Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Parsons, James (1705-1770)

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PARSONS, JAMES (1705–1770), physician and antiquary, was born in March 1705 at Barnstaple, Devonshire. He was educated in Dublin, his father having removed to Ireland on receiving the appointment of barrack-master at Bolton. He acted for a time as tutor to Lord Kingston, but afterwards went to Paris, where he studied medicine for several years. He took the degree of doctor of medicine at Rheims on 11 June 1736. A month later he came to London with letters of introduction from Paris to Sir Hans Sloane, Dr. Mead, and Dr. James Douglas (1675–1742) [q. v.] He assisted Douglas in his anatomical studies, was through his interest appointed physician to the public infirmary of St. Giles in 1738, and was introduced into extensive obstetric practice. He was admitted a licentiate of the College of Physicians on 1 April 1751.

For many years Parsons lived in Red Lion Square, London, and was intimate with Folkes, Mead, Stukeley, and many fellows of the Royal and Antiquarian Societies. He was also a friend of Dr. Matthew Maty [q. v.], who drew up an account of his writings on medicine and natural history, printed in Nichols's ‘Literary Anecdotes’ (v. 474). He was elected F.R.S. on 7 May 1741, and was assistant foreign secretary of the society about 1750. He was also F.S.A., and a member of the Spalding Society and of the Society of Arts. As a practitioner Parsons was careful and humane, and is described as ‘cheerful and decent in conversation.’ He was a flute-player and a good draughtsman. In 1769 Parsons prepared, on account of ill-health, to retire from his profession, and in June 1769 sold his books and fossils. He died at his house in Red Lion Square on 4 April 1770 (Gent. Mag. 1770, p. 190), after a week's illness, in the sixty-sixth year of his age. He was buried in his family vault at Hendon, but, in accordance with his wishes, not until 21 April. The inscription on his tomb describes him as a student of anatomy, antiquities, language, and the fine arts. In the preface to his ‘Remains of Japhet,’ Parsons states that he attained a tolerable knowledge of ancient Irish and Welsh. Parsons married in 1739 Miss Elizabeth Reynolds, and had by her two sons and a daughter, who died young. By his will, dated October 1766, he left his whole property to his wife, who died 8 Aug. 1786 (Gent. Mag. 1786, ii. 715). Two portraits of Parsons, by Benjamin Wilson and Wells, the former painted in 1762, and now in the National Portrait Gallery, London, are referred to in Nichols's ‘Literary Anecdotes’ (v. 487); one of these appears to have been engraved by Dighton (Evans, Catalogue, p. 263), but there is no example in the print-room of the British Museum.

In addition to numerous contributions to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ (see Lit. Anecd. v. 475 f.), Parsons published the following:—1. ‘Prælecturi J. P. … Elenchus Gynaicopathologicus et Obstetricarius,’ &c. (on the diseases of women), London, 1741, 8vo. 2. ‘A Mechanical and Critical Enquiry into the Nature of Hermaphrodites,’ London, 1741, 8vo (exposing popular errors on the subject). 3. ‘A Description of the Human Urinary Bladder … [together with] Animadversions on Lithontriptic Medicines, particularly those of Mrs. Stephens,’ London, 1742, 8vo. 4. ‘The Croonian Lecture on Muscular Motion,’ London, 1745, 4to. 5. ‘The Microscopical Theatre of Seeds; being a short View of the … Marks, Characters, Contents and … Dimensions of … Seeds,’ vol. i. (only), London, 1745, 4to. 6. ‘Human Physiognomy explained in the Croonian Lectures on Muscular Motion,’ London, 1747, 4to. 7. ‘Philosophical Observations on the Analogy between the Propagation of Animals and that of Vegetables (with Remarks on the Polypus),’ London, 1752, 8vo. 8. ‘Remains of Japhet; being Historical Enquiries into the Affinity and Origin of the European Languages,’ London, 1767, 4to.

[Nichols's Lit. Anecdotes, espec. v. 472–89; Munk's Coll. of Phys. ii. 175 f.; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

W. W.