Lives of the fellows

William Battie

b.1704 d.13 June 1776
AB Cantab(1726) AM(1730) MD(1737) FRCP(1738)

William Battie, M.D., was born at Modbury, in the county of Devon, in 1704, and was the son of the rev. Edward Battie, vicar of that place, formerly an assistant master at Eton, whom he had the misfortune to lose in September, 1714, when only ten years old. He was educated at Eton, where his mother resided after her husband’s death, in order to assist her son with those necessary accommodations which the narrowness of her finances would not permit her to provide in any other way. He is said to have manifested much industry and desire for advancement at Eton, and in the year 1722 was transferred to King’s college, Cambridge, where he succeeded in obtaining a scholarship, upon the nomination of the earl of Craven. His inclination would have led him to the bar, but circumstances concurring to frustrate his wishes, he applied himself to physic. He proceeded A.B. in 1726, and A.M. in 1730, and then, obtaining a licence ad practicandum from the university, commenced practice at Cambridge, and delivered lectures there on anatomy, which were well attended, and among others, by Horace Walpole. Shortly before this he had published "Isocratis Orationes Septem et Epistolæ: codicibus MSS. nonnullis et impressis melioris notæ exemplaribus collatis varias lectiones subjicit, versionem novam notasque ex Hieronymo Wolfio notissimùm desumptas adjecit Gul: Battie Coll: Reg: Cantab: Socius." This publication exposed him both then and subsequently to some very satirical remarks.

A fair opening for a physician presenting itself at Uxbridge, he left Cambridge and settled there. The provost of Eton, Dr. Godolphin, held him in much esteem, and took a singular manner of evincing it. Upon Battie’s fixing in practice at Uxbridge, the provost sent his carriage and four horses for him as a patient; but when the doctor sat down to write his prescription, the provost, then ninety-four years of age, raising himself up, said, "You need not trouble yourself to write; I only sent for you to give you credit in the neighbourhood." Battie’s success at Uxbridge was considerable, and he succeeded in laying by some money, to which was added some time afterwards a bequest of 20,000l. from a relative. He took his degree of doctor of medicine at Cambridge in 1737, and the same year removed to London. He was admitted a Candidate of the College of Physicians 22nd December, 1737; and a Fellow 22nd December, 1738; was Censor in 1743,1747, 1749; Harveian orator in 1746; Elect, 22nd May, 1755; Consiliarius, 1758, 1760, 1763; and President in 1764. In November, 1749, he was appointed Lumleian lecturer, and held that office for five years, when he was succeeded by Dr. Lawrence. The substance of some of these lectures he published under the title

De Principiis Animalibus Exercitationes in Collegio. Reg. Medicorum Lond, habitæ. 4to. Lond. 1757.

Dr. Battie was physician to St. Luke’s hospital, and was proprietor of a large private asylum. His practice seems to have been limited almost exclusively to insanity. In 1758 he published "A Treatise on Madness," 4to. Lond., in which, having thrown out some censures on the practice formerly pursued at Bethlem hospital, he was answered and severely animadverted on by Dr. John Monro, in a pamphlet entitled " Remarks on Dr. Battie's Treatise on Madness." This reply contained a defence of the writer’s father, who had been lightly spoken of in Battie’s work. In 1762 he published "Aphorismi de Cognoscendis et Curandis Morbis non-nullis ad Principia Animalia accommodati;" and in the following year he was examined before the House of Commons on the state of private madhouses in this kingdom, and received in the printed report, testimony highly honourable to his professional attainments. He resigned his office at St. Luke’s hospital in April, 1764, and died, from the effects of a paralytic stroke, on the 13th June, 1776. The night he expired, conversing with his servant, who attended on him as nurse, he said, " Young man, you have heard, no doubt, how great are the terrors of death. This night will probably afford you some experiment; but may you learn and may you profit by the example, that a conscientious endeavour to perform his duty through life will ever close a Christian’s eyes with comfort and tranquillity." He soon afterwards departed without a struggle or a groan. He was buried by his own direction at Kingston, in Surrey, " as near as possible to his wife " (a daughter of Barnham Goode, of Kingston, for several years under-master of Eton school,) " without any monument or memorial whatever."

Dr. Battie, who is said by Horace Walpole in a letter to lady Ossory, to have died worth 100,000l., had during his life endowed a scholarship of 20l, per annum at King’s college, Cambridge, now known as Dr. Battie’s foundation, and by his will gave 100l. to St. Luke’s hospital, and 100l. to the Corporation for the Relief of the Widows and Children of Clergymen. Dr. Battie’s character was sketched in a few words as follows by Judge Hardinge in his Latin life of his father;— " Battius, faber fortunæ suae, vir egregiæ fortitudinis et perseverantiæ, medicus perspicax, doctus, et eruditus, integritatis castissimæ, fideique in amicitiis perspectæ. "(1)

The doctor, at that time one of the Censors, took a very active part against Dr. Schomberg, in the proceedings between the College and that physician; and the commencement of the lengthened and expensive litigation in which the College became involved, was apparently essentially due to him. Battie’s part became generally known, and he was severely characterised in " The Battiad," a satirical poem, said to have been written by Moses Mendez, Paul Whitehead, and Dr.Schomberg:

First Battus came, deep read in worldly art,
Whose tongue ne’er knew the secrets of his heart;
In mischief mighty, tho’ but mean of size,
And, like the Tempter, ever in disguise.
See him, with aspect grave and gentle tread,
By slow degrees approach the sickly bed;
Then at his Club behold him alter’d soon—
The solemn doctor turns a low Buffoon,
And he, who lately in a learned freak
Poach’d every Lexicon and publish’d Greek,
Still madly emulous of vulgar praise,
From Punch’s forehead wrings the dirty bays.

Eccentricity was strongly marked throughout the whole of Dr. Battie’s career. Many strange and amusing anecdotes concerning him are on record, but my limited space compels me to pass them over. "He was of eccentric habits, singular in his dress, sometimes appearing like a labourer, and doing strange things. Notwithstanding his peculiarities, he is to be looked upon as a man of learning, of benevolent spirit, humour, inclination to satire, and considerable skill in his profession."(2)

William Munk

[(1) N. Hardinge’s Poems, p. 17.
(2) Nichol’s Literary Anecdotes and Jesse’s Memoirs of Celebrated Etonians. Vol. i, p. 18, et seq]

(Volume II, page 139)

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