John C. Lettsome

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Dr. John Coakley Lettsome (1744–1815)

John Coakley Lettsome (1744–1815) was an English physician and philanthropist. He was born on Little Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands, into one of the early Quaker settlements in the territory, and he grew up to be an abolitionist. His surname is sometimes spelled Lettsom, particularly during the period of his life during which he resided in the British Virgin Islands.

Lettsome founded the Medical Society of London in 1773, convinced that a combined membership of physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries would prove productive. His revolutionary idea met with success and the Society has provided a forum for all branches of the medical profession from its inception to the present. Situated at the heart of London's medical community at Lettsome House, Chandos Street, near Cavendish Square, this is the oldest medical society in the United Kingdom.

As founder, president (1775–76, 1784–85, 1808–11, 1813–15), and benefactor Lettsome was the mainstay of the Society from 1773 until his death in 1815.


John Coakley Lettsome was born into the Quaker community on the island of Little Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands, in 1744. John and his brother were the sole survivors of seven sets of male twins, sons of Edward and Mary Lettsome. John alone was sent to England at the age of six to be educated.

At school in Lancashire the antics of the young Lettsome attracted the attention of the Quaker preacher Samuel Fothergill, who introduced his protégé to his brother, the London physician, Dr John Fothergill. Having completed an apprenticeship to a Yorkshire apothecary, Lettsome came to London in 1766 when, through the influence of Dr Fothergill, he commenced his medical training at St Thomas' Hospital. His studies were interrupted by the death of his father, prompting his return to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands where he freed the slaves he had inherited and provided medical care for the local population. As the only doctor in the islands at that time, he was able to earn a considerable sum. Diligence and industry earned him a fortune, enabling him to resume his studies in Europe and culminating in the submission of his MD thesis on the natural history of the tea-tree to Leyden University in 1769.

Lettsome was also a close friend of Benjamin Franklin and William Thornton.


Lettsome's career accelerated with the LRCP and marriage to an heiress. By the age of 30 his reputation as a physician, author, and Fellow of the Royal Society was established. Furthermore, he had founded the General Dispensary in Aldersgate Street and the Medical Society of London. He was a founder-member of the Royal Humane Society in 1774, he initiated the Sea-bathing Infirmary at Margate (1791), became a pillar of the Royal Jennerian Society (for vaccination) and gave his support to the Society for the Relief of Widows and Orphans of Medical Men, the Society for the Relief of Debtors, and the Philanthropic Society (for homeless children). Numerous clubs, societies, hospitals, dispensaries, and charitable institutions in the United Kingdom and North America benefited from Lettsome's patronage, while from his pen there flowed a stream of "Hints", pamphlets, diatribes, and letters promoting Sunday schools, female industry, provision for the blind, a bee society, soup kitchens and the mangel-wurzel, and condemning quackery, card parties, and intemperance. In the diversity of his interests, as physician, philanthropist, botanist, mineralogist and collector, Lettsome was in the mould of that giant of the previous generation of London physicians, Sir Hans Sloane.

As founder, President (1775–76, 1784–85, 1808–11, 1813–15) and benefactor of the London Medical Society, Lettsome was the mainstay of the society from 1773 until his death in 1815. His influence remained strong and his example inspired the next generation of Fellows—men such as Dr Thomas Pettigrew, his biographer, and Dr Henry Clutterbuck, who followed in Lettsome's footsteps as President of the Society and physician to the General Dispensary. In 1791 Lettsome won the society's Fothergillian prize for a treatise entitled Diseases of Great Towns and the Best Means of Preventing them.[1]

He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1788.[2]

For at least a portion of his years working in London, he lived in Newington Green, a village full of English Dissenters clustered around a green and its Unitarian church. There he met the young Mary Wollstonecraft[3] and others intent on social reform.


Lettsome is reported[4] to have written about himself:

    I, John Lettsome,
    Blisters, bleeds and sweats 'em.
    If, after that, they please to die,
    I, John Lettsome.

Richard Woodman attributes similar words to the fictional naval surgeon Mr. Lettsom in The Bomb Vessel:[5]

    When people's ill, they come to I,
    I physics, bleeds and sweats 'em;
    Sometime they live, sometimes they die,
    What's that to I? I let's 'em.


Lettsome was also a noted abolitionist. In 1767 he had returned to the British Virgin Islands after the death of his father, and found himself the owner of a share of his father's slaves, whom he promptly manumitted. Lettsome then set up a medical practice on Tortola, and as the only physician on the island amassed a veritable small fortune of £2,000 in a mere six months, whereupon he gave half to his mother (who had remarried) and returned to London.

When his good friend, William Thornton, sought his advice about setting up a colony for freed slaves on the west coast of Africa, Lettsome counseled against it, and suggested that spending the money acquiring and manumitting the slaves in North America would be a better use of funds.

However, towards the end of his life, something ironic happened. Lettsome's son, Pickering Lettsome, returned to Tortola to practice law, and there he married a wealthy widow, who had inherited some 1,000 slaves from her grandfather, Benzaliel Hodge. Pickering Lettsome died about a month after the marriage, and his new wife (some 16 years his senior) died two months later, and left all of her property to her father-in-law, John Lettsome. By a twist of fate, shortly before his own death, Lettsome, who had freed all the slaves he had ever owned, found himself as the owner of another 1,000 slaves. However, Lettsome himself died before he had a chance to decide what to do with the slaves, and they were inherited by his grandson.


Lettsome was an entomologist. He wrote The naturalist's and traveler's companion, containing instructions for collecting and preserving objects of natural history and for promoting inquiries after human knowledge in general. London: E. and C. Dilly (1774)a much used work.

The naturalist's and traveler's companion, 1774

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Transactions & studies of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia". Retrieved 22 November 2014. 
  2. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter L" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 28 July 2014. 
  3. ^ Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by DIANE JACOBS. Simon & Schuster, ch. 2
  4. ^ The 2009-2011 Cruising Guide to the Virgin Islands, 14th Edition by Nancy and Simon Scott. Cruising Guide Publications, Inc., 2008 p. 94.
  5. ^ The Bomb Vessel by Richard Woodman. Sheridan House, Inc., 2000, p. 30.

Further reading[edit]

  • ODNB article by J.F. Payne ‘Lettsom, John Coakley (1744–1815)’, rev. Roy Porter, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 20 Nov 2012
  • Hunting, Penelope (2004) [2003]. History Of Medicine: The Medical Society of London. London: Postgraduate Medical Journal. 
  • Florence Lewisohn, Tales of Tortola and the British Virgin Islands (1966)

External links[edit]