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Bloomsbury and the Bloomsbury Project

Bloomsbury People

What is the Bloomsbury Project?

The Leverhulme-funded UCL Bloomsbury Project was established to investigate 19th-century Bloomsbury’s development from swampy rubbish-dump to centre of intellectual life

Led by Professor Rosemary Ashton, with Dr Deborah Colville as Researcher, the Project has traced the origins, Bloomsbury locations, and reforming significance of hundreds of progressive and innovative institutions

Many of the extensive archival resources relating to these institutions have also been identified and examined by the Project, and Bloomsbury’s developing streets and squares have been mapped and described

This website is a gateway to the information gathered and edited by Project members during the Project’s lifetime, 1 October 2007–30 April 2011, with the co-operation of Bloomsbury’s institutions, societies, and local residents

John Elliotson (1791–1868)

a summary of his Bloomsbury connections

He was appointed Professor of the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the University of London (later University College London) from October 1831

He replaced John Conolly, who resigned from the chair of what was at first called the Nature and Treatment of Diseases, in order to return to private practice in the Midlands  

Though born in London, Elliotson had studied medicine, like John Conolly and so many of the early professors at the University of London, in Edinburgh, graduating MD in 1810; unlike the others, he went on to take a second MD at Cambridge in 1821

Elliotson was a reform-minded doctor who made early use of the stethoscope in Britain (he is credited with introducing its use to this country); he was also the first to use iodine to treat goitre, and to suggest a link between atmospheric conditions and hay fever (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

He was President of the Royal Society of Medicine, which attracted many radical and brilliant physicians

As Dean of the Medical Faculty at the University of London he urged the Council in a letter of 11 July 1834 to raise a loan of £2,000 to reach the amount required to open the University’s long-planned Hospital, at first called the North London Hospital, in October (College Correspondence 1834, no. 3243, UCL Special Collections)

Elliotson wrote to the Council again in late 1836 or early 1837, giving his and his colleagues’ reasons for wanting the hospital’s name to be changed from the North London to University Hospital or University College Hospital

“At the foundation of the hospital”, he wrote, “all of us upon whom the labors & support of the Institution were to fall, were anxious that it should be called University Hospital: but we were overruled by others, not destined to labor for it, on the ground that such a name would prevent tories, hostile to the University, from giving it their support”

This reason, he continued, “appeared to us perfectly invalid, because concessions to tories had always failed; & they have failed on this occasion. The tories are equally cold & hostile to the hospital, under the name of North London”

“They do not subscribe to it, & indeed, the Institution is supported not by the subscriptions of any sect or party of men, but by the students, whose fees we [i.e. the medical professors who work at the Hospital] pay into the Hospital chest”

“No better time could be chosen for changing the name, because the University has just changed its own” – Elliotson refers here to the fact that the Government had finally awarded a charter to the University in 1836, eight years after it had opened in Gower Street and had been denied a charter on account of its ‘godlessness’

The condition of the charter to be awarded now was that the University change its name to University College London and that a different entity, confusingly called the University of London, be granted a separate charter to award degrees to students of both University College and King’s College London (Negley Harte, The University of London 1836–1986, 1986)

Elliotson concluded his request to Council for the change of name with a robust postscript

“P.S. May I be pardoned for adding that this is the request of all the medical Professors who give their gratuitous services to the Hospital & who solely support it at a great expense of time & labour” (College Correspondence, no. 3437, UCL Special Collections)

The Hospital’s name was duly changed

In 1837 Elliotson began demonstrating mesmerism as a therapeutic tool in the hospital and in his lectures at University College

Colleagues were unhappy about the use of mesmerism, or animal magnetism, as it was also known, in medical treatment, as was the Council

Elliotson wrote to the College’s Committee of Management, in the third person, on 23 May 1838, asking permission to give “a clinical lecture upon the important philosophical & medicinal facts of the ill appreciated and stigmatised agency commonly known by the name of animal magnetism”

His reason for making this request, he continued, was that “the phenomena which he has had the happiness to effect in the Hospital have gradually attracted the earnest attention & wonder of the highest scientific characters of Oxford & Cambridge, of the Royal Society, King’s College &c & of the great body of medical men engaged in private practice & in the public schools”

As the Hospital theatre was not large enough to hold all these interested parties, he requested the use of a theatre in the College for his lecture (College Correspondence 1838, no. 4295)

The large attendance alluded to in this letter had been for his demonstration on 10 May 1838, when the Earl of Burlington, the Duke of Roxburgh, Michael Faraday, Charles Dickens, and George Cruikshank were among the audience (The Lancet, 26 May 1838; Alison Winter, Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain, 1998)

When Council met to discuss Elliotson’s request, a vote was taken on whether to allow him to give the lecture on magnetism; the decision was negative, but only by eight votes against five (Council Minutes, vol. III, 1835–1842, 26 May 1838, UCL Records Office)

One of Elliotson’s erstwhile allies, Thomas Wakley, editor of the Lancet and a medical reformer like Elliotson, had become suspicious of the theatricality of the demonstrations

In order to test the experiments which Elliotson was carrying out on two teenage sisters, Irish maidservants, Jane and Elizabeth O’Key, Wakley publicly invited Elliotson to mesmerise them at Wakley’s house in Bedford Square in August 1838

Wakley became convinced of fraud, and attacked Elliotson in subsequent numbers of his paper

The University authorities were increasingly alarmed at the bad publicity and withdrew permission for the O’Keys to remain as patients in the Hospital and for mesmerism to be practised there, whereupon Elliotson resigned on 27 December 1838, expressing his desire that the students should have their fees for the term refunded (College Correspondence 1838, no. 4454, UCL Special Collections)

His popularity as a lecturer meant that his students got up a petition protesting at his being effectively forced out of his job

Though 124 students signed a resolution requesting Council to try to get back “our esteemed professor”, 113 signed an amendment merely expressing their thanks for his “valuable services as a teacher of medicine” and their “regret” at the circumstances that caused his resignation (petition to Council, 5 January 1839, College Correspondence, no. 4490)

Elliotson’s career was not completely ruined by these unfortunate events: in 1842 he founded a mesmeric journal, the Zoist, and in March 1850 established a Mesmeric Infirmary in Bedford Street

He continued in private practice, numbering among his admiring patients both Dickens and Thackeray

He taught Dickens how to make mesmeric passes, and was asked to be godfather to one of his children, Walter, born in February 1841 (The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. Madeleine House, Graham Storey et al, vols II and III)

Thackeray dedicated Pendennis (1850) to Elliotson, believing him to have saved his life (though not through mesmerism) when he was extremely ill with a fever while writing the novel

Inviting Elliotson to dinner in a letter of 12 January 1863, Thackeray posed the following riddle:

‘Q. Why is John Elliotson like a whalebone rod with the lump of lead at each end?
A. Because he is a Life Preserver’

(The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, ed Gordon N. Ray, vol. IV)

For more general biographical information about John Elliotson, see his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

This page last modified 13 April, 2011 by Deborah Colville


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