Lives of the fellows

John Ayrton Paris

b.7 August 1785 d.24 December 1856
MB Cantab(1808) MD(1813) FRCP(1814)

John Ayrton Paris, M.D.,was born at Cambridge, 7th August, 1785, and was the son of Thomas Paris, of Cambridge, by his wife Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Edward Ayrton, of Trinity College, doctor of music. When twelve years of age, he was placed under Mr. Barker, of Trinity hall, Cambridge, and then under Dr. Curteis, at the Grammar school of Linton. Subsequently he was removed to London, and placed under the private tuition of Dr. Bradley, one of the physicians to the Westminster hospital, an accomplished mathematician and a good classical scholar. With him he read Latin and Greek, and acquired some knowledge of botany. He was matriculated at Cambridge as a pensioner of Caius college, 17th December, 1803, and was elected to a Tancred studentship in Physic 3rd January, 1804. From the commencement of his career at Cambridge he evinced that strong predilection for natural philosophy which characterised his future life. He spent some time at Edinburgh, where, in addition to improvement in the practical part of physic, he perfected the knowledge of chemistry and natural philosophy he had acquired at Cambridge, by attendance on the lectures of Dr. Hope and Mr. Playfair. He proceeded bachelor of medicine at Cambridge 2nd July, 1808, took a licence ad practicandum from the university shortly afterwards, and then came to London.

Here he had the good fortune to attract the notice of Dr. Maton, who, struck by the extent and accuracy of his chemical knowledge, warmly espoused his interests, and constituted himself in the highest sense of the term his patron. In the early part of 1809 Dr. Maton resigned his office of physician to the Westminster hospital, and on the 14th April, Dr. Paris being then twenty-three years of age, was elected physician to that institution. He entered on the duties of his office with ardour, and soon afterwards commenced a course of lectures on Pharmaceutic chemistry. On the 11th December, 1809, he married Mary Catherine, the eldest daughter of Francis Noble, esq., of Fordham abbey, Cambridgeshire.

By his lectures and his writings, Dr. Paris had already attained a name among his contemporaries, and was regarded as one of the most rising members of his profession, when a circumstance occurred which exerted an important influence on his future career. The death, in 1813, of Dr. John Bingham Borlase, the early instructor of Sir Humphry Davy, and for many years the leading physician at Penzance, left a vacancy in that part of Cornwall, which many of the resident families were anxious to have efficiently supplied. Some influential gentlemen applied to Dr. Maton to recommend them a physician. He named Dr. Paris, who after some hesitation, was induced for a time to forego his prospects in London, and remove thither. Previously thereto he returned to Cambridge, was created doctor of medicine 6th July,1813, resigned his office at the Westminster hospital, and having on the 30th September, 1813, been admitted a Candidate of the College of Physicians, proceeded to Penzance, carrying with him letters of introduction and recommendation to the first families in Cornwall, most of which had been procured for him by Dr. Maton.

Dr. Paris’s progress in Cornwall was rapid beyond his expectations, and he was admitted on terms of friendship and intimacy with the best families in the county. He co-operated with them in every effort for the advancement of science, and he urged them to exertions which without him would not have been made. He it was who proposed, and with the co-operation of scientific friends established in the early part of 1814, the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall. Dr. Paris had never intended to make a lengthened stay in Cornwall, and in an elegant biographical sketch of his friend, the Rev. William Gregor, A.M., who had distinguished himself by the discovery of Manacchanite, or as it has since been termed Gregorite, read before the Geological Society of Cornwall, at the anniversary meeting of 1817, he announces his approaching departure, and takes an affectionate farewell of the society he had himself founded.

On Dr. Paris’s return to London, in 1817, he took up his abode in Sackville-street, but in the following year removed to Dover-street, Piccadilly. At this period he began a course of lectures on Materia Medica, at Windmill-street, which were continued for several successive years, and contributed greatly to his reputation. To a perfect knowledge of chemistry and botany, sound common sense, and a keen perception of the fallacies with which his subject in the lapse of ages had been encumbered, he added the charms of elegant language, abundant classical illustration, and a fund of anecdote, which could not fail to rouse and rivet the attention of his pupils. He soon became one of the most popular lecturers on Materia Medica in London, and attracted a considerable class, among which were many of the most distinguished physicians of the next generation.

