Dr John Coakley Lettsom

1744 - 1st Nov 1815


Born in Tortola, of a Quaker family. One of the few reported examples (another is David Barclay, q.v.) of unilateral manumission of a group of enslaved people.

  1. John Lettsom Coakley has an entry in the ODNB as 'physician and philanthropist'. The entry records: 'After his father's death Lettsom returned to the West Indies, in October 1767, to take possession of a plantation his father had bequeathed to him. He there performed a characteristically generous gesture: ‘The moment I came of age’, he recalled in 1791, ‘I found my chief property was in slaves, and without considering of future support, I gave them freedom, and began the world without fortune, without a friend, without person, and without address’ (Pettigrew, 2.36).' It goes on later to say: 'Shortly before his death a large West Indian fortune was bequeathed to him and his grandson by the widow of his son, Pickering Lettsom.' His grandson in this context appears to have been William Nanton Lettsom, who also has an entry in the ODNB as 'textual scholar and translator' that describes William Nanton Lettsom with no further explanation as 'financially independent.' The benefactress was Ruth Lettsom nee Hodge (previously Georges) (q.v.), who had married as her second husband Pickering Lettsom just before he died. The Chancery suit of Georges v Georges, presumably connected, led to the estates being put up for sale in 1825.

  2. Will of John Coakley Lettsom Doctor of Physic of Basinghall Street [made in 1795] proved 04/03/1816. He left his estate at Grovehill in Camberwell to his wife for life and then in trust. He left her also £100, explaining that she was well provided for by the will of her late father. He left his MS, papers and books to his son John Miers Lettsom, and his residuary estate divided among his children and grandchildren. [In the event his son John Miers Lettsom (1771-1799) predeceased him; and John Coakley Lettsom had before his death in a period of straitened circumstances sold the house at Grove Hill which he had built in 1779 and where he had established a museum, library and hothouses and greenhouses].

  3. '1769, 8 June Lettsom (Littsom) Johannes Coakley. Ex insula Tortola India Occidentalis, June 8, 1769, aet. 24. Med. M.D. Leyden, June 20, 1769, "Observationes ad vires Theae Pertinentes." Thesis at R.S.M. On the title he is "Tortola-Americanus." Dedicated to John Fothergill, M.D.; Sam Fothergill of Warrington, brother of John; Abraham Sutcliffe, surgeon, of Settle. L.R.C.P. Lond., 1770. F.R.S., 1771. M.D. Marischal Coll., Aberdeen, 1788. F.R.C.P. Edin., 1791. Born 1744. Died 1815. Vide Pettigrew, D.N.B., and Munk. Father of John Miers Lettsom (infra.)'

  4. The portrait is of 'John Coakley Lettsom, physician, with his family, in the garden of Grove Hill, Camberwell, c. 1786' and is in the Wellcome Collection, where further details can be found.


A.W. Woodruff, 'Lettsom and his family in Tortola', J.R.Soc Med. 66:11 pp 41-46 1973.

  1. J. F. Payne, ‘Lettsom, John Coakley (1744–1815)’, rev. Roy Porter, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/16527, accessed 2 Sept 2016]; Arthur Sherbo, ‘Lettsom, William Nanson (1796–1865)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/16528, accessed 2 Sept 2016]. Another grandson, Sir Henry Miers Elliot has an entry as 'administrator in India and historian', Peter Penner, ‘Elliot, Sir Henry Miers (1808–1853)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/8663, accessed 2 Sept 2016]; Gentleman's Magazine Jan-June 1817 Vol. LXXXVII part 1 pp. 140-145 at p. 144 for the outcome of the suit in favour of John Coakley Lettsom before his death.

  2. PROB 11/1578/84.

  3. R.W. Innes Smith, English-speaking students of medicine at the University of Leyden (Edinburgh/London : Oliver and Boyd, 1932), p. 140.

  4. For further details, including the names of those in the portrait, go to the Wellcome Collection.

We are grateful to Bill Norton and Stanley R. Criens for their assistance with compiling this entry.

Further Information

Ann Miers
John Miers; Samuel Fothergill; Harriot; Eliza; Edward; Pickering
Leyden [1769 ]

Legacies Summary

Cultural (4)

General Dispensary...... 
notes →
Medical and Chirurgical Society of London...... 
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Founder member
Royal Humane Society...... 
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Royal Society...... 
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For the full record of Lettsom's membership of the Royal Society see Royal...

Physical (1)

Country house
Grove Hill [Built] 
description →
House, gardens, museum, library and greenhouses built at Grove Hill, Camberwell by John Coakley Lettsom in 1779. He sold the estate in a period of financial pressure before his...

Relationships (2)

Father-in-law → Daughter-in-law
Notes →
Ruth Lettsom also left John Coakley Lettsom a significant fortune in 1809....
Business associates
Notes →
Lettsom took on Fothergill's medical practice in London and was the author of Memoirs of John Fothergill M.D. (read before the Medical Society of London 17/07/1782 and 23/10/1782, 4th ed....

Addresses (2)

Basinghall Street, London, Middlesex, London, England
Grove Hill, Camberwell, Surrey, London, England