Lives of the fellows

William Heberden

b.1710 d.17 May 1801
AB Cantab(1728) AM(1732) MD(1739) FRCP(1746) FRS(1749)

WILLIAM HEBERDEN, M.D.—This distinguished ornament of the medical profession was born in London in 1710, and educated at the grammar school in Saint Saviour’s churchyard, Southwark; whence he was transferred in December, 1724, at an unusually early age, to St. John’s college, Cambridge. Of that house he was elected a fellow in 1730. He proceeded A.B. 1728; A.M. 1732; M.D. 1739. Dr. Heberden practised his profession for several years at Cambridge, where for about ten years he delivered an annual course of lectures on the Materia Medica. Among his pupils were some who afterwards greatly distinguished themselves, as Sir George Baker, Dr. Gisborne, and Dr. Glynn, of Cambridge. The specimens he had collected for the illustration of his lectures he presented to St. John’s college when he quitted Cambridge. Of his method of lecturing a specimen is preserved in his Essay on Mithridatium and Theriaca, published in 1745, three years before he quitted the university. Treating of this famous medicine, Dr. Heberden proves that the only poisons known to the ancients were hemlock, monk’s-hood, and those of venomous beasts; and that to these few they knew of no antidotes. That the farrago called after the celebrated king of Pontus, which in the time of Celsus consisted of thirty-eight simples, had changed its composition every hundred years, and that therefore what had been for so many ages called Mithridatium, was quite different from the true medicine found in the cabinet of that prince. This, he states, was a very trivial one, composed of twenty leaves of rue, one grain of salt, two nuts, and two dried figs; and he infers that, even supposing Mithridates had ever used the compound (which is doubtful), his not being able to despatch himself was less owing to the strength of his antidote than to the weakness of his poison. The first accounts of subtle poisons that might be concealed under the stone of a seal or ring, as well as the stories of poisons by vapours arising from perfumed gloves and letters, he pronounces to be evidently the idle inventions of ignorance and superstition. The learning and good sense which characterise the whole of this little essay will enable the reader to form a judgment of the manner in which he conveyed instruction to his class, and of the loss which the university must have suffered by his removal.

Dr. Heberden was admitted a Candidate of the College of Physicians 25th June, 1745, and a Fellow 25th June, 1746. He settled in London at the close of 1748; and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society 1st February, 1749. It was, however, long before his worth was discovered and appreciated, so long, indeed, that he was on the point of returning to end his days at Cambridge. But happily for the world and for his own fame he steadily persevered, and ultimately rose to a height in professional and general esteem, of which there have been but few instances. He was nominated Gulstonian lecturer in 1749; Harveian orator in 1750; and Croonian lecturer in 1760. He was Censor in 1749, 1755, 1760; Consiliarius, 1762; and was constituted an Elect 11th August, 1762, an office which he resigned 28th June, 1781. About this time, becoming sensible that his age required indulgence, he passed the summer at a house which he had purchased at Windsor, but he continued his practice in town during the winter for some years longer. Dr. Heberden died at his house in Pall-mall, honoured, esteemed, and venerated by all ranks in and out of the profession, on the 17th May, 1801, in the ninety-first year of his age.(1) He was buried at Windsor, and on the south side of the parish church is a monument to his memory, with the following inscription:—
Near this place are deposited the remains of
William Heberden, M.D.,
who died the 17th May, 1801,
in the 91st year of his age.
He practised physic,
first at Cambridge, afterwards in London,
with great and unsullied reputation above 50 years.
His distinguished learning,
his sweetness of manners, and active benevolence
raised him to an uncommon height in public esteem:
above all, his deep sense of religion,
which he cultivated with unremitting attention,
regulated his conduct through a long and busy life,
and supported him to the last
with unabated cheerfulness and resignation.
His widow and three surviving children erected this tablet to his memory.

By his wife Mary, the eldest daughter of William Wollaston, esquire, to whom he was married 19th January, 1760, he had five sons and three daughters. His second son, who was bred a physician, practised with great success in London, and fully maintained the reputation of his distinguished name. He will have to be mentioned in a subsequent page.

Dr. Heberden’s character has been so admirably drawn by Dr. Macmichael, that I have no hesitation in transferring his sketch to my own pages:—" Dr. Heberden was always exceedingly liberal and charitable; therefore, as soon as he found he could support himself in London, he voluntarily relinquished a fellowship which he held in St. John’s college, for the benefit of some poorer scholar to whom it might be of use. He was forward in encouraging all objects of science and literature, and promoting all useful institutions. There was scarcely a public charity to which he did not subscribe, or any work of merit to which he did not give his support. He recommended to the College of Physicians the first design of their 'Medical Transactions,' was the author of several papers in them, also of some in the ‘ Philosophical Transactions,’ as well as of ‘ Commentaries on the History and Cure of Diseases.’

