Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Thomas Beddoes, MD (1760–1808)

Thomas Beddoes. Pencil drawing after E. Bird. Wellcome Collection.

Born in Shropshire in 1760 into a modest family, Thomas Beddoes was a precocious child, insatiable for books, and disinclined to participate in games. Through the help of a wise grandfather, he was introduced to a local surgeon who used him as a helper at his surgery and further stimulated his interests in books and culture. After attending local schools, Beddoes continued his education at Oxford (Pembroke College), where he excelled in Latin and modern languages. He went to London to study anatomy and then to Edinburgh to study medicine, all along translating dissertations and scientific work from German and Italian and producing papers on geology, botany, and chemistry.

After obtaining his medical degree from Oxford University in 1786, Beddoes traveled abroad, met scientists such as Lavoisier, and at home formed a friendship with Erasmus Darwin. Working without pay as a reader in chemistry in Oxford, he gave lectures that attracted an extraordinary number of students. But he attacked the librarian for not discharging his duties and for neglecting to buy modern scientific books; supported the American and French revolutions; and questioned the desirability of an Indian Empire. There was an outcry and he was forced to resign.

He then settled in the west of England. Quickly gaining a reputation as an innovative physician, he established in Bristol a clinic to treat patients with tuberculosis (1793–1799). Believing butchers to suffer less from tuberculosis than others, he kept cows alongside the building and encouraged them to breathe on his patients. This became a source of ridicule among the people living in the neighborhood.

In 1799, with the financial support of Josiah Wedgewood, Beddoes established near Bristol the Pneumatic Institution for Inhalation Gas Therapy. He attracted talented scientists and physicians and encouraged them to pursue medical research, especially in the use of gases for respiratory diseases. He used oxygen to treat asthma and tuberculosis and investigated the use of nitrous oxide as an anesthetic. To that effect he appointed the young Humphry Davy as superintendent of the Institution. It was active for only three years, from 1789 to 1801. During the typhus pandemic of 1800, it became a general hospital.

Throughout his life, Beddoes was a prolific writer on historical, political, and scientific subjects. He produced more than thirty books as well as many pamphlets and articles. He wrote on renal calculi, scurvy, tuberculosis, and other infections. He promoted better conditions for the poor, denounced the evils of drunkenness, and advocated public education on healthy living. He criticized Britain’s prime minister William Pitt for being ignorant of the conditions of the poor and negligent of the potential useful applications of scientific knowledge. He believed his duty as a physician was to prevent disease through understanding and through its social, material, and physiological causes. He died in 1808 a disappointed man, one who during his life “scattered abroad the [wild oats] of knowledge, from which neither branch nor blossom nor fruit has resulted.”

Further reading

  1. Jacques Barzun. Thomas Beddoes, or Medicine and Social Conscience. JAMA April 3, 1972;220:51.
  2. Dorothy Stansfield. Thomas Beddoes MD, 1760–1808. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, dist. Kluwer Academic, 1984.
  3. Thomas Beddoes. Wikpedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Beddoes.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Spring 2023 



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