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LETTSOM, John Coakley (1744-1815)

History of the Origin of Medicine: An Oration, Delivered at the Anniversary Meeting of the Medical Society of London, January 19, 1778, and printed at their request. To which are since added, various historical illustrations.
London, Printed by J. Phillips for E. and C. Dilly, 1778.

This interesting history of medicine has chapters on surgery, midwifery, anatomy, botