John Elliotson

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
John Elliotson
John Elliotson.jpg
John Elliotson
Born 29 October 1791
Southwark, London
Died 29 July 1868
Nationality United Kingdom
Fields medicine
Alma mater University of Edinburgh
Known for Mesmerism, Phrenology, introducing stethoscope to United Kingdom
Influences Thomas Brown

John Elliotson (29 October 1791 – 29 July 1868) was an English physician, born in Southwark, London.


He studied medicine first at the University of Edinburgh (1805–1810),[1] where he was influenced by Thomas Brown, M.D. (1778–1820), who held the chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh from 1808 to 1820, and then at Jesus College, Cambridge (1810–1821) — in both of which institutions he took the degree of M.D.[2] — and subsequently in London at St Thomas' and Guy's hospitals. In 1831 he was elected professor of the principles and practice of physic in London University (now University College London), and in 1834 he became physician to University College Hospital.

He was a student of phrenology and mesmerism, but at the time both fields were vying for scientific authority. Elliotson hoped his development of mesmerism would lead to new therapeutic applications for medical science (and so also help score 'social reform' points against UCL's 'Tory' Rival, Kings). Elliotson tended to use working class, female subjects for mesmeric research and demonstration, often from Irish immigrant communities. This was not unusual but was perhaps his downfall. Because the effects of mesmerism took place in the subjects' mind, the scientific community had to believe their testimony. Elliotson tried using middle-class peers as subjects but felt they brought with them an undesirable obtrusion of their own sense of identity and that their expectations of the experiment would lead them to censor their reports. In comparison, Elliotson, rather patronisingly to contemporary eyes, felt the poorer subjects were closer to the mechanical instruments and animals of physical or physiological experimental traditions. He famously claimed he could play the brain of his subjects as he would a piano. The same prejudices, however, made it easier to discount his work, especially as Elliotson's subjects proved to be slightly less passive than he had hoped.

His interest in mesmerism eventually brought him into collision with the materialist biases of the medical committee of the hospital, a circumstance which led him, in December 1838, to resign the offices he held there and at the university. According to Alison Winter's study of 19th-century Mesmerism,[3] this was largely due to the actions of The Lancet which, because it was a new publication, was seeking to prove its authority with the medical profession. Its founder, Thomas Wakley initially supported Elliotson but quickly changed his mind, considering the mesmeric subjects and experiments rather too 'unruly' for his taste. The Lancet ran a series of trials of Elliotson's mesmeric experiments at Wakley's home in Bedford Square during the summer of 1838, with a jury of witnesses drawn from the medical establishment. The results of these trials not only discredited Elliotson but helped to clarify the authority and status of both Wakley and The Lancet. Elliotson continued the practice of mesmerism, holding mesmeric séances in his home and, with William Collins Engledue,[4] editing a magazine, The Zoist: A Journal of Cerebral Physiology & Mesmerism, and Their Applications to Human Welfare, devoted to the subject. In 1849 he founded a mesmeric hospital. He died in London on 29 July 1868.

Elliotson was one of the first teachers in London to appreciate the value of clinical lecturing, and one of the earliest among British physicians to advocate the employment of the stethoscope. He wrote:

  • a translation of Blumenbach's Institutiones Physiologicae (1817)
  • Cases of the Hydrocyanic or Prussic Acid (1820)
  • Lectures on Diseases of the Heart (1830)
  • Principles and Practice of Medicine (1839)
  • Human Physiology (1840)
  • Surgical Operations in the Mesmeric State without Pain (1843)

He was the author of numerous papers in the Transactions of the Medico-Chirurgical Society, of which he was at one time president; and he was also a fellow both of the Royal College of Physicians and Royal Society, and founder and president of the Phrenological Society.

He was highly regarded in literary circles. WM Thackeray's Pendennis was dedicated to him. Elliotson was a friend of Charles Dickens, and introduced him to Mesmerisn. This aspect of Dicken's life and work is discussed by Steven Connor.[5] Wilkie Collins described Elliotson as "one of the greatest English physiologists," and cites an example of state-dependent memory from Elliotson's Human Physiology in The Moonstone.[6]

See also[edit]



Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.