Sydenham, Thomas

, a very eminent physician, and one of the most eminent as an improver of the art that England has produced, was born in 1624 at Winford Eagle in Dorsetshire, where his father William Sydenham, esq. | had a large fortune. Under whose care he was educated, or in what manner he passed his childhood, is not known. At the age of eighteen, in 1642, he entered* as a commoner of Magdalen -hall, Oxford, where it is not probable that he continued long; for he informs us himself, that he was withheld from the university by the commencement of the war; nor is it very clearly known in what state of life he engaged, or where he resided during that long series of public commotion. It is indeed reported, that he had a commission in the king’s army*, but no particular account is given of his military conduct; nor are we told what rank he obtained (unless that of a captain), when he entered into the army, or when or on what occasion he retired from it. It is certain, however, that if ever he took upon him the profession of arms, he spent but few years in the camp; for in 1648 he obtained at Oxford the degree of bachelor of physic, for which, as some medical knowledge is necessary, it may be imagined that he spent some time in qualifying himself.

His application to the study of physic was, as he himself relates, produced by an accidental acquaintance with Dr. Cox, a physician eminent at that time in London, who in some sickness prescribed to his brother, and, attending him frequently on that occasion, inquired of him what profession he designed to follow. The young man answering that he was undetermined, the doctor recommended physic to him, and Sydenham having determined to follow his advice, retired to Oxford for leisure and opportunity to pursue his studies.

It is evident, says his biographer, that this conversation must have happened before his promotion to any degree in physic, because he himself fixes it in the interval of his absence from the university, a circumstance which will enable us to confute many false reports relating to Dr. Sydenham, which have been confidently inculcated, and implicitly believed. It is the general opinion, that he was made a physician by accident and necessity; and sir Richard Blackmore reports in plain terms (in the preface to his "Treatise on the Small-Pox 1 *), that he engaged in practice without any preparatory study, or previous knowledge,

* Surely not in the kinir’s army, which he had a brother, an officer of

This is contrary to all authority. His high rank mentioned hereafter. This

commission, if he had any, inu-t have is in some measure confirmed by

been in the parliamentary army, in Wood, our earliest authority. | of the medicinal sciences; and affirms, that, when he was consulted by him what books he should read to qualify him for the same profession, he recommended Don Quixote. That he recommended Don Quixote to Blackrnore, we are not, continues Dr. Johnson, to doubt; but the relater is hindered by that self-love which dazzles all mankind, from discovering that he might intend a satire very different from a general censure of all the ancient and modern writers’on medicine, since he might perhaps mean, either seriously or in jest, to insinuate, that Blackmore was not adapted by nature to the study of physic, and that, whether he should read Cervantes, or Hippocrates, he would be equally unqualified for practice, and equally unsuccessful in it. Whatever was his meaning, nothing is more evident, than that it was a transitory sally of an imagination warmed with gaiety, or the negligent effusion of a mind intent on some other employment, and in haste to dismiss a troublesome intruder for it is certain that Sydenham did not think it impossible to write usefully on medicine, because he has himself written upon it and it is not probable that he carried his vanity so far, as to imagine that no man had ever acquired the same qualifications besides himself. He could not but know that he had rather restored than invented most of his principles, and therefore could not but acknowledge the value of those writers whose doctrines he adopted and enforced.

That he engaged in the practice of physic without any acquaintance with the theory, or knowledge of the opinions or precepts of former writers, is undoubtedly false, for he declares that after he had, in pursuance of his conversation with Dr. Cox, determined upon the practice of physic, he applied himself in earnest to it, and spent several years in the university, before he began to practise in London. Nor was he satisfied with the opportunities of knowledge which Oxford afforded, but travelled to Montpellier, as Desault relates (“Dissertation on Consumptions” ), in quest of farther information, Montpellier being at that time the most celebrated school of physic. It is a common opinion that he was thirty years old before he formed his resolution of studying physic; but this arises from the misrepresentation of an expression in his dedication to Dr. Mapletoft, in which he observes that from his conversation with Dr. Cox to the publication of that treatise thirty years had intervened. The facts already related sufficiently confute | this error, since it appears that Sydenham, after having been for some time absent from the university, returned to it in order to pursue his physical inquiries before he was twenty-four years old; for in 1648, when exactly of that age, he was admitted to the degree of M.B.

