Lives of the fellows

James (Sir) Clark

b.14 December 1788 d.29 June 1870
BART MD Edin(1817) Ex LRCP(1820) LRCP(1826)

Sir James Clark, Bart.,M.D., was the eldest son of Mr. David Clark of Findlater, co. Banff, by his wife Isabella, daughter of Mr. John Scott of Glassaugh, and was born 14th December, 1788. He received his early education at a school at Fordyce, and then at the college of Aberdeen, where he took a degree in arts. He was at first intended for the law, but, preferring medicine, devoted himself to its study, went to Edinburgh, and in 1820 became a member of the college of surgeons there. He then entered the medical service of the navy.

He served at Haslar hospital till July, 1810, when he was appointed assistant-surgeon to the "Thistle," then going with despatches to New York. The "Thistle" was wrecked on the coast of New Jersey, and the survivors lost everything they possessed and suffered great privations. Returning to England, he was promoted to the rank of surgeon, and served as such successively in the "Collobrée," the "Chesapeake," and finally in the "Maidstone" In 1815, the "Maidstone" was paid off and her surgeon placed on half-pay, when he returned to Edinburgh to continue his studies, and there graduated doctor of medicine 1st August,1817 (D.M. I. de Frigoris effectibus).

In 1818 Dr. Clark accompanied a gentleman far advanced in consumption to the south of France, visiting Marseilles, Hyeres, Nice, and Florence during the winter and spring, and Lausanne in the summer. It was in the course of this tour that Dr. Clark’s attention was specially drawn to the effects of climate on consumption, and that he commenced collecting meteorological and other data with the view of studying their influence on that and other diseases.

In 1819 Dr. Clark settled in Rome where he remained some years with steadily increasing reputation and pecuniary success. At that time Rome was the resort of many of the highest of the English aristocracy, and among these Dr. Clark made, not merely professional connexions, but many warm friends; and to their influence and exertions in his behalf he was much indebted when he settled in London. Among the distinguished personages to whom Dr. Clark became known in Rome was Prince Leopold, afterwards king of the Belgians, one of the wisest men in Europe and most discriminating in his judgment of character.

An accidental meeting with that prince at Carlsbad proved to be of the greatest consequence to Dr. Clark. The prince found him examining the waters, and learnt that he had visited all the spas of Germany, France, and Italy. As English physicians at that time knew but little of the German baths, the prince was struck with the desire to learn their uses, and, on his return to England, appointed Dr. Clark his physician.

Dr. Clark settled in London in 1826. He had on the 17th August, 1820, during a visit to London from Rome been admitted an Extra-Licentiate of the College of Physicians; and on the 26th June, 1826, he was admitted a Licentiate. His progress for the first few years in London was slow but steady. In 1822, while still resident in Rome, he had published Medical Notes on Climate, Diseases, Hospitals, and Medical Schools in France, Italy, and Switzerland, comprising an Inquiry into the effects of a residence in the South of Europe in cases of Pulmonary Consumption. 8vo. Lond.: and in 1829, appeared his best and most important work— The Influence of Climate in the Prevention and Cure of Chronic Diseases, more particularly of the Chest and Digestive Organs. 8vo. Lond.

This work, which is characterised by strong good sense and sound judgment, established Dr. Clark’s reputation in London and with the members of his own profession. In it, for the first time in this country, he systematised and popularised, as well to the medical profession as to the public, all that was really known upon the subject, and he gave a correcter view of the powers of climate and of mineral waters in the treatment of disease than had hitherto existed in our language. The circumstances of Dr. Clark’s early career,—in the navy, in Canada, North America, and the West Indies, then as resident physician for several years in Rome, and subsequently his visits to all the more important continental spas which he studied practically at their sources, had impressed upon his mind the vast importance of these means in the treatment of disease. He employed them largely and successfully in his practice, and his classical work on this subject remains to this day unrivalled.

Although sparing in the administration of drugs in his treatment of disease, Sir James Clark was a neat, one might almost say an elegant prescriber. He had thought it not beneath his notice or his dignity to study the art of prescribing practically, and by repeated trials, and his prescriptions compared favourably with those of most of his contemporaries. The subordinate ingredients were well selected, and they were used in the precise proportions calculated to render the whole combination as little distasteful to the palate as it could well be made.

The credit he had obtained by his work on Climate was fully maintained by his Treatise on Pulmonary Consumption comprehending an Inquiry into the Causes, Nature, Prevention, and Treatment of Tuberculous and Scrofulous Diseases in general. 8vo. Lond. 1835. His position in London was by this time assured. On the death of Dr. Maton, in 1835, he was, on the recommendation of the king of the Belgians appointed by the duchess of Kent her physician in ordinary; an office which involved the medical care of the then Princess Victoria. His medical charge of the princess, on whom the eyes of the nation were fixed with more than ordinary anxiety, necessarily attracted attention to himself, and led to a large increase of his business and reputation. These were further augmented on the accession of the Queen in 1837, by Dr. Clark’s appointment as first physician to her Majesty, and by his creation as a baronet in October, 1837.

When at the full tide of his prosperity and success, the sad case of Lady Flora Hastings occurred to mar his prospects and destroy his peace of mind. It was assumed by the public at the time that Sir James Clark had for a moment given support to a slander against that lady’s character by sharing suspicions which his medical knowledge should have dissipated. The exact facts will probably never be known, but it is certain that Sir James Clark gave advice, which, if followed, would have dissipated the cloud which for a time had rested on the honour of this lady.

As it was Sir James Clark bore the blame which should have fallen on others and suffered acutely a reproach which, had he deemed it right, he could, it is said, have removed by a word. The strong common sense and honesty of the duke of Wellington were at this time a great support to him. The effect upon his practice was immediate; it was years before it passed off, and was never wholly obliterated; but he outlived it, and long before his death it was generally understood that he had been hardly used and wrongly blamed.

With this exception, Sir James Clark’s career was most prosperous. On the queen’s marriage he was appointed physician to prince Albert, by whom he was highly esteemed. "He gradually became most unwittingly a power in the State. Always about the Court, high in the favour of the sovereign, and known to be greatly esteemed by the prince consort, he became the person to whom statesmen constantly referred for advice connected with medical matters and polity. He was always ready with advice, with suggestion, and wise, carefully-considered counsel. To him the medical section of the University of London owes its shape and much of its usefulness, and to him the College of Chemistry chiefly owes existence, and many other institutions much of their support."(1)

In 1860 Sir James Clark, then seventy-two years of age, began to withdraw from the active duties of his profession and gradually to hand over his Court duties to a successor. He then withdrew to Bagshot-park, which the queen had lent him for his life, and died there on the 29th June, 1870, aged eighty-one years. By his wife Barbara, daughter of the Rev. John Stephen, LL.D., who died in 1862, he left a son.

Sir James Clark was the author (in addition to the works mentioned above) of—
Lettera al Prof. Tommasini intorno alle sue Osservationi sulla Scuola Medico-clinica di Edinburgo. 8vo. Roma. 1822.
Remarks on Medical Reform. In two letters. 8vo. Lond. 1842.
Memoir of John Conolly, M.D., comprising a Sketch of the Treatment of the Insane in Europe and America. 8vo. Lond. 1869.

William Munk

[(1) Lancet, of 9th July, 1870, to the excellent biographical notice in which, and to that in the proceedings of the Royal Society of London, vol. xix, p. 13, et seq., I am indebted for much in the above sketch.]

(Volume III, page 222)

<< Back to List