Lives of the fellows

William Prout

b.15 January 1785 d.9 April 1850
MD Edin(1811) LRCP(1812) FRCP(1829)

William Prout, M.D., was born 15th January, 1785, at Horton in Gloucestershire, where his family had been settled and resident on their own property for some generations. His early education was neglected, but at the age of seventeen he placed himself under the tuition of a clergyman in Wiltshire, and somewhat later entered the academy of the Rev. Dr. Jones, of Redland, near Bristol, at whose recommendation he commenced the study of medicine at Edinburgh. He graduated doctor of medicine in that university 24th June, 1811 (D.M.I. de Febribus Intermittentibus), and then removed to London, and continued his studies at the two Borough hospitals. He was admitted a Licentiate of the College of Physicians 22nd December, 1812.

To chemistry, and especially to organic chemistry, Dr. Prout had from the first devoted himself, and in 1813 he delivered at his house a course of lectures on animal chemistry, the attendance on which though small, was select, and so highly was he already esteemed that his audience constantly included Sir Astley Cooper. In 1821, Dr. Prout published his Inquiry into the Nature and Treatment of Gravel, Calculus and other diseases of the Urinary Organs; a work that established his reputation as a chemist and practical physician; and which subsequent editions, especially the third, served but to extend and confirm. The third edition, which appeared in 1840, with the title On theNature and Treatment of Stomach and Urinary Diseases, was wholly re-written, and may be regarded as a new work. It contained an exposition of Dr. Prout’s original views on many points of animal chemistry, and it marks an era in the history of that science.

I am not aware that any full and searching estimate of Dr. Prout’s merits as a philosopher and chemist has yet appeared. But that they were great, and that he signally advanced his favourite science and pointed the way to discoveries which have made the reputation of others, is certain. Not a few of Dr. Prout’s views were adopted by Liebig; and enveloped by him in a new phraseology, were for a time accepted as original, even in this the country of their discoverer.

In the best account of Dr. Prout that I have met with, that in the Medical Times(1), it is said, that had the doctrines contained in Dr. Prout’s works "been properly appreciated, the palm of originality would not for so long have been awarded to the great chemist of Giessen. The metamorphosis of tissues of Liebig was only another term for the secondary assimilation of Prout, and it was he who announced that it is from the waste or destruction of tissues which once formed constituent parts of the organism that the various excretions as urea, uric acid, carbonic acid, &c., are derived. The fame of Liebig for some time dazzled the eyes of the philosophic world, but when they came calmly to consider the points at issue, it was universally admitted that the merit of discovery rested with the unassuming but far-seeing philosopher of Sackville-street."

Dr. Prout was admitted a Fellow of the College of Physicians 25th June, 1829, and delivered the Gulstonian lectures of 1831, when he took for his subject the Application of Chemistry to Physiology, Pathology, and Practice. To some of the opinions expressed by Dr. Prout in these lectures, Dr. Wilson Philip took exception; and a lively discussion ensued between these two distinguished persons in the pages of the London Medical Gazette.(2) As may be supposed, all that could be said on either side of the controversy was urged by each party. But it is to be regretted that the discussion, which otherwise was most instructive, provoked more discourtesy than should ever be shown by great improvers of science.

Dr. Prout was selected to write one of the Bridgewater Treatises; and in 1834 he produced as such his Chemistry, Meteorology, and the Function of Digestion, considered with reference to Natural Theology 8vo. Lond., a work of high merit and of much originality. On each of the subjects therein treated, Dr. Prout was himself an original investigator and a high authority. On two of them, chemistry and digestion, he had already proved his claim to distinction in the pages of the Philosophical Transactions and in his other writings. And into this work he introduced the most important results of his own extensive and careful investigations on meteorology and the nature of the atmosphere.

In pursuing his scientific investigations, and especially those on the atmosphere, expense was not regarded by Dr. Prout, and much of his apparatus was of the most elaborate and costly character, and perfect of its kind. His barometer had cost, it is said, before it was finally completed, an incredible sum of money; and so perfect was it, that after it and as the model, the instrument belonging to the Royal Society (which is the standard barometer of England), was made under the surveillance of Dr. Prout.

Dr. Prout died 9th April, 1850, and was buried at Kensal-green.

Dr. Prout, it is to be remembered, was the person who led the way to that more intimate knowledge of the functions of life through the instrumentality of chemistry which has been one of the characteristics of the present century. He deserves to be commemorated, wrote one who was well qualified to judge,the late Dr. Daubeny of Oxford, both for his important contributions to chemistry in general, and likewise for the light which his researches first cast upon many obscure processes of the animal economy.

There were two qualities which eminently distinguished Dr. Prout’s philosophical character, and which by their happy combination, enabled him to render subservient to the unfolding of grand general truths those minute pathological inquiries which his profession prompted him to undertake, but every one of which, when once entered upon, was worked out by him with the patience and exactness of a philosophical problem. The first of these characteristics was that capacity for accurate observation which, coupled as it was in him with the most conscientious regard to truth, inspired such a confidence in his published results, that their correctness has seldom been impugned by those who, with the light of improved knowledge, have since followed in his footsteps, The second characteristic of his genius was that power of generalisation, that aptitude of combining into a harmonious whole, a number of isolated and independent facts which led him to seize upon the remote consequences deducible from the results of his own observations, as well as those of others, and at the same time to shape his inquiries in such directions as might lead to the development of great principles in science.

With regard to inquiries more purely medical, Dr. Prout first gave a clear idea of the constitution of urine, and showed that the secretion of urea took place in the blood vessels whilst it was merely eliminated by the kidneys. By ascertaining that the urine of reptiles consists wholly of uric acid, he took the first step towards indicating the relation between that body and urea, which latter Liebig supposed to be produced in warm-blooded animals through the oxygenation of the former compound. While by this train of research he threw so much important light upon the physiology of calculus and other urinary disorders, he advanced at the same time our knowledge of digestion itself, by his discovery that the stomach in a healthy state always contains free muriatic acid. Such are a few of the great principles either suggested or worked out by Dr. Prout, which suffice to establish his reputation as a great original thinker, as well as an accurate and scrupulous experimentalist.(3)

"Dr. Prout’s habits were studious and reserved, and the affliction of deafness under which he laboured for many years before his death, prevented his entering into society. He was of the middle height, and of slim figure. His head was nobly developed, and the intellectual qualities strongly marked; the hair soft and snowy-white. His features were delicately chiselled, eyes brilliant, complexion very pale, but the expression of his countenance combined benevolence with great intelligence. There was a blandness in his manner which inspired confidence, and set the most nervous patient at ease. He always dressed with scrupulous neatness, usually in black, with gaiters or silk stockings. There is an admirable portrait of him in the possession of his family by Hayes, a pupil of David, the favourite artist of Napoleon; "(4) and there is a portrait of him in the College by Henry Phillips, jun., copied at the expense of the College from one belonging to the family.

William Munk

[(1) Vol. i, New Series, 1850, p. 17. To this article I am much indebted. (2) Vols, viii and ix. (3) Daubeny’s Miscellanies: being a Collection of Memoirs and Essays on Scientific and Literary Subjects, published at various times. 2 vols. 8vo. Oxford and London. 1867. Vol. ii, p. 123.
(4) Medical Times, ut supra, p. 17.]

(Volume III, page 109)

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