Among other reports respecting this great man, it has also been said that he composed his works in English, but was obliged to have recourse to Dr. Mapletoft to translate them into Latin. This has been asserted by Ward in his Lives of the Gresham professors, but without bringing any proof*; and it is observable that his “Processus Integri,” published after his death, discovers alone more skill in the Latin language than is commonly ascribed to him. It is likewise asserted by sir Hans Sloane, with whom he was familiarly acquainted, that Dr. Sydenham was particularly versed in the writings of the great Roman orator and philosopher; and there is evidently such a luxuriance in his style, as may discover the author who gave him most pleasure, and most engaged his imitation.

About the same time that he became bachelor of physic, he obtained, by the interest of a relation, a fellowship of All Souls’ college, having submitted, by the subscription required, to the authority of the visitors appointed by the parliament, upon what principles, or how consistently with his former conduct, it is now impossible to discover f. When he thought himself qualified for practice, he fixed his residence in Westminster, became doctor of physic at Cambridge, received a licence from the college of physicians, and lived in the first degree of reputation, and the greatest affluence of practice, for many years, without any other enemies than those which he raised by the superior merit of his conduct, the bright lustre of his abilities, or his improvements of his science, and his contempt of pernicious methods supported only by authority in opposition to sound reason and indubitable experience. These men are indebted to him for concealing their names, when he

* Dr. Ward did bring hh proofs, f This mistake is founded on that

in a letter sent lo the Gent Mag. vol. mentioned in the last note but one.

XIII. in which however be endeavours Woud informs us thai be. would not,

to obviate the conclusion that might from the tirst, join the young s;v; nu

be drawn from his first assertion, who took up arms in rkfrnce of the

namely that Syilrnbam was not ca- king. There was r,olhing therefore in

pable of translating his works into his present conduct inconsistent with

Latin, and this he has done very can- his former, dully and very tatisfactorily. | records their malice, since they have thereby escaped the contempt and detestation of posterity*.

Dr. Sydenham, however, was not destined for long life. His health began to fail in the fifty-second year of his age, by frequent attacks of the gout, to which he had long been subject, and which afterwards was accompanied with the stone in the kidneys, and its natural consequence, bloody urine. These were distempers, says his elegant biographer, which even the art of Sydenham could only palliate, without hope of a perfect cure, but which, if he has not been able by his precepts to instruct us to remove, he has, at least, by his example taught us to bear; for he never betrayed any indecent impatience, or unmanly dejection, under his torments, but supported himself by the reflections of philosophy, and the consolations of religion, and in every interval of ease applied himself to the assistance of others with his usual assiduity. After a life thus usefully employed, he died at his house in Pall-mall, Dec. 29, 1689, in the sixty-fifth year of his age, and was buried in the aile, near the south door, of the church of St. James’s, Westminster.

His works have been collected and frequently printed at London in one volume 8vo. The last edition is that by John Swan, M. D. of Newcastle in Staffordshire, 1742. To this is prefixed a life of Dr. Sydenham, by Dr. Johnson, which we have chiefly followed in the preceding account. His works were also printed at Leipsic in J 711, at Geneva in 1716, in 2 vols. 4to, and at Leyden in 8vo. They were written by himself in English, but translated afterwards into Latin, of which it is our opinion he was fully capable, although these translations, as already noticed, have been attributed to Dr. Mapletoft and others. The last English edition is that by Dr. George Wallis, 1788, 2 vols. 8vo, with notes and opinions of subsequent medical writers.


The great Sydenham, for all his labours, only gained the sad and unjust recompence of calumny and ignominy: and that from the emulation of some of his collegiate brethren and others, whose indignation at length arose to that height, that they endeavoured to banish him, as guilty of medicinal heresy, out of that illustrious society and by the whispering of others he was baulked the. employment of the royal family, where before he was called among the first physitiafti. Yet some patrons this great and good man had among his brethren, as Goodall, Brady, Gaman, and Dr. Cole of Worcester, as may be seen by their epistles in his works. Dr. Micklethwait a little before his death did profess, notwithstanding all the attempts of several against the methods of Sydenham, that these would prevail, and triumph over all other methods and the event has fully verified this prediction of Dr. communicated by Dr. Lettsom to the —Gent. Mag. vol LXXI.' p. 684.

