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

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SHELDON, JOHN (1752–1808), anatomist, was born in London on 6 July 1752, and was apprenticed to Henry Watson, who was elected in 1766 the first professor of anatomy at the Surgeons' Company. Sheldon studied and taught anatomy at Watson's private museum in Tottenham Court Road, which was afterwards wrecked by a mob. He received his diploma at the Surgeons' Company on 2 Nov. 1775. He lectured on anatomy at Great Windmill Street school under William Hunter (1718–1783) [q. v.], and in 1777 he opened a private theatre in Great Queen Street, where he spent his time in scientific researches and in teaching anatomy. He was surgeon to the General Medical Asylum in Welbeck Street, and on 18 July 1782 he was appointed professor of anatomy to the Royal Academy in succession to William Hunter. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 29 April 1784, and on 20 April 1786 he became surgeon to the Westminster Hospital, a post he resigned two years later. His health broke down in 1788, and he removed to Exeter, his house in Great Queen Street being taken and his teaching continued by James Wilson [q. v.] Sheldon was elected surgeon to the Devon and Exeter Hospital on 25 July 1797.

Sheldon spent much time in studying the lymphatic system, and but for his ill-health his results would probably have surpassed those obtained by William Cumberland Cruikshank [q. v.] He also devoted much attention to the art of embalming. Both this and his work upon the lymphatics were due to William Hunter's inspiration, and Sheldon was engaged upon both at the time of his death. He believed that he had discovered an easy method of catching whales with poisoned harpoons, and he made a voyage to Greenland to test its efficacy. It is said that he was the first Englishman to make an ascent in a balloon, and his ascent from Chelsea in 1784 was the subject of a caricature by Paul Sandby. He died at his cottage on the river Exe on 8 Oct. 1808.

A life-size three-quarter-length portrait, by A. W. Devis (1763–1822), is in the conservator's room at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn Fields. It is traditionally reported that Rowlandson introduced a portrait of Sheldon into his picture of ‘The Dissecting Room.’

His works were:

  1. ‘The History of the Absorbent System,’ London, 4to, 1784. The first part only was issued. It is stated at the end of the volume that ‘the French and German editions of this part are in great forwardness and will soon be published,’ and that many of the plates for the second part are engraved. The book is an excellent piece of scientific work, and is dedicated to Sir Joseph Banks.
  2. ‘An Essay on the Fracture of the Patella or Kneepan … with Observations on the Fracture of the Olecranon,’ London, 8vo, 1789; a new edit. London, 8vo, 1819. Sheldon also edited Lieberkühn's ‘Quatuor Dissertationes,’ London, 1782.

[Hallett's Catalogue of Portraits and Busts in the Royal College of Surgeons of England; Gent. Mag. 1808, ii. 957; information from the manuscript records of the Surgeons' Company, kindly given by the secretary of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.]

D’A. P.