Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Bucknill, John Charles

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BUCKNILL, Sir JOHN CHARLES (1817–1897), physician, elder son of John Bucknill, surgeon, of Market Bosworth, Leicestershire, was born on 25 Dec. 1817, and was educated first at Rugby during the head-mastership of Dr. Arnold, and afterwards at the Market Bosworth grammar school. Bucknill entered University College, London, in 1835, and studied medicine. He was admitted a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries and a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1840, and in the same year he graduated M.B. at the university of London, being placed first in surgery and third in medicine in the honours list. He was then appointed house surgeon to Robert Liston [q. v.] at University College Hospital, and at the expiration of his term of office he practised for a year in Chelsea. Here his health broke down, and he was ordered to live in a warmer climate. He therefore applied for, and obtained, the post of first medical superintendent of the Devon County Asylum at Exminster, which he held with marked success from 1844 to 1862. In 1850 he was elected a fellow of University College, London, becoming a member of its council in 1884. In 1852 he graduated M.D. in London University. He was the lord chancellor's medical visitor of lunatics from 1862 until 1876, when he resigned the office through ill-health, and subsequently devoted himself to private practice. He lived at first in Cleveland Square, afterwards at Hillmorton in Warwickshire, where he farmed a considerable acreage; in 1876 he moved to Wimpole Street, though he retained his home in Warwickshire.

At the Royal College of Physicians of London he was admitted a licentiate in 1853, being elected a fellow in 1859, councillor 1877–8, censor 1879–80, and Lumleian lecturer in 1878, taking as the subject of his lectures ‘Insanity in its legal relations.’ He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 7 June 1866, and was knighted in July 1894.

Bucknill died at Bournemouth on 19 July 1897, and is buried at Clifton-on-Dunsmore near Rugby. He married in 1842 Maryanne, the only child of Thomas Townsend of Hillmorton. She died in 1889 and left three sons, of whom the second, Sir Thomas Townsend Bucknill, became in 1899 judge of the king's bench division of the high court. Sir John Bucknill left over 6,000l. to University College, London, to found a scholarship.

Bucknill made a name for himself in many ways. He held a high position among the physicians who devoted themselves to the treatment of insanity, and Sir James Crichton Browne, F.R.S., says of him, ‘For twenty years he was the acknowledged and dignified head of his department in this country, and mingled on an equal footing with all the finest intellects of his times.’ He took an enlightened view of the method to be adopted in the treatment of patients under his care, and thought that the more wealthy among them should be nursed and cared for in houses of their own, that they might enjoy life as far as possible. In general literature he turned his knowledge of psychology and lunacy to excellent account by writing two criticisms upon Shakespeare and his works, in which he dealt with the psychology of the dramatist and the mad people depicted in his plays. He was an ardent sportsman, being especially proficient in fishing, hunting, sailing, coursing, and shooting with the rifle. In 1852 he was actively engaged in obtaining the sanction of the war office to the enrolment of a corps of citizen soldiers under the name of the Exeter and South Devon volunteers, and with the help of the Earl Fortescue, the lord-lieutenant of the county, he effected his purpose. This corps was highly successful and proved the nucleus of the present volunteer system. Bucknill threw himself heart and soul into the new movement, was the first recruit sworn into this the first regiment of volunteers established under the system, and throughout his service chose to remain in the ranks rather than accept a commission. His services in connection with the volunteer movement were afterwards recognised by the erection, by public subscription, of a handsome memorial, with a medallion of Bucknill thereon, in Northernhay, near Exeter castle. The memorial was unveiled by H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge, commander-in-chief, in 1895.

His works are:

  1. ‘Unsoundness of Mind in relation to Criminal Acts,’ an essay to which the first Sugden prize was awarded by the King and Queen's College of Physicians in Ireland, London, 8vo, 1854; 2nd edit. 1857.
  2. ‘A Manual of Psychological Medicine,’ London, 1858, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1862; 3rd edit. 1874; 4th edit. 1879, written conjointly with Daniel Hack Tuke [q. v.] Bucknill wrote the chapters dealing with diagnosis, pathology, and treatment; Tuke the sections on lunacy law, classification, and causation. The book was for many years the standard text-book on psychological medicine.
  3. ‘The Psychology of Shakespeare,’ London, 1859, 8vo; 2nd edit. revised, including ‘The Mad Folk of Shakespeare,’ ‘Psychological Essays,’ &c., London, 1867, 8vo; the essays deal with Macbeth, Hamlet, Ophelia, King Lear, Timon of Athens, Constance, Jacques, Malvolio, Christopher Sly, and the ‘Comedy of Errors.’
  4. ‘The Medical Knowledge of Shakespeare,’ London, 1860, 8vo, a companion volume to Lord Campbell's work on ‘Shakespeare's Legal Acquirements.’
  5. ‘Habitual Drunkenness and Insane Drunkards,’ London, 8vo, 1878. He edited ‘The Asylum Journal of Mental Science’ from 1853 to 1855; he then transformed it into the ‘Journal of Mental Science,’ which he continued to edit until 1862.

He also helped to found ‘Brain: a Journal of Neurology’ in 1878.

[Obituary notice in the Journal of Mental Science, vol. xliii. 1897, p. 885; additional information kindly given by Lieut.-Col. J. T. Bucknill, R.E.]

D’A. P.