coffee-house much frequented by French surgeons, who, pleased with Levett's inquisitive turn of mind, procured him instruction in pharmacy and anatomy. Settling in London he seems to have acquired some practice as a surgeon. Probably about 1746 he made the acquaintance of Dr. Johnson. In a letter to Baretti of 20 July 1762 Johnson speaks of him as recently married to a woman of the town, who, notwithstanding the fact that their place of rendezvous had always been a small coal-shed in Fetter Lane, had persuaded Levett ‘that she was nearly related to a man of fortune, but was injuriously kept by him out of large possessions.’ Goldsmith, alluding to this misfortune to Boswell in July 1763, said: ‘Levett is now become miserable, and that insures the protection of Johnson.’ It appears that Johnson was the means of effecting a separation between the pair, and some time in 1763 Levett became a regular inmate of his house. Boswell calls him ‘aukward and uncouth,’ but Johnson found him ‘useful and companionable.’ ‘Levett, madam,’ he said to Mrs. Thrale, ‘is a brutal fellow, but I have a good regard for him, for his brutality is in his manners, not in his mind’ (Mme d'Arblay, Diary and Letters, i. 63). After making tea for Johnson on the latter's rising at about eleven o'clock in the morning, Levett usually went round among his patients, then attended Hunter's lectures, and did not return until late at night. His relations with the rest of the household were somewhat strained. His chief failing was over-indulgence in drink, but this, as Johnson observes, was mainly the result of extreme prudence. ‘He reflected that if he refused the gin or brandy offered him by some of his patients he could have been no gainer by their cure, as they might have had nothing else to bestow on him. He would swallow what he did not like, nay, what he knew would injure him, rather than go home with an idea that his skill had been exerted without recompense.’

He died suddenly on 17 Jan. 1782, and was buried on 20 Jan. in Bridewell cemetery (Wheatley and Cunningham, i. 244). Writing of his loss some weeks after to Bennet Langton [q. v.], whom Levett had in the first instance introduced to him, Johnson remarked: ‘How much soever I valued him, I now wish that I had valued him more.’ In the ‘Annual Register’ for 1783 (p. 189) appeared some verses by Johnson on his humble friend, which make touching reference to Levett's good qualities. Some time before his own death Johnson discovered by means of advertisement Levett's brothers, who were living obscurely in Yorkshire, and divided his modest savings among them.

[Gent. Mag. 1785, pt. i. pp. 101–2; Nichols's Lit. Illustr. vi. 147; Boswell's Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, passim; Hawkins's Johnson, p. 435; Mrs. Piozzi's Anecdotes and Letters, passim.]

T. S.