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The Gentleman's Magazine/Volume 63/November 1817/Memoir of William Charles Wells, M.D.

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Memoir of William Charles Wells, M.D.  (1817) 

November 1817

William-Charles Wells, M.D. F.R.S. L. and E. Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians in London, and one of the Physicians to St. Thomas's Hospital, was born in Charlestown, South Carolina, in May 1757, and was the second son, but fourth child, of Robert and Mary Wells, both natives of Scotland, who settled in Carolina in 1753. His father, who had been originally a merchant, and afterwards carried on the businesses of a bookseller and bookbinder, and printer of a newspaper, with considerable success, appears to have been possessed of, more than common talents and attainments, and his mother to have been generous and high-minded: and both of them were the objects of his esteem and gratitude, and tender filial affection, as long as he lived. Before he was eleven years old he was sent to Scotland to a considerable grammar school at Dumfries, then kept by a Mr. George Chapman, where he remained nearly two years and a half; and at the expiration of that time had finished the usual course of studies pursued there. In the autumn of 1770 he went to Edinburgh, and attended several of the lower classes of the University. At this time he was first acquainted with Mr. David Hume and Mr. William Miller, now better known by the title of Lord Glenlee, who afterwards became two of his most intimate friends; and to his intercourse with whom lie was accustomed to attribute the most beneficial effects upon his character, and for whose good offices be entertained, in all circumstances, the most lively gratitude. He returned to Charlestown, in South Carolina, in 1771; and soon after his return was placed as an apprentice with Dr. Alexander Garden, at that time the chief practitioner of Physic there, and well known to Naturalists by his communications to the Royal Society. During three years of the time he was with him, he has said, that he studied so diligently, that, though quite unassisted, he acquired perhaps more knowledge than in any three subsequent years of his life. In 1775, soon after the commencement of the American war, he left Charlestown suddenly, and came to London. He had been called upon to sign a paper denominated "The Association," the object of which was to unite the people in a resistance to the claims of the British Government. He was a conscientious and zealous friend to those claims, and could not therefore sign the paper without a violation of principle; and this, neither the authority of his master, nor the remonstrances of his friends, could induce him to commit. In the beginning of the winter of that year he went to Edinburgh, and commenced his medical studies, with the view of taking a degree. He was happy in the opportunity which this afforded him of cultivating his friendship with Mr. David Hume and Mr. Miller, with whom he had kept up a correspondence while he was in Carolina, and of gaining a third most intimate and constant friend, the present Dr. Robertson Barclay. He studied there three winters, and passed his preparatory trials in the summer of 1778, but did not then graduate. In the autumn he returned to London, and attended a course of Dr. William Hunter's lectures, took instructions in practical Anatomy, and became a surgeon's pupil at Bartholomew's Hospital. Early in 1779 he went to Holland as surgeon to a Scotch regiment in the service of the United Provinces. At first be passed his time agreeably; but, having received ill treatment from his commanding officer, he, with that spirit and decision which characterized him through life, resigned his commission, and on the day on which he received his dismissal from the service challenged the officer who bad ill treated him, and who had now the meanness to attempt to punish him for military insubordination, after he had ceased to be subject to military authority; but avoided exposing his own person to the danger which would have arisen from accepting the challenge. Immediately afterwards, in the beginning of the year 1780, be went to Leyden, where he was principally employed in preparing an Inaugural Thesis, which was published at Edinburgh in the autumn of that year, when he took the degree of Doctor in Medicine: the subject of this Thesis was Cold. At this time the friendship between him and Dr. Lister commenced, which continued without interruption to his death. They had been introduced to one another by their common friend, the late Dr. James Currie, the author of "Medical Reports," and the biographer and editor of Burns. In the beginning of 1781 he went to Carolina, which was then in the possession of the King's troops, in order to arrange the affairs of his family, and was there at the same time an officer in a corps of volunteers; a printer, a bookseller, and a merchant, a trustee for some of his father's friends in England for the management of affairs of considerable importance in Carolina; and on one occasion exercised, at the instance of the Colonel Commandant of the militia, the office of Judge Advocate, in conducting a prosecution in a general court martial of militia officers. In this prosecution be succeeded, though opposed by two of the principal lawyers in Charlestown, and maintained his composure and self-possession in spite of every effort to load him with reproach, and to intimidate him. It would not be easy to mention an instance of greater vigour and variety of talent than the exercise, at the same time, of these numerous and different occupations displays. In December 1782, it having become necessary for the King's troops to evacuate Charlestown, he went to St. Augustine in East Florida. He here edited a weekly newspaper, which was the first that had ever been published in that country. On this occasion a circumstance occurred, which exhibited in a striking manner the activity and perseverance of his mind. He had brought from Charlestown a printing press, which had been taken to pieces in order to be transported more readily, and a pressman. He had bad no doubt that the pressman could easily put the pieces together, but was now told that this was the business of a press-joiner, and that a pressman knew nothing about the matter. He found among some books he had brought with him one called a "Printer's Grammar," containing rude cuts of a printer's press; and by studying this book diligently for several days, he succeeded, with the help of a Negro carpenter, in putting the press into working order. He became captain of a corps of volunteers, and manager of a company of young officers, who had agreed to act plays for the benefit of the poorest of the loyal Refugees from Carolina and Georgia; and occasionally an actor himself. He had great success in Lusignan in Zara, and in Old Norval in Douglas; but did not succeed in Castalio in the Orphan ¿ and failed, as might be expected by those who knew him, in Comedy. In 1784 he left St. Augustine, and came to London, and at that time became acquainted with Dr. Baillie, which acquaintance ripened into a most intimate, steady, and affectionate friendship. In the spring of 1785 he spent three months at Paris, and in the autumn of that year fixed himself in London as a physician. His father, who had resided in this country from the beginning of the American war, had, during it, been so successful in business as to realize about 20,000/.; but, from giving too great credit, his circumstances became embarrassed about this time. In consequence of this Dr. Wells, at his first outset as a physician in London, was obliged to borrow of one of his friends 130/. and to make subsequent loans of other friends, until his debts amounted to 600/. But these loans constituted the whole of his debts; and he never suffered a tradesman who called for money to go away without it. He scarcely took a fee for the first few years of his being in London; and he had been ten years in it before his receipts from every source amounted to 250/. per annum. In the next five years he was enabled to pay off a part of his debt; and he had the satisfaction, before his death, of having discharged his whole debt, interest as well as principal; of having realized something that must be called a capital, though a very small one; and of being in the receipt of an income from his practice, which to a person of his moderate wants, and a bachelor, was abundant. It should be mentioned, that he never omitted to pay the income and property taxes with the most scrupulous exactness; and that during a part of the time in which his income was very confined, he allowed an annuity of 20/. to a relation in dependent circumstanees.

