Lives of the fellows

John (Sir) Forbes

b.December 1787 d.13 November 1861
MD Edin Hon DCL Oxon LRCS Edin FRCP(1844) FRS

Born at Cuttlebrae, Banffshire, the fourth son of Alexander Forbes, John Forbes was sent for his schooling to Fordyce Academy, where he formed a lifelong friendship with his fellow pupil, Andrew Clark, and to Aberdeen Grammar School. From there he proceeded to the Marischal College, and thence to Edinburgh University for a year. Having taken the diploma of surgery in 1807, he joined the Navy as an assistant surgeon. He served, mainly in the North Sea and the West Indies, until 1816, when he was demobilised on half-pay. He returned to Edinburgh to graduate in the year following, and then spent five years in general practice at Penzance. In 1822 he began to practise at Chichester, where he made the acquaintance of another lifelong friend, John Conolly. Although popular as a physician and largely responsible for the foundation of the local Infirmary, his fame spread through his written works. In 1821 he rendered his profession a lasting service by translating Laennec’s Treatise on the Diseases of the Chest; and he did much by his own writings and example to establish auscultation in England. His next task, in 1832-35, was the joint editorship, with Tweedie and Conolly, of the Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine.

He was at this time planning the publication of a journal, at once more scientific and less ponderous than Johnson’s Medico-Chirurgical Review. Thus, in January 1836, there was issued the first number of the British and Foreign Medical Review, which continued to appear quarterly, with Forbes as its editor, till October 1847. In 1840, in order to be conveniently situated for editing the Review, he relinquished his lucrative practice in Chichester and started afresh in London. In spite of his appointment, through Sir James Clark’s influence, as Physician to the Queen’s Household in the same year, he could expect only pecuniary loss as the result of this move. The Review earned a high reputation and paid its way for some eight years. Its eventual decline was hastened by an article written by Forbes himself, under the title of Homoeo-pathy, Allopathy and ‘Young Physic’ (January 1846), in which he appeared to countenance some of the doctrines of the homeopaths, although he scorned their more extreme practices. The article was beneficial in its ultimate effects, in so far as it questioned the contemporary excessive drugging of patients, but at the time it provoked severe censure; and the Lancet, nearly sixteen years later, printed a scathing obituary notice of its author, in sharp contrast to the eulogies normally accorded to the deceased of his day. Nevertheless, official circles continued to uphold his name: Oxford gave him an honorary degree for his services to the B.M.A. in 1852; and the Queen knighted him in 1853. Abroad he was an honoured member of many learned and scientific societies.

In his later years Forbes investigated phrenology, abstinence from alcohol, clairvoyance and mesmerism. In his private life he was noted for his extreme generosity. In character he was courageous, determined, outspoken and impetuous; if he lacked imagination and originality, he was lacking, too, in malice and bias.

G H Brown

[Lancet, 1861; B.M.J., 1861; Medical Times and Gazette, 1861; British and Foreign Med .-Chir. Review, 1862, i, 271; British and Foreign Med. Review, 1846, xxi, 225; D.N.B., xix, 405]

(Volume IV, page 34)

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