"He was much esteemed by his majesty king George the Third, and upon the queen’s first coming to England in 1761 had been named as physician to her majesty— an honour which he thought fit to decline; the real reason of which was that he was apprehensive it might interfere with those connections of life that he had now formed. In 1796 he met with an accident which disabled him for the last few years of his life; till then he had always been in the habit of walking, if he could, some part of every day. It deserves to be mentioned that when he was fast approaching to the age of ninety, he observed that, though his occupations and pleasures were certainly changed from what they had used to be, yet he knew not if he had ever passed a year more comfortably than the last. He lived to his ninety-first year, and there can hardly be a more striking memorial of the perfect condition of his mind to the very last, than that within forty-eight hours of his decease he repeated a sentence from an ancient Roman author, signifying that ‘ death is kinder to none than those to whom it comes uninvoked.’

" His address was pleasing and unaffected, his observations cautious and profound, and he had a happy manner of getting able men to exhibit their several talents, which he directed and moderated with singular attention and good humour. But though rendered eminent by his skill as a physician, he conferred a more valuable and permanent lustre on his profession by the worth and excellence of his private character. From his early youth Dr. William Heberden had entertained a deep sense of religion, a consummate love of virtue, an ardent thirst for knowledge, and an earnest desire to promote the welfare and happiness of all mankind. By these qualities, accompanied with great sweetness of manners, he acquired the love and esteem of all good men, in a degree which perhaps very few have experienced; and after passing an active life with the uniform testimony of a good conscience, he became a distinguished example of its influence in the cheerfulness and serenity of his latest age. In proof of these assertions, I will mention an anecdote of him, which though now perhaps almost forgotten, somehow or other transpired at the time, and was duly appreciated by his contemporaries. After the death of Dr. Conyers Middleton, his widow called upon Dr. Heberden with a MS. Treatise of her late husband, about the publication of which she was desirous of consulting him. The religion of Dr. Middleton had always been justly suspected, and it was quite certain that his philosophy had never taught him candour. Dr. Heberden having perused the MS., which was on the inefficacy of prayer, told the lady that though the work might be deemed worthy of the learning of her departed husband, its tendency was by no means creditable to his principles, and would be injurious to his memory; but as the matter pressed, he would ascertain what a publisher might be disposed to give for the copyright. This he accordingly did; and having found that 150l. Might be procured, he himself paid the widow 200l, and consigned the MS. To the flames."(2)

Dr. Heberden’s " Commentarii de Morborum Historiâ et Curatione," a posthumous work, which will transmit his name to the latest posterity, appeared both in Latin and English in 1802. They were received with equal, if not greater, applause on the continent than in England. Soemmering considered them of such value that he reprinted them in Germany with a preface, in which he styles their author the "Medicus veré Hippocraticus." Professor Friedlander, of Halle, published in 1831 a neat edition at Leipsic, as a portion of the "Scriptorum Classicorum de Praxi Medicâ nonnullorum Opera Col-lecta."

An admirable portrait of Dr. Heberden, in his eighty-sixth year, by Sir William Beechey, is in the College. It was presented by his son, Dr. William Heberden, at the opening of the present College in June, 1825, and has been well engraved by W. Ward.

William Munk

[(1) The second Dr. William Heberden’s eulogy of his father in the Harveian oration for 1820 is so delicately conceived and expressed, that I here insert it:—" Et tu quoque quem sicut vivum amplecti et audire semper fuit mihi jucundissimum, ita mortuum honorare nunquam desinam. Taceam, O Socii, an loquar? Immo vero a me petere unumquemque vestrum puto ut de optimo Parente pauca saltem dicam. Nisi enim me fallat gratissima memoria et amoris magnitudo, non alium cognoveritis aut integritate vitæ excellentiorem, aut optimarum artium studiosiorem, aut exercitatione medicinæ humaniorem extitisse. Quo quidem animo medicinam excoluerit testantur Acta hujus Collegii Medica; cujus operis cum ipse suasor et autor fuisset, tum illud multis et utilissimis tractationibus amplificavit: testatur Commentariorum volumen quod post mortem editum est, in quo non magis eruditionem judiciumque admiramur, quam industriam ac laborem. Nihil ex opinione admisit, nihil ex conjectura, nihil ex probabilitate: quicquid autem vel novum addiderit, vel receptum confirmaverit, ex usu et diuturna observatione, qua maxime fide potuit, duxit: Quid mirum, si immensum sui desiderium nobis reliquit ? Non enim ille in luce modo, atque in oculis civium magnus; sed intus, domîque præstantior. Qui sermo? Quæ praecepta? Quam multæ literæ? Magno enim studio cum omni literarum generi, turn philosophiæ deditus fuit; nec vero ineunte ætate solum, sed et in omni vitae spatio; in quo ita magna fuit medendi occupatio, ut non multum, sub ipso tecto, otii relinqueretur. Quid ego divinarum rerum contemplationem memorem? Qua delectatione satiari nulla aetas potest. Pater dilectissime? quid non virtutes istae, tuusque in me animus mereantur? Sed admiratione te potius, quam temporalibus laudibus; utinam quoque similitudine possemus decorare." p. 19.
(2) The Gold-headed Cane. 2nd edition. Lond. 1828, p. 176]

(Volume II, page 159)

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