Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Elliotson, John

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ELLIOTSON, JOHN (1791–1868), physician, son of a chemist and druggist, was born in 1791 in London. He received his preliminary education as a private pupil of the rector of St. Saviour's, Southwark. He then proceeded to Edinburgh, and subsequently entered Jesus College, Cambridge. He attended the medical and surgical classes of St. Thomas's and Guy's Hospital for three years, after which he was elected one of the assistants at Guy's, which appointment he held for five years. In 1821 he graduated as M.D. At this time he exhibited considerable fondness for the study of the action of medicines. This no doubt led to his therapeutical experiments at a later period, when he frequently alarmed his colleagues at University College Hospital by administering to his patients extravagantly large doses of drugs usually considered as poisonous. His desire to be original led Elliotson into many eccentricities. In 1826 he discarded knee-breeches and silk stockings, which were then the orthodox dress of physicians, and he was one of the first to wear a beard in this country. In 1831 he was appointed professor of the practice of medicine in the university of London; in this position he distinguished himself by his lectures, which became at once exceedingly popular. To his energy and perseverance the establishment of the University College Hospital was due, and he delivered in 1884 some lectures there which firmly established his reputation as a teacher. In 1829, at the request of the president of the Royal College of Physicians, he delivered before that body the 'Lumley Lectures on the recent Improvements in the Art of distinguishing the various Diseases of the Heart.' These lectures were divided into three parts: first, embracing diseases of the external membrane of the heart; secondly, those of the internal membrane; thirdly, those of the substance of the heart and the aorta. They were published in 1830, and about the same time Elliotson issued several expositions on interesting pathological facts. He also translated Blumenbach's 'Physiology' to which he added very copious and comprehensive notes. Elliotson was the founder of the Phrenological Society, of which he was the first president. He was also elected president of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society of London. At this time, 1837, Elliotson had established his position as one of the ablest thinkers among the physicians of the metropolis. His ever active mind was continually exercised on the new and often strange phenomena of the nervous system. Phrenology claimed much of his time and attention, and he professed to have established some facts in connection with its obscure phenomena. This led him to examine the empirical conditions in connection with disease of the pseudo-science of Mesmer. He became an ardent student of mesmerism, and professed to have convinced himself of the substantial truth of the occult agency and of the abnormal phenomena produced by the manipulations, which excited considerable very unhealthy interest in the minds of a large number of the public. The séances at his house were largely attended by the fashionable classes, and results obtained by practising on epileptic patients and designing girls were received by them as miraculous. These exhibitions and the earnest expression of his belief in the reality of mesmerism led to differences between Elliotson, the medical council of University College, and his colleagues in general, which compelled him to resign his professorship in December 1838.

During his connection with hospital practice Elliotson gave the first impulse to the advantages of clinical teaching, and he was the earliest to adopt the practice of auscultation, which he did with singular skill. In 1829 he became Lumleian lecturer, and two years later he became professor of clinical medicine in the then new university of London. He was also the first to use the stethoscope. He had now reached the zenith of his fame. He was without doubt the foremost among the eminent physicians of the day, and his lectures were regularly reported in the 'Lancet' which added much to their popularity and considerably increased his practice as a consulting physician.

In 1830 Elliotson published his 'Lumleian Lectures,' and his 'Principles and Practice of Medicine' in 1839. Numerous papers were contributed by him to the 'Medical Times' and other professional journals. After the resignation of his appointment in 1838 he only once appeared in his official capacity as a medical teacher, being nominated the Harveian orator in 1846.

Although Elliotson continued to practise mesmerism upon his patients, he refrained from introducing the subject to any of those by whom he was largely consulted. His diagnosis of the nature of disease was as searching and as skilful as it had ever been, and he prescribed with the greatest care and judgment the remedies best suited as curative agents. But if the patient showed an interest in mesmerism, Elliotson at once gave full directions for producing the mesmeric coma, and was ready to recommend it as the only method by which relief was to be obtained.

For several years Elliotson continued the practice of mesmerism, and received at his house crowds, before whom the extravagant phenomena connecting mesmerism with phrenology were exhibited. He established in 1849 a mesmeric hospital, at which numerous cures were said to have been effected. Notwithstanding the severity of the censures passed upon him for his advocacy of mesmerism, the breath of slander never ventured to attack his private character. Thackeray dedicated 'Pendennis' to him (1850) in gratitude for his services, and he received a similar tribute from Dickens (Forster, Dickens, ii, 86). Among other things he started a magazine, devoted to records of the effects produced by the practice of mesmerism, called the 'Zoist'. He continued it until the completion of the thirteenth volume.

His health failing him Elliotson was under the necessity of seeking some repose. He found this as a member of the family of Dr. E. S. Symes, who was one of his pupils, and ever his most devoted friend. There, passing through the stages of decline, he died on 29 July 1868, in Davies Street, Berkeley Square, and vaa huried in Kensal Green cemetery.

[Cates's Dict. of General Biog. 1881; Walford's Men of the Time; Lancet, 1868; Medical Times; Zoist; personal knowledge.]

R. H-t.