In 1788 he was admitted a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians in London, and was one of those Licentiates who in 1793 addressed a letter to the President and Fellows, claiming admission into the College, and founding their claim upon the charter by which the College was incorporated. Soon after the decision upon this claim in the Court of King's Bench, in the case of Dr. Stanger, he applied, in 1791, to the College for admission to an examination, in order that, if his fitness should be ascertained, he might be admitted a Fellow. This application was in strict conformity to a bye-law, by which, from the stress which was laid upon it by Lord Kenyon and the other Judges, and by Mr. Erskine, the leading Counsel for the College in Dr. Stanger's case, it was believed that the College would be governed. He was not admitted to an examination. This gave occasion to his very able Letter to Lord Kenyon. About four years ago he received a message from the President of the College, enquiring if he had any desire to become a Fellow, to which he answered that lit bad none.

In 1790 he was appointed one of the Physicians to the Finsbury Dispensary, and remained so until 1798. In 1793 he was admitted into the Royal Society of London. In 1798 he was elected Assistant Physician to St Thomas's Hospital; and in 1800 became one of the Physicians. In this last year, 1800, he was seized with a slight fit of apoplexy. This determined him to adopt a most abstemious mode of living; so that when he was at home, which was perhaps four or five days in the week, he lived upon milk and vegetable substances, and took a very small quantity of these: he had no subsequent attack of apoplexy. From the time, however, of his recovery from that ailment, his health was disordered in various ways, unconnected with his previous illness, and perhaps unconnected with one another. In 1812 be commenced some experiments, with a view of throwing light upon the nature of Dew, a subject which had long engaged his attention. A breathlessness and palpitation of the heart, and swelled feet, took place while he was employed in making these experiments; so that for a time he was obliged to interrupt them. Immediately on this interruption he wrote out a short statement of the facts he had ascertained, and the opinions he had formed, respecting the production of dew, and deposited it with a friend, lest death should surprise him, and the produce of his ingenuity and labour should be lost. He returned to his pursuit with eagerness, while his health was still precarious. When his enquiries were completed, he set about writing his Essay with anxious assiduity, doubtful of his living to finish it; and fancying, as he has expressed it, that each page he wrote was so much gained from oblivion. The mind of every generous reader must sympathize with him in his anxiety while his work was going on, and in his satisfaction when it was completed; though it should not be believed, that his name would have been in danger of being forgotten, if it bad not had this additional claim to remembrance. His Essay upon Dew was published in August 1814, and in that year he was admitted into the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1816 the President and Council of the Royal Society of London did him the honour of adjudging to him the gold and silver medals on Count Rumford's donation, for his Essay on Dew. It was impossible for him not to be highly gratified by this satisfactory testimony to the success of his anxious labours. From 1814 to the commencement of his last illness, his health in some respects improved - he was more active, had more strength, and higher spirits; but he remained extremely thin, and was constantly affected with an inability to lie upon the left side, and with swelled feet, and occasionally with palpitation of the heart, and breathlessness. In the beginning of the present year he observed that he frequently, as if by an involuntary act, made a deep and sudden inspiration; but no other new symptom of disorder was observed by him until the beginning of June. He was then several times affected at night with violent pains in his right side while he was lying upon that side, which went off when he turned upon his back. On the 10th or 12th he had one of these attacks. On the 14th he went on a visit for a few days to a friend in the country, and was as cheerful, and apparently as well as usual. On the next day he had no disposition to walk, but exerted himself remarkably to amuse a large company at dinner; in the evening he was languid and drowsy, went to bed earlier, and slept longer than he was accustomed to do. On the next day he returned to town. He at that time laboured under an inflammatory affection of the chest, and it was feared that when this abated, an effusion of fluid into some part of the cavity of the chest might take place; but it was believed that, though his recovery might be slow, and not complete, he would ultimately recover, and enjoy life on terms on which it would have been a blessing. This continued to be the opinion of his medical friends, Dr. Bailie and Dr. Lister, till the 8th of August, when he was suddenly seized, while he was sitting up, with the sensation of a tremulous motion in the chest, which he referred to the heart, from which time his pulse intermitted. After this no expectation was entertained of his recovery. His life was continued until the evening of the 18th of September; and until very near its termination his mind was clear and active, and his spirits calm and cheerful.

