Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Garnett, Thomas (1766-1802)

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GARNETT, THOMAS, M.D. (1766–1802), physician and natural philosopher, was born 21 April 1766 at Casterton in Westmoreland, where his father had a small landed property. After attending a local school he was at the age of fifteen articled at his own request to the celebrated John Dawson of Sedbergh, Yorkshire, surgeon and mathematician [q. v.] He there obtained a fair acquaintance with chemistry and physics, and matriculated at the university of Edinburgh in 1785, 'possessed of exceptional scientific knowledge.' He was particularly zealous in his attendance on the lectures of Dr. Black and of Dr. John Brown, and became an ardent disciple of the Brunonian theory. 'He avoided,' says his anonymous biographer, 'almost all society, and it is said he never allowed himself at this period more than four hours' sleep out of the twenty-four.' He graduated M.D. in 1788, completed his medical education in London, and, returning for a short time to his parents, wrote his treatise on optics for the 'Encyclopædia Britannica.' In 1790 he entered upon practice at Bradford, from which he removed in the following year to Knaresborough and Harrogate. He made and published the first scientific analysis of the Harrogate waters, and was the author of several philanthropic schemes for the benefit of the inhabitants of Knaresborough. Lord Rosslyn built him a house at Harrogate, but his success did not answer his expectations, and he was meditating emigration to America when he succumbed to the attractions of Miss Catharine Grace Cleveland, whom he had received as a boarder into his house. They were married in March 1795, and as he was in Liverpool endeavouring to arrange for a passage to America a casual invitation to deliver lectures on natural philosophy changed the current of his life. The success of the course, which was repeated at Manchester and other places, brought him an invitation to become professor at Anderson's Institution at Glasgow. He obtained great success at Glasgow, both as lecturer and physician, and in 1798 undertook the tour in the highlands of which his account was published in 1800. It is too diffuse, but was a valuable work in its day, and is interesting even now as an index to subsequent changes. On 25 Dec. 1798 the great misfortune of his life fell upon him in the death of his wife in childbirth. He never recovered from the blow, and the state of his health and spirits prevented him from doing himself justice in the important post of professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at the Royal Institution, to which he was appointed in October 1799. It is further hinted that he incurred the dislike of Count Rumford, the presiding genius of the institution. It is unnecessary, however, to seek any other cause than the inadequacy of his lectures to the demands of a popular assemblage. Those, at least, which were published after his death under the title of 'Zoonomia, or the Laws of Animal Life' (1804), though full of knowledge and exceedingly clear in style, are still too technical for a popular audience. His north-country accent was also against him, and ill-health rendered his delivery languid and inanimate. After lecturing for two seasons he resigned, and commenced medical practice in London. He was beginning to meet with considerable success when he died, 28 June 1802, of typhus fever contracted at the Marylebone Dispensary, to which he had been appointed physician. A subscription was raised, and his Royal Institution lectures were published for the benefit of his two infant daughters, one of whom, Mrs. Catherine Grace Godwin, ia noticed below.

Garnett was a most amiable man, who fell a victim to the susceptibility of his character and the strength of his affections. Diffident of his own powers, he was enthusiastic for the discoveries and ideas of others. He had not the genius of discovery himself, but was observant and sagacious. A passage in his 'Highland Tour' (i. 89) anticipates the modern theory of a quasi-intelligence in plants.

[Memoir prefixed to Zoonomia, 1804; Gent. Mag. 1802; Becker's Scientific London.]

R. G.