Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

John S. Bristowe: Victorian physician and polymath

Arpan K. Banerjee 
Solihull, UK


Photograph of John Syer Bristowe
Photograph of John Syer Bristowe (1827–1895), English physician. G. Jerrard. 1895. Accessed via Wikimedia.

John Syer Bristowe was a Victorian physician and polymath who served his alma mater, St. Thomas’ Hospital, with great distinction. He was born into a medical family on 19 June 1827 in Camberwell in Southeast London.1 One of his brothers, Thomas Bristowe, became a Conservative Member of Parliament from 1885-1892. In his youth he was a good athlete known for his boxing skills.

In 1846 he entered St. Thomas’ Hospital medical school,2 beginning a lifelong link with this great medical institution in London, which traces its origins back to 1173, was named after St. Thomas Becket, and is one of the oldest medical institutions in the world. By all accounts Bristowe was a brilliant student, winning several prizes and the treasurer’s gold medal in 1848. He was even awarded a medal in botany by the Apothecaries Society that year. He qualified with a medical MBBS degree from London University in 1850 and obtained his membership in the Royal College of Surgeons the previous year—a remarkable feat. That year he was appointed curator of the museum and pathologist to the hospital. In 1852 he was awarded the MD degree from the University of London.3 He was only twenty-five years old.

In 1854 he became assistant physician at St. Thomas’ Hospital, which at that time was in Southwark, and served in a number of diverse roles including lecturer in anatomy, physiology, botany, therapeutics, pathology, and eventually medicine. In 1860 he became full physician at the hospital, a prestigious post not easily obtained. His interests included neurology and pathology. He was a man of prodigious industry, a brilliant teacher, and a methodical clinician. He married in 1856 and fathered ten children.

Bristowe was a prolific writer. In 1862 he published a book on phosphorus poisoning,4 a condition commonly seen in matchstick makers. He had an interest in infectious diseases and in 1862 co-wrote On the Cattle Plague with John Burdon Sanderson5 about a viral disease also known as rinderpest. Sanderson went on to become Professor of Physiology at Oxford and then Regius Professor of Medicine from 1895-1904, followed by William Osler.

Bristowe’s most famous book was A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Medicine6 published in 1876, which ran to seven editions. The book was over 1,000 pages in length and became the standard textbook of clinical medicine in its era with a worldwide readership.

In 1879 he co-wrote the book Diseases of the Intestines and Peritoneum.7 Bristowe also wrote a book on neurology, one of his chief clinical interests, and in 1888 Clinical Lectures and Essays on Diseases of the Nervous System was published.8 He sketched brilliantly and did many of his own illustrations.

Bristowe became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1858, serving as examiner and censor. He gave the Croonian Lectures in 1872 and the Lumleian Lecture in 1879 on “The Pathological Relations of Voice and Speech,”9 which was later published as a 170-page book dedicated to James Bennett FRS, the president of the Royal College of Physicians and Bristowe’s former teacher.

In 1881 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London, a rare honor for a practicing clinician, and received an honorary LLD from Edinburgh University in 1884. He was elected president of the Pathological Society of London in 1885, also an unusual honor for a physician. He was president of the Neurological Society in 1891 and his presidential address “On the relations of Mind and Brain” was published in the journal Brain that year. He became president of the Medical Society of London in 1893, which was founded by John Lettsome in 1773 and is one of the oldest medical societies in the UK. Bristowe delivered the Lettsomian Lecture that year on neurosyphilis.

In addition to his huge workload, he found time to edit the St. Thomas’ Hospital reports from 1870-1876. In the mid-1870s he was one of a group of doctors photographed as “The Leaders in Medicine and Surgery” for the National Portrait Gallery, London, where the picture still resides. An oil-on-canvas painting of Bristowe done by his daughter Beatrice is also present in St. Thomas’ Hospital and in the Southwark art collection, London. A little-known fact about Bristowe is that he was a published poet. His first book of poems appeared in 185010 and he was also a prolific watercolorist and sketcher.11

In 1892 he retired from St. Thomas’ Hospital and died on 20 August 1895. His legacy includes a prize and medal named after him that is awarded to a medical student for pathology.



  1. Power D’Arcy J S Bristowe Dictionary of National biography 1901 supplement
  2. Brown G H J S Bristowe https://history.rcplondon.ac.uk/inspiring-physicians/john-syer-bristowe
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Syer_Bristowe
  4. Bristowe J S On Phosphorus poisoning in match manufacturers 1862
  5. Bristowe J S Burdon Sanderson J On the cattle plague 1862
  6. Bristowe J S A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Medicine Lond 1876
  7. Bristowe J S et al Diseases of the Intestines and Peritoneum New York 1879
  8. Bristowe J S Clinical lectures and Essays on Diseases of the Nervous System 1888
  9. Bristowe J S The physiological and pathological relations of the voice and speech London 1880
  10. Bristowe J S Poems London 1850
  11. King’s college Archives, London



ARPAN K. BANERJEE, MBBS (LOND), FRCP, FRCR, FBIR, qualified in medicine at St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, London. He was a consultant radiologist in Birmingham from 1995-2019. He served on the scientific committee of the Royal College of Radiologists 2012-2016. He was Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology from 2012-2017. He is the Treasurer of ISHRAD and adviser to radiopaedia. He is the author/co-author of numerous papers and articles on a variety of clinical medical, radiological, and medical historical topics and seven books including Classic Papers in Modern Diagnostic Radiology 2005 and The History of Radiology OUP 2013.


Summer 2020  |  Sections  |  Physicians of Note

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