The following is a list of his writings in a chronological order: In 1780 and 1781 he published several small political things without his name. In the latter part of the year 1780 he published an account of Mr. Henry Lawrens, some time President of the American Congress, in the form of a letter, under the signature of Marcus, to the printer of the Public Advertiser.

In 1781 he wrote a political paper of some importance, by the desire of the Commandant of the Garrison of Charlestown, the present Gen. Nesbitt Balfour, on the following occasion. Men of rank in the American service, after having been taken prisoners and sent to their homes under their military paroles, used to make no scruple to appear again in arms against the British Government. The object of this paper was to show, by an appeal to military usage, and the nature of the thing itself, that such conduct subjected them to the punishment of death. The Commandant directed the frequent publication of this paper in the public newspapers; and it is probable that it was owing to this warning that Gen. Balfour, and Lord Moira thought themselves justified in putting to death a Coloael Haynes, the propriety of which act was afterwards a subject of debate in the British Parliament.

In 1792, "An Essay upon single Vision with two Eyes."

In 1794, two letters, in reply to Dr. Darwin's remarks, in his "Zoonomia," upon what Dr. Wells had written in his "Essay upon Vision," on the apparent rotation of bodies, which takes place during; the giddiness occasioned by turning ourselves quickly and frequently round. These are contained in the Gentlemen's Magazine for September and October.

In 1795, a Paper, upon the influence which incites the muscles to contract in Mr. Galvani's Experiments.

in 1791, "Experiments upon the Colour of the Blood." These two are published in the Philosophical Transactions.

In 1199, "A Letter to Lord Kenyon, relative to the Conduct of the Royal College of Physicians of London, posterior to the decision of the Court of King's Bench, in the case of Dr. Stanger."

In 1800, "Some Account of the Life of Mr. Anthony Lambert, formerly of Calcutta; and also, "Some Account of Mr. George Wilson, apothecary, of Bedfordstreet, Covent garden."

In 1802, "A Biographical Sketch of Dr. George Fordyce."

In 1804, "A short Account of Mr. John Savage, formerly of Charlestown;" and in 1809, "Biographical Memoirs of Dr. David Pitcairn." The five preceding publications appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine.

In 1811, "Some Experiments and Observations on Vision." This was published in the Philosophical Transactions.

In 1813, "A Biographical Sketch of Dr. Andrew Marshal." This was published in the Gentleman's Magazine.

In 1814, "An Essay upon Dew."

In 1815, "An Answer to Remarks in the Quarterly Review upon the Essay on Dew," in the same year, "An Answer to Mr. Prevost's Queries respecting the Explanation of Mr. B. Prevost's Experiments on Dew."

In 1816, "A short Letter on the Condensation of Water upon Glass." These three last appeared in Dr. Thomson's "Annals of Philosophy."

Almost all his writings upon Medical subjects are contained in the second and third volumes of the "Transactions of a Society for the Promotion of Medical and Chirurgical Knowledge."

