Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Birch, John (1745?-1815)

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BIRCH, JOHN (1745?–1815), surgeon, was born in 1745 or 1746, but where cannot now be traced. He served some years as a surgeon in the army, and afterwards settled in London. He was elected on 12 May 1784 surgeon to St. Thomas's Hospital, and held office till his death on 3 Feb. 1815. He was also surgeon extraordinary to the prince regent. Birch was a surgeon of much repute in his day, both in hospital and private practice, but was chiefly known for his enthusiastic advocacy of electricity as a remedial agent, and for his equally ardent opposition to the introduction of vaccination. He served the cause of medical electricity by founding an electrical department at St. Thomas's Hospital, and carrying it on with much energy. For more than twenty-one years, he says, he performed the manipulations himself, since he found it difficult to induce the students to take much interest in the subject. The kind of electricity employed was exclusively the frictional, which is now known to be of little use, the therapeutical value of galvanism being not at that time understood. Nevertheless his writings on the subject, which were widely circulated both in this country and abroad, must have done much in keeping alive professional interest in investigations which have turned out to be remarkably fruitful in practical results.

Birch published several pamphlets in opposition to the practice of vaccination, and in favour of inoculation, for the small-pox. He also gave evidence before a committee of the House of Commons in the same sense, His objections have no longer much scientific interest, but the point of view from which he regarded the subject is probably fairly represented in his monumental epitaph, as follows: 'The practice of cow-poxing, which first became general in his day, undaunted by the overwhelming influence of power and prejudice, and by the voice of nations, he uniformly and until death perseveringly opposed, conscientiously believing it to be a public infatuation, fraught with peril of the most mischievous consequences to mankind.' Birch was buried in the church in Rood Lane, Fenchurch Street, where a monument was erected to his memory by his sister Penelope Birch. The epitaph, from which some of the dates given above are quoted, is printed in a posthumous edition of his tracts on vaccination. His portrait, painted by T. Phillips and engraved by J. Lewis, is rather commonly met with.

He wrote: 1. 'Considerations on the Efficacy of Electricity in removing Female Obstructions,' London, 1779, 8vo; 4th edition 1798 (translated into German). 2. 'A Letter on Medical Electricity,' published in George Adams's 'Essay on Electricity,' London, 1798, 4to (4th edition); also separately, 1792, 8vo. 3. 'An Essay on the Medical Applications of Electricity,' 1802, 8vo (translated into German, Italian, and Russian). 4. 'Pharmacopœia Chirurgica in usum nosocomii Londinensis S. Thomæ,' London, 1803. 12mo. 5. 'A Letter occasioned by the many failures of the Cow-pox,' addressed to W. R. Rogers. Published in the latter writer's 'Examination of Evidence relative to Cow-pox delivered to the Committee of the House of Commons by two of the Surgeons of St. Thomas's Hospital,' 2nd edition, 1805. 6. 'Serious Reasons for objecting to the Practice of Vaccination. In answer to the Report of the Jennerian Society,' 1806, 8vo. 7. 'Copy of an Answer to the Queries of the London College of Surgeons and of a Letter to the College of Physicians respecting the Cow-pox,' 1807, 8vo. The last two were reprinted by Penelope Birch, with the title 'An Appeal to the Public on the Hazard and Peril of Vaccination, otherwise Cow-pox,' 1817, 8vo. 8. 'The Fatal Effects of Cow-pox Protection,' 1808, 12mo (anonymous, but ascribed to Birch in the 'Dict. of Living Authors,' 1816). 9. 'A Report of the True State of the Experiment of Cow-pox,' 1810 (on the same authority).

[Biog. Dict. of Living Authors (1816); Callisen's Medicinisches Schriftsteller-Lexikon (Copenhagen. 1830-45), i. 264, and Appendix; Archives of St. Thomas's Hospital; Birch's Works.]

J. F. P.