Lives of the fellows

Robert Gooch

b.June 1784 d.16 February 1830
MD Edin(1807) LRCP(1812)

Robert Gooch, M.D., was one of the most sagacious of modern physicians. He was born at Yarmouth, co. Norfolk, in June, 1784. His father was in early life a master in the royal navy, and afterwards commanded a vessel in the merchant service. The circumstances of his parents were not such as to enable them to give their son the advantages of a good classical school, and after an indifferent education, he was apprenticed to Mr. Borrett, a surgeon and apothecary at Yarmouth. He had not been remarkable for proficiency at school; but his mind and his character developed during his apprenticeship. He was industrious and painstaking, and spared no effort to compensate for the deficiencies of his early education.

An accidental acquaintance with a gentleman of the name of Harley, which took place at this time, had a great and lasting influence on Gooch’s character. Mr. Harley was nearly blind; he was fond of reading, and, from the state of his eyes, dependent upon others for his literary enjoyments. His studies were miscellaneous; history, chemistry, sometimes medicine, and very often metaphysics. Gooch used to pass most of his evenings in reading aloud to Mr. Harley. Amongst the books so read were Bishop Berkeley’s works, Hartley, and Hume’s essays. Mr. Harley used to discuss the subjects of their reading with his young friend, and, being a man of acute intellect, he called into action those faculties of mind in which Gooch was by nature most gifted. At an early age he became accustomed to reason on abstract subjects; and had it not been for his intercourse with Mr. Harley, Gooch might perhaps have neglected altogether the cultivation of his reasoning powers at the time of life when that cultivation is most important.

Somewhat later, but before he removed from Mr. Borrett’s, Gooch had the good fortune to make the acquaintance and secure the friendship of Mr. William Taylor, of Norwich, a man of varied attainments, whose name is intimately connected with the literature of his age. Notwithstanding the limited circumstances of Gooch’s family, aggravated by the detention of his father in a French prison, his mother and an aged aunt determined to send him to Edinburgh, but they had to encounter great sacrifices to do so. With scanty means he arrived there in October, 1804, and was singularly fortunate in the friendships he then formed. Of those with whom he associated on the most intimate terms, all attained to eminence in their respective spheres; Dr. Lockyer, of Plymouth (Roll, vol. iii, p. 74), Dr. Fearon, of Sunderland, Dr. Henry Herbert Southey, to be mentioned in a subsequent page, and though last in order of time, first in influence on his subsequent career, his future patron, Dr., afterwards Sir William Knighton, bart. (Roll, vol. iii, p. 39).

Gooch was not slow to appreciate the profound sagacity and commanding power over the minds of others, which so remarkably characterized this distinguished person, and through the whole of his after life was accustomed on all matters of importance to apply to Sir William Knighton for advice. Gooch graduated doctor of medicine at Edinburgh 24th June, 1807 (D.M.I. de Rachitide), and spent the following winter in London, as a student at the Borough hospitals. Circumstances led him to commence his professional career as a general practitioner at Croydon. But the death of his wife and only child induced him, after two or three years, to relinquish his business there and remove to London, and endeavour to obtain practice as an accoucheur physician. Several of his friends were already established in London, doing well, and disposed to serve him.

He had gained some reputation by his writings, chiefly in the London Medical Review, and he had acquired a consciousness of his own powers. Dr. Gooch was admitted a Licentiate of the College of Physicians 6th March, 1812, and established himself in Aldermanbury close to his friend, Dr. Babington, by whom and by Mr. George Young, an eminent surgeon in the city, he was warmly patronised. On the death of Dr. Thynne, he succeeded as physician to the Westminster Lying-in hospital and as lecturer on Midwifery at St. Bartholomew’s hospital, and shortly afterwards was appointed physician to the City of London Lying-in hospital. Early in 1816 he had removed from the city to the west-end, where he was warmly patronised by his friend, Sir William Knighton.

Success in business rapidly followed, and thenceforward was only limited by a constant state of bodily weakness and ill-health, which frequently obliged him to leave London for weeks, and even months, together. In 1821 he had published an excellent translation of Golis’s Treatise on the Hydrocephalus Acutus or Inflammatory Water of the Brain. In April, 1826, he was appointed librarian to the king; an office delightful to him, from his fondness for general literature, and honourable, especially from its being the first instance in which it was ever held by a medical man. For this, as for numerous other acts of kindness, he was indebted to Sir William Knighton. The few remaining years of Dr. Gooch’s life exhibited a striking contrast between mental vigour and bodily weakness.