| Sydenham has frequently been called the father of physic among the moderns. He tells us, in the preface to his works, that “the increase and perfection of the medical art is to be advanced by these two means: by composing an history of distempers, or a natural and exact description of distempers and their symptoms; and by deducing and establishing a method of cure from thence.” This is the way which that great delineator of the right road to real knowledge in all its various branches, lord Bacon, had pointed out; and its being more closely pursued by Sydenham than by any modern physician before him, is what has justly entitled him to those high encomiums which have ever been paid him. Sir Richard Blackmore allows, and all are now convinced, that Sydenham, “who built all his maxims and rules of practice upon repeated observations on the nature and properties of diseases, and the power of remedies, has compiled so good an history of distempers, and so prevalent a method of cure, that he has improved and advanced the healing art much more than Dr. Willis with all his curious speculations and fanciful hypotheses.” He relates of himself, in his dedication to Dr. Mapletoft, that ever since he had applied himself to the practice of physic, he had been of opinion, and the opinion had been every day more and more confirmed in him, that the medical art could not be learned so surely as by use and experience; and that he, who should pay the nicest and most accurate attention to the symptoms of distempers, would infallibly succeed best in searching out the true means of cure. “For this reason,” says he, “I gave myself up entirely to thjs method of proceeding, perfectly secure and confident, that, while 1 followed nature as my guide, I could never err.” He tells him afterwards, that Mr. Locke approved his method, which he considered as no small sanction to it; and what he says upon this occasion of Mr. Locke is worth transcribing: “Nosti prseterea, quern huic meiE methodo suffragantem habeam, qui earn intimius per omnia perspexerat, utrique nostrum conjunctissimum dominum Joannem Locke; quo quidem viro, sive ingenio judicioque acri & subacto, sive etiam antiquis, hoc est, optimis moribus, vix superiorem quenquam, inter eos qui nunc.sunt homines repertum in confido; paucissimns rertci pares.” There are some Latin elegiac verses by Mr. Locke, addressed to Sydenham, prefixed to his 4< Treatise upon Severs." | Mr. Granger has remarked that Sydenham received higher honours from foreign physicians than from his countrymen. This, however, applies only to his contemporaries, for no modern English physician has ever mentioned Sydenham unless in terms of high veneration. The encomiums of Boerhaave and Haller are well known to medical readers. His great merit consists in the accurate descriptions which he has left us of several diseases which first became conspicuous in his time. His account of the smallpox, and of his medical treatment of that disease, is admirable, and contributed in no small degree to establish his celebrity. He was the first person who introduced the cooling regimen in fevers, a method of treatment frequently attended with the happiest effects, though it must be acknowledged that he did not sufficiently distinguish between the typhus and the inflammatory fever, and on that account he sometimes carried his bleedings to an excess. He contributed also essentially to introduce the Peruvian bark as a cure for intermittents.

He had an elder brother William, who was some time gentleman commoner of Trinity college in Oxford, and, entering into the parliament’s army, acquitted himself so well, that he rose, by several gradations, to the highest post and dignities. In 1649, he was appointed governor of the Isle of Wight, and made vice-admiral of that isle and Hampshire. In 1653, he was summoned to parliament for Dorsetshire; in 1654, made commissioner of the treasury, and member of the privy-council; and in 1658, summoned to parliament by the protector Richard Cromwell. This connection, together with his own principles and former engagements, would probably hinder Dr. Sydenham from being a very popular physician, during the period of his flourishing, that is, in the reigns of Charles II. and James II.; yet he seems to hare owed more of his neglect to the envy of his contemporary brethren.

His biographer remarks that Dr. Sydenham’s skill in physic “was not his highest excellence that his whole character was amiable that his chief view was the benefit of mankind, and the chief motive of his actions the will of God, whom he mentions with reverence, well becoming the most enlightened and most penetrating mind. He was benevolent, candid, and communicative, sincere, and religious qualities, which it were happy if they could copy | from him, who emulate his knowledge, and imitate liia methods.1


Life by Dr. Johnson.—Biog. Brit.—Birch’s Lives.—Ath. Ox, vol. II.— Thomson’s Hist. of the Royal Society.