The titles of these writings are,

  1. "Observations on Erysipelas."
  2. "An Instance of an entire want of Hair in the Human Body."
  3. "Observations on the Dropsy which succeeds Scarlet Fever."
  4. "A Case of Tetanus, with Observations on the Disease."
  5. "A Case of Aneurism of the Aorta, communicating with the Pulmonary Artery."
  6. "A Case of considerable Enlargement of the Cecum and Colon."
  7. "A Case of extensive Gangrene of the Cellular Membrane between the Muscles and Skin of the Neck and Chest."
  8. "On Rheumatism of the Heart."
  9. "On the presence of the Red Matter and Serum of the Blood in the Urine of Dropsy, which has not originated in Scarlet Fever."
  10. "Observations on Palmonary Consumption and Intermittent Fever, chiefly as Diseases opposed to each other; with an attempt to arrange several other Diseases, according to the Alliance or Opposition which exists between them, and one or other of the two former."

Besides these, there is a case of Aphenia Spasmodica described by him, and communicated by Dr. Carmichael Smith, in the second volume of the "Medical Communications."

He left behind him many papers; but in the beginning of his illness he directed all which then existed, with one exception, to be destroyed. The paper which he excepted relates to the difference of colour and form between the White and Negro races of men, and will be published. His other papers might have been of great use in accomplishing the literary projects be had formed. One of these, which he had thought of at times for 40 years, was to show that there is a material difference in the manner in which we acquire our ideas of the primary and secondary qualities of matter. He was reading, with a view to publishing upon this subject, when he was attacked by his fatal illness. He had also an intention of composing several papers upon Vision, which he would have presented to the Royal Society, the chief of which would have treated of those phænomena of light which have been denominated by authors, coloured shadows, or ocular spectra. When this should have been done, he intended to have collected all his writings upon Vision into one volume, and to have inscribed it, as a tribute of gratitude, to the memory of Robert Wells, his father. It is not known that he had any other distinct literary projects; but there can be no doubt that his collections upon Medical subjects, which were very large and numerous, would have afforded, in his hands, the materials of many interesting and useful publications.

It would be difficult to delineate fully, and to appreciate exactly, the character of this eminent person. His literary productions have made him well known as a learned and skilful Physician, as an acute and inventive Philosopher, and as a perspicuous, vigorous, and elegant Writer; but those who knew him personally estimate him much more highly than those who are acquainted only with his writings. His powers of mind were strong, acute, comprehensive, and versatile. He was capable of the most close and long-continued attention, and of directing this attention at pleasure. His knowledge was profound, accurate, various, and ready for use. He was not so exact and minute a classical Scholar as English Public Schools and Universities produce, nor a deep Mathematician; but he had read some of the Greek and most of the Latin Classics with great attention, wrote Latin easily and correctly, and had made himself master of the elementary books of the inferior branches of Mathematicks. He was well acquainted with Natural Philosophy, and particularly, as his writings show, with Optics; and had learned, by reading, the facts of Modern Chemistry. He was an acute Metaphysician, and intimately versed in the theories of Morals and Politicks. He knew with great minuteness History, ancient and modern, civil and literary; was practically as well as theoretically acquainted with Commerce, and had studied Political Economy with considerable attention. But his mind was remarkable, not so much for being stored with particular facts, as with general principles; and the readiness with which new observations were referred to and judged of by those principles, was a matter of surprise to those who heard him converse. He had studied Belles Lettres with great success. He was familiar with the best writers in the English language, and wrote it himself with great purity and with singular perspicuity; and, when the occasion called for it, with force and elegance. His taste was in an extraordinary degree correct; and it is probable that it owed its correctness, in a great measure, to the habit he was in, of exercising it upon every piece of composition which came before him. He seldom read any thing, even in manuscript, without noticing in the margin, not only the errors in fact and reasoning, but those in style.

He was highly interesting in conversation, not only from the information he conveyed, but from the vivacity and acuteness of his remarks; he was fond of making it an exercise of talent, a sort of intellectual fencing match, a trial of skill, a contest for mastery, as well as a means of promoting benevolence and knowledge. In active life he was remarkable for promptness and decision, which on all great occasions were united with much prudence and caution. He was laboriously diligent; eager, and steady in his pursuits, and less satisfied with any present success, than cheered by it in his attempts to obtain greater. He was frugal, yet liberal; high-minded, and unwilling to be obliged, perhaps uneasy under obligation, but most grateful for kindness; resentful, yet placable; irascible, and indulging his feeling when it arose from trifling causes, but exercising the utmost self-command under very great provocation, if the occasion was important, and propriety required it; indignant at insolence and oppression, and regardless of all personal consequences in the expression of his indignation, but submissive to the appointments of Heaven, and calm and cheerful under the sufferings which flowed from them: a sense of duty was the paramount feeling in his mind, to which hatred and love, fear and desire, gave way; and which danger and difficulty served only to make more active and vigorous.