Lives of the fellows

Peter Mere Latham

b.1 July 1789 d.20 Jul 1875
AB Oxon(1810) AM(1813) MB(1814) MD(1816) FRCP(1818)

Peter Mere Latham, M.D., was born in London 1st July, 1789, and was the second son of John Latham, M.D., a former president of the College, by his wife, Mary, the eldest daughter and co-heiress of the Rev. Peter Mere, A.B., vicar of Prestbury, co. Chester. He was placed in the first instance at the free school of Sandbach, then at the grammar school of Macclesfield, and in due course was entered at Brasenose college, Oxford. He gained the prize for Latin verse in 1820, proceeded A.B. 24th May, 1810, A.M. 28th April, 1813, M.B. 20th April, 1814, and M.D. 29th November, 1816.

Shortly after taking his first degree in arts, he applied himself to the study of physic, which he pursued at St. Bartholomew’s hospital and at the Public dispensary under Dr. Bateman. Dr. Latham was admitted an In-ceptor-Candidate of the College of Physicians 7th July, 1815, a Candidate 30th September, 1817, and a Fellow 30th September, 1818. He was Censor in 1820, 1833, 1837, Gulstonian lecturer in 1819, Lumleian lecturer in 1827 and 1828, Harveian orator in 1839, and was repeatedly placed upon the council.

Dr. Latham was elected physician to the Middlesex hospital in 1815, and in 1823 was appointed by the government, in conjunction with Dr. Roget, to take the medical charge of the inmates of the penitentiary at Millbank, then suffering from an epidemic scurvy and dysentery, of obscure origin and doubtful character. Of this epidemic Dr. Latham published an interesting account, "pregnant with evidence of acute and patient research and of clear, cogent reasoning."

Dr. Latham was appointed physician to St. Bartholomew’s hospital 30th November,1824, a few days before which he resigned his office at the Middlesex hospital. To his exertions and to the influence of his example, the medical school of St. Bartholomew’s hospital owes much of its efficiency and reputation. The practical instruction given in the medical wards of that hospital at the time of Dr. Latham’s election as physician was at its lowest point. He at once applied himself to its improvement; he worked in the wards with uncommon diligence and energy, and his clinique was recognised, ere long, as the most careful, precise, and painstaking in London. At a subsequent period in association with and aided by Sir George Burrows, Dr. Latham undertook the lectures on the theory and practice of medicine in the hospital school. His lectures on the subject, unlike most of their class, were highly finished and exhaustive essays on selected subjects, which he had made the object of his own especial study.

Of Dr. Latham’s mode of teaching clinical medicine, he has left us a specimen in his admirable Lectures on Subjects connected with Clinical Medicine, 12mo. Lond. 183G, "the publication of which," says Sir Thomas Watson, "marked an era in the clinical teaching of this country"—of his mode of teaching the theory and the practice of medicine in his Lectures on Diseases of the Heart, 2 vols. 12mo. Lond. 1845. In matter and in style these three small volumes leave nothing to be desired. They are among the choicest writings—opera verè aurea—of our profession, and will always be admired and valued.

Dr. Latham’s withdrawal from active work was signalized by the appearance(1) under the name of General Remarks on the Practice of Medicine, of a series of remarkable essays embodying in choice and stately language the results of his own well trained observation, deep reflection, and matured conclusions on some of the most difficult but interesting subjects that can engage the thoughts of the physician. These essays are eminently suggestive, and merit more attention and a deeper study than have yet been accorded to them. Doubtless they will obtain it, in the Collected Works of Dr. P. M. Latham, now in course of publication by the New Sydenham Society, under the editorship of Dr. Martin.

Dr. Latham’s health, which had always been delicate, began to give way under the pressure of his work at St. Bartholomew’s, and in November, 1841, he relinquished his office there and with it, as he thought, the best hopes of being useful in his generation. His health then improved, and for some years yet to come he was enabled to maintain his position among the first of London physicians. But his malady—emphysema of the lungs and severe paroxysms of asthma increased upon him, disabled him from exertion, and caused him in 1865 to withdraw from business and from London. He retired to Torquay, survived for ten years, and died there 20th July, 1875, in the eighty-seventh year of his age.

