Thomas Hodgkin

Portrait of Thomas Hodgkin

Of the various names bestowed eponymously upon diseases described in the nineteenth century, the name of Hodgkin’s disease seems to have been the most durable. This is especially so since this once fatal malady can now be cured by modern chemotherapy. The man himself was born in 1798 and lived until 1866.

By prescriptive modern standards his training was unconventional.  Educated privately by his father, he first learned Latin and Greek, then German, French, and Spanish. He attempted unsuccessfully to become an apothecary; enrolled at Guys medical school in 1819; then studied in Edinburgh and while there wrote a paper about the spleen. In Paris he learned early epidemiological techniques under Pierre Louis and made rounds with Laënnec. He attempted to introduce the use of the stethoscope at Guys but was opposed and ridiculed by the more conservative physicians, and on one occasion saw his new-fangled instrument used as a flower pot. In 1823 he qualified as doctor of medicine in Edinburgh.

Having inherited some property from his family, he spent time travelling in Europe with his friend, the philantropist Moses Montefiore. Returning to Guys in 1825, he first worked as a volunteer clerk. A year later he was appointed curator of the morbid anatomy museum. During his tenure he gave excellent lectures, carried out numerous autopsies, greatly increased the collection of anatomical specimens, and described conditions such as  aortic incompetence (in advance of Corrigan), carpal tunnel syndrome, etc

His major claim to fame, however, was a paper published in 1832 on patients with enlarged spleens and lymph nodes. He named his paper “On some Morbid Appearances  of the Absorbent Glands and Spleen”. It was only later, in 1856, and also at Guys Hospital, that Samuel Wilks described similar cases and first used the term Hodgkin’s disease. Although some of the patients reported by Hodgkin also had coexisting processes such as tuberculosis, later microscopic studies confirmed that most had the malignant lymphatic cancer now known by his name.

As a Quaker, Hodgkin always wore black, spoke in a formal archaic manner, and was regarded as somewhat of an eccentric. In the Quaker tradition he espoused many liberal causes, for which he became somewhat unpopular. In 1836, after an  altercation with an influential trustee of  Guys, he was passed over and not appointed assistant physician at the hospital. For a while he taught pathology at  St Thomas’; later pursued other interests, advocated  improved public health measures, the abolition of slavery, and the amelioration of the condition of natives in African countries and Canada. He was against smoking and supported projects to improve the lot of the poor and of the Jews in Palestine. He also became interested in linguistics, electricity, and magnetism. With his friend Montefiore he traveled several times to Palestine. There in 1866 he died of  dysentery. He was buried in Jaffa, where later a memorial column was erected in his memory.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Fall 2016  |  Sections  |  Physicians of Note