His best health was that of a complete valetudinarian, but he was able to see a considerable number of patients most days, and to devote some hours to literary labour. He died after six weeks of rapid decay on the 16th of February, 1830, at the early age of forty-five, and was buried at Croydon. Dr. Gooch left by his second wife, a sister of Mr. Benjamin Travers the well-known surgeon, two sons and a daughter.

Dr. Gooch (we are told by Dr. Robert Ferguson) was regarded by Southey the poet as one of the most remarkable men of his time; and such was also the opinion formed of him by Sir Walter Scott and by Lockhart. Naturally endowed with great talents and remarkable acuteness of understanding, he added to them a highly cultivated taste and much scientific and literary acquirement. His mind was singularly intolerant of error; he was rarely deceived by appearances or misled by the innumerable frauds by which self-love warps our judgment. It was necessary for him to see clearly, otherwise he could not see at all.

His ardent temperament, which even a life of suffering could not subdue, made him feel a deep interest in all things with which he came in contact. Hence his powers of attention to, and his firm grasp of, a subject—its constant presence to his mind—were the consequences of his mental constitution always striving to arrive at clear and true results. Besides these characteristics, he had the great gift of knowing, not only his knowledge, but also his ignorance. His conversation was singularly forcible, both as to expression and illustration; and so totally devoid of all assumption of superiority that one soon felt assured of an excellent and sympathising listener on any subject one had at heart, and the sum of one’s knowledge was speedily laid bare under his rare talent of questioning and suggestive comment.

During the latter years of his life Dr. Gooch devoted much time to the study of mental disease. Such was the closeness of his watch over "public cases," and such the felicity of his analysis, that the Chancellor of the day referred the most intricate and important of these to his practised judgment. Not only was he employed by the highest legal functionary in thus aiding him in clearing away the obscurities which darkened these questions, but he did not hesitate to bring into public view cases in which he conceived individuals to have been falsely charged with madness.

During a short life, embittered by almost constant illness, he succeeded in attaining to great eminence in his profession, and left behind him valuable contributions to medical knowledge. His Account of some of the most important Diseases peculiar to Women 8vo., Lond., 1829, will be ever considered a standard work. Its general features are its pre-eminently practical character, its manly tone, devoid of trash and frippery, an ardent love of truth, a dislike of all confident assertions, and an abhorrence of all means which prostitute knowledge to notoriety or to gain.

Besides his acknowledged writings, he at various times enriched several of the periodical publications, both medical and otherwise, with anonymous contributions. Many of these have been recognised, particularly two in the Quarterly Review—the one on Plague and Contagion, the other on Anatomy and the Anatomical Bill. His article on the Plague settled the question of the contagious nature of that disease, at least for his own time, and should the same controversy be again revived will furnish facts and arguments for the confutation of future anti-contagion-ists. The article on Anatomy placed the question in a right point of view, by proving that it is the interest of the public rather than of the medical profession that the impediments to the practical study of that science should be removed. This article was dictated from his death bed. It is an interesting fact that nearly all his writings were composed while confined to his bed by sickness; and often, when too feeble to hold his pen, he dictated page after page with a mind as active and powerful as ever.

As a practitioner Dr. Gooch was eminently successful; he seized with consummate tact the minute distinctions of obscure diseases; and whilst no one was more unfettered by blind submission to authorities, he was always ready and anxious to attend to the suggestions of others, however young and inexperienced. As a lecturer Dr. Gooch is said to have been particularly striking and attractive, and the same was said of him in his conversation: in both respects he was noted for his clear and graphic descriptions, apt illustrations, and for his lively as well as impressive remarks. His language was peculiarly simple, and at the same time terse, forcible, and well chosen, and few could listen to him on any subject without a speedy conviction that he was no ordinary person.

"With regard to personal appearance," writes his friend, Dr. Southey, "Dr. Gooch was rather below the ordinary height, and always thin; his countenance was elegantly marked ; the dark full eyes remarkably fine ; the habitual expression made up of sagacity and melancholy, though no features could exhibit occasionally a more happy play of humour. His manners were singularly well adapted to a sick room; natural, quiet, impressive; and the kindness of his heart led him to sympathise readily with the feelings of others, and rarely failed to attach his patients strongly."(1) Dr. Gooch’s portrait, by R J. Lane, is at the College. It was presented by his daughter Miss Gooch, of Torquay

William Munk

[(1) Memoir of Gooch, contributed by Dr. Henry Herbert Southey to the Lives of British Physicians in Murray’s Family Library; Biographical Sketch of Dr. Gooch in the London Medical Gazette, vol. v, p. 753, understood to have been from the pen of Dr. Robert Ferguson; and Prefatory Essay, by the last-named physician to the edition of Gooch’s work on the Diseases of Women, published by the New Sydenham Society in 1859.]

(Volume III, page 100)

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