Dr. Latham was appointed physician extraordinary to the queen at her majesty’s accession, and he retained that office to his death. His character has been admirably drawn by his friend, Sir Thomas Watson, to whose elegant memoir(2) I have been much indebted in the preceding sketch. "Dr. Latham’s conduct throughout life was governed by an abiding and imperative sense of duty; and as a corollary of this temper of mind must be reckoned his love and his habits of order and method. He was a slow, self-critical composer, fastidious in settling his diction, and careful above all things that it should clearly convey his meaning. Settled by strong conviction in his Christian faith, Dr. Latham lived a life of unostentatious but habitual piety. He was, withal, a charming companion, full of various information, affluent in anecdote, with a keen sense of fun and humour. With this was blended, as is not uncommon, a quick sensibility of pathetic emotion. His letters are treasures of good sense, of lively and epigrammatic comments on men and things, of shrewd and weighty reflections, wise advice, and affectionate greetings."

Dr. Latham(3) was a very small, spare man, considerably below the middle height. His spine slightly curved, so that one shoulder was a little higher than the other, a defect which one rarely noticed, for it was rendered less obvious by the scrupulous neatness of his dress. His head was very remarkable, and he carried it well: a forehead high rather than broad; the head slightly bald when first I knew him; thin light brown hair, with a little wave in it behind, till time thinned it more, and turned it grey, then white; an aquiline nose, almost like the great Duke’s; and eyes hazel or grey, full of intelligence and fire. And then his voice, very sweet in its lower notes, caressing and sympathetic to any suffering patient, always kindly; with a tone in it, however, which seemed as if it had been at first acquired, though it had long become a second nature.

See him where or hear him when you might, you would have turned to look at and to listen to him, for you would have felt that he was a personage a man of mark, some one to be remembered; and listening, you would have never heard a foolish remark or a sentence not worth remembering. He was a gentleman and a scholar, elegant if not profound. He lived in the atmosphere of letters, but was no pedant. Not much versed in modem literature, he belonged to the bygone classic age of our physicians, when men read Greek for their amusement, and wrote Latin to perfect their style an age now past, and which it would be as idle as it would be impossible to seek to recall, though the genial manners and the graceful talk of men such as Latham make one look back to it with regret.

But he was much more than high bred gentleman, or than elegant scholar, or than ablest clinical teacher. He was the Christian physician. Side by side with the pharmacopoeia on his consulting-room table, in the little book-stand, stood hidden in the plainest binding his Greek Testament and Bishop Andrews’s "Devotions," and he loved them both. "Numquam ad vana aut sordida deflectendum" was an engagement kept all his life by Dr. Latham, and kept all the more readily because he was incapable of understanding anything mean or selfish. To his patients he was most gentle, kind, and sympathising, but with an instinctive shrinking from remediless suffering, which I remember hearing, led him sometimes to fail in keeping appointments for consultation in cases that were beyond hope. And this was perhaps an indication of one of the few defects in his character a reluctance to encounter pain or to engage in struggle even when his convictions would have led him to do so. He loved peace, which is always good; but he loved quiet, which is not always so good.

No true portrait can be drawn in which there are no shadows, and of few persons could one be painted in which so few appear. At a time when to a great degree Religio Medici is but another term for scepticism, when Le moyen de parvenir seems likely as a rule of life to take the place of the Bible, it is something to be able to point the younger members of the profession to one who was at once the accomplished scholar, the skilful physician, the eloquent writer, the very model of a teacher, who was above all the high-toned gentleman and the devout Christian, and concerning whom the sternest judgment can give no harsher verdict than this—In troublous times he would have been a confessor; he might have lacked the courage to become a martyr.(4) Dr. Latham’s portrait by Jackson has been engraved.

William Munk

[(1) In the British Medical Journal, vol. ii, 1861, I and ii, 1862, and I, 1863.
(2) St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Reports, vol. Xi.
(3) For all that follows of Dr. Latham I am indebted to the graphic and loving pen of one of the most distinguished of his many distinguished pupils, Charles West, M.D.
(4) Medical Times and Gazette, Aug. 7th, 1875, p. 169.]

(Volume III, page 185)

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