The College of Physicians (of which he had been admitted a Fellow, 30th September, 1814) had about this time become possessed of one of the most complete collections of Materia Medica in Europe. That of Dr. Burges, presented to the College by Mr. E. A. Brande, to whom it had been bequeathed, had then recently been collated with the cabinet of Dr. Combe, purchased for that purpose; and the College, anxious to make it available for instruction and improvement, instituted (out of their own funds) an annual course of lectures on Materia Medica. The scientific attainments of Dr. Paris, and the reputation he had already acquired as a lecturer and a writer, pointed him out as the proper occupant of the new chair. In June, 1819, he entered upon the duties of the office by the delivery of a short series of lectures on the "Philosophy of the Materia Medica." The substance of these elegant discourses was introduced into the third edition of his Pharmacologia, and its publication constitutes an epoch in the history of the science and art of prescribing. Dr. Paris retained his office until 1826, in which year he took for his subject the recent additions to the Materia Medica, with all the new discoveries in chemistry which had reference to that subject. The attendance on these lectures at the new College in Pall Mall East, was so large, that numbers went away, unable to obtain even standing room in the theatre.

By his colleagues in the College of Physicians Dr. Paris was held in the highest respect. He was Censor in 1817, 1828, 1836, 1843; Consiliarius 1836 and 1843. He delivered the Harveian oration in 1833, and he was named an Elect 25th June, 1839. On the 20th March, 1844, he was elected President of the College, an office to which he was annually re-appointed, and which he continued to fill to the time of his death. Dr. Paris had long suffered from disease of the urinary organs; and although subject to frequent attacks of agonising pain, he preserved so calm an exterior, that few suspected the existence, none the degree of the malady which was bringing him to the grave. He died at his house in Dover-street, 24th December, 1856, in the seventy-second year of his age. He was buried at Woking Cemetery.

Dr. Paris’s mental powers which were naturally strong, had undergone that discipline which a complete university education and a deep study of chemistry are so well calculated to impart. His memory was large and singularly tenacious, a fact once acquired was never lost, a passage once read he could reproduce at pleasure. The leading feature of his mind was a comprehensive clearness; what he perceived he saw distinctly, what he had contemplated was present to his mind under all its different relations and with all its varied connections. He possessed a vigorous imagination and a ready wit, and was keenly alive to the facetiæ of human character. His reading had been extensive but discursive rather than deep. The impressions he had received were preserved in their primitive strength and in their original words; and his good sense and judgment led him to apply them with admirable effect. To an extensive knowledge of natural philosophy, he added a competent acquaintance with ancient and modern literature, of which his excellent memory enabled him to make the best use. He had a great command of language, and his choice of words was singularly happy. His writings are characterised by an elegance peculiarly his own. Their diffuseness, depending as it does, on the number and variety of his illustrations and the frequency and beauty of his metaphors, adds to, rather than detracts from, the pleasure of their perusal. His general attainments, conversational powers, quickness of repartee, and fund of anecdote, which he told with the happiest effect, rendered him an acquisition to any society.

Under a plain exterior he possessed many of the best qualities of our nature. To a manly straightforwardness of purpose and action, and an intense hatred of dissimulation or pretence were added considerable self-possession and marked decision of character. Those admitted to his intimacy can testify to the kindness of his disposition and the warmth of his heart. Dr. Paris’s knowledge of chemistry was extensive and profound. To this fascinating science he had early devoted himself; and he attracted notice on first settling in London by the extent and precision of his chemical attainments. These brought him into communication with Wollaston, Davy, Young, and others, when chemistry was undergoing one of the most important revolutions which its history presents, and was assuming its rank among the most exact and demonstrative of the inductive sciences. The association with these distinguished philosophers maintained his interest in that science. Notwithstanding the distractions of an increasing practice he still devoted much of his time to chemistry, and until within a short period of his death kept himself on a level with the rapid advances it was making. Although his name is not associated with any great discovery in chemistry, the respect in which he was held and the deference paid to his opinions by the first chemical philosophers of his age, suffice to attest the extent of his attainments.(1)

But Dr. Paris was the inventor of the safety bar, a simple means of preventing the premature explosion of gunpowder in blasting rocks, and obviating the destruction of lives which formerly occurred in the Cornish mines. It has come into general use there, and has proved an inestimable boon to the miner. In practical value, the safety bar is second only to the safety lamp of Davy, and like that should confer immortality on the name of its inventor. “By this simple but admirable invention,” says a writer in The Times, “Dr. Paris no doubt saved more lives than many heroes have destroyed.”

