Lives of the fellows

William Charles Wells

b.24 May 1757 d.18 September 1817
MD Edin(1780) LRCP(1788) FRS(1793)

William Charles Wells, M. D., was born at Charlestown, South Carolina, in May, 1757; and was the second son of Robert Wells, a native of Scotland, who had settled in Carolina in 1753, and at the time of his son’s birth carried on the business of a bookseller and printer of a newspaper. Before the younger Wells was eleven years of age he was sent to Scotland to a grammar school at Dumfries, where he remained about two years and a half, when, having finished the course of studies pursued there, he, in 1770, went to Edinburgh, and attended several of the lower classes of the university. He returned to Charlestown in 1771, and was placed as an apprentice with Dr. Alexander Garden, the chief practitioner of physic in that place, and well known to naturalists by his communications to the Royal Society. In 1775, soon after the commencement of the American war, he left Charlestown suddenly and came to London. He had been called upon to sign a paper denominated "The Association," the object of which was to unite the people in a resistance to the claims of the British Government. This he positively refused to do, and neither the authority of his master nor the remonstrances of his friends were enough to shake his determination. In the autumn of 1775 he repaired to Edinburgh, and commenced attendance on the medical lectures. He continued there three years, and passed the usual examinations in the summer of 1778, but did not then graduate. In the autumn he returned to London, attended lectures on anatomy and midwifery, and entered himself as a surgeon’s pupil at St. Bartholomew’s hospital. Early in 1779 he went to Holland as surgeon to a Scotch regiment in the service of the United Provinces. In this position he remained about a year, when a quarrel with his commanding officer induced him to throw up his commission in disgust. He thereupon retired to Leyden, occupied himself in the composition of his inaugural thesis " De Fii-gore and then, proceeding to Edinburgh, took his degree of doctor of medicine 24th June, 1780. In the following year he returned to Carolina in order to arrange the affairs of his family ; and whilst there was, at one and the same time, an officer in a company of volunteers, a printer, bookseller, merchant, and trustee for some of his father’s friends in England for the management of affairs of considerable importance in Carolina. There he remained for three years ; and of his career during that period he has left an interesting account in some memoranda of his own life which were published shortly after his death. Dr. Wells came to London in 1784, and at that time made the acquaintance of Dr. Baillie, who proved himself ever afterwards his steady, warm, and affectionate friend. In the spring of 1785 Dr. Wells spent three months in Paris ; and in the autumn of that year fixed himself in London as a physician. He commenced practice without any pecuniary resources; and, notwithstanding the strictest economy, straitened means were unfortunately his lot through life. He was admitted a Licentiate of the College of Physicians 17th March, 1788; was appointed physician to the Finsbury dispensary in 1790; assistant physician to St. Thomas’s hospital in 1798; and full physician to that institution in 1800. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1793; and a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1814. In 1816 the Royal Society of London awarded him the Romford medal for his original and scientific researches on Dew, a subject with which his name must ever be inseparably connected. Dr. Wells was one of the most active and energetic of the Licentiates in their contest with the College ; and was the author of a clever and spirited "Letter to lord Kenyon" on that subject. Though Dr. Wells did not succeed in obtaining private business, he was a shrewd and observing physician. As a careful observer and a cautious reasoner, he had few equals among his contemporaries, and no superiors. His papers on Erysipelas, on Scarlatinal Dropsy, on Rheumatism of the Heart, and on Albuminous Urine, in the Transactions of a Society for the promotion of Medical and Chirurgical Knowledge, are sufficient proofs of his qualifications in these respects. His papers read before the Royal Society, and published in their " Transactions," are in like manner evidences of his high attainments as a philosopher. " He was," writes one who knew him well, "laboriously diligent, eager and steady in his pursuits, and less satisfied with any present success than cheered by it in his attempts to obtain greater. He was frugal, yet liberal; high minded, and unwilling to be obliged, perhaps uneasy under obligation, but most grateful for kindness; resentful but placable; irascible, and indulging his feeling when it arose from trifling causes, but exercising the utmost self-command under very great provocation, if the occasion was important and propriety required it; indignant at insolence and oppression, and regardless of all personal consequences in the expression of his indignation; but submissive to the appointments of heaven, and calm and cheerful under the sufferings which flowed from them; a sense of duty was the paramount feeling in his mind, to which hatred and love, fear and desire gave way, and which danger and difficulty served only to make more active and vigorous." " Dr. Wells,’’ says Sir Benjamin Brodie, when writing of his contemporaries at the end of his own professional life, " was one of the most remarkable persons with whom it has been my lot to be personally acquainted. He is too well known by his writings, among which his Essay on Dew deserves more especial notice, for it to be worth while for me to speak of him as a philosopher, but I may venture to give some account of him otherwise. He was never married, but lived by himself, with (I believe) only a single maid-servant in a small house in Serjeants’-inn, Fleet-street. Although he had paid great attention to his profession and had ample opportunities of studying it as physician to St. Thomas’s hospital, he had never more than a very limited practice. For this, indeed, he was in many respects very unfit; having dry, and, in general society, ungracious manners, and being apt to take offence where no offence was intended. Yet he had great kindness and warmth of heart, mixed up with these less amiable qualities, and while he was greatly respected by those who really knew him, he was even beloved by the very few with whom he was intimate. His autobiography, which is prefixed to the posthumous edition of his works, is very characteristic, and, when I read it, reminded me very much of that of David Hume, to whom, indeed, as to the character of his intellect he bore a considerable resemblance, however different he may have been from him in some other respects." Dr. Wells died at his lodgings in Serjeants’-inn, 18th September, 1817, and was buried in St. Bride’s, Fleet-street, where a tablet was soon afterwards erected by one of his sisters to the joint memory of himself and of his father and mother. The inscription to Dr. Wells is as follows :—
Near this place are deposited
the remains of
William Charles Wells, M.D., F.R.S., L. & E.
who was born May 24, 1757;
and who died September 18, 1817.
A skilful and learned physician,
an inventive philosopher,
a man of singular worth and honour.
He extended the boundaries of natural science;
and exhibited in his conduct
an union of generosity and frugality,
of high-mindedness with prudence,
and a strict and scrupulous integrity above the reach of suspicion as well as of reproach.

Dr. Wells’s published works were—
An Essay on Single Vision with Two Eyes, together with Experiments and Observations on several other Subjects in Optics. 8vo. Lond. 1792.
An Essay on Dew, with several appearances connected with it. 8vo. Lond. 1814.

William Munk

(Volume II, page 379)

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