Dr. Paris’s writings are numerous and important.
A Memoir on the Physiology of the Egg. 8vo. Lond. 1810.
A Syllabus of a Course of Lectures on Pharmaceutic Chemistry. 8vo. Lond. 1811.
Pharmacologia on the History of Medicinal Substances. 12mo. Lond. 1812. 3rd edition. 8vo. Lond. 1820. 4th edition. 8vo. Lond. December, 1820. 5th edition. 8vo. Lond. 1822. 6th edition. 1825. 7th edition. 1829. 8th edition. 1833. 9th edition, wholly re-written, 1843.
A Guide to the Mount’s Bay and the Land’s End. 12mo. Penzance. 1815. (Anonymous.)
A Memoir of the Life and Scientific Labours of the Rev. William Gregor, A.M. 1817.
A Biographical Memoir of W. G. Maton, M.D. Roy. 8vo. Lond. 1838.
A Biographical Memoir of Arthur Young, Esq., Secretary to the Board of Agriculture.
Medical Jurisprudence (in conjunction with J. S. M. Fonblanque, Esq.). 3 vols. 8vo. Lond. 1823.
The Elements of Medical Chemistry, embracing only those branches of Chemical Science which are calculated to illustrate or explain the different objects of Medicine. 8vo. Lond. 1825.
A Treatise on Diet, with a view to establish on practical grounds a System of Rules for the Prevention and Cure of the Diseases incident to a disordered state of the Digestive Functions. 8vo. Lond. 1827. 5th edition. 1837.
The Life of Sir Humphry Davy, Bart. 2 vols. 8vo. Lond. 1831.
Philosophy in Sport made Science in Earnest. 3 vols, small 8vo. Lond. 1827. Anonymous. 8th edition. 1 vol. 1857.

William Munk

[(1) Inter illos qui, in memoria recentiori, artem nostram, et litteras, tum scientiæ, tum medicinæ, ornaverunt, praeses nuperus noster— nobis quam veneratus! quam deflendus!—eminet Parisius,
‘Quis desiderio sit pudor, aut modus, Tum cari capitis?'
Fama sua micat, ut dicit ille Venusinus
‘velut inter ignes
Luna minores.’

Ille (quo nullus jucundior, amantior nullus) per annos triginta et quinque amicitia sua me dignum habuit; meum est igitur de ingenio suo et doctrina in arte medicinae vos facere certos. Illum mens et indoles egregiae, incitamentis istis vilioribus, quibus tam multi, etiam apud nos medicos, proh pudor! imperantur, longe longeque superiorem reddidit.

Scripta sua, a me manu frequenti versata, non solum in facundia et fundi copia, sed etiam in exemplis è scientia deductis—in ’conceptione nova, et è mente propria profluente,—in modo, denique, materiam suam tractandi vere philosophico—inclyta sunt scriptoribus exempla. Illo docente, sit nostrum res atque principia medicinae scientiæque investigare, et litteris adcuratioribus evulgare. Stylo biographico ter callide est usus ipse Parisius. Amici sui, illustrissimi Humphrei Davy vitam, litteris quibus vix ullae sunt apud nos elegantiores, consignavit—viam lethi, proh dolor! Ipse jam conculcavit.

'Ergo Quinctilium perpetuus sapor
Urguet? Cui Pudor, et Justitiae soror
Incorrupta Fides, nudaque Veritas
Quando ullum invenient parem?

Multis ille bonis flebilis occidit
Nulli flebilior quam,’—mihi.

Oratio ex Harveii Instituto habita die quinto ante Cal. Jul., MDCCCLVII a Jacobo Copland, M.D., pp. 7 and 8.]

(Volume III, page 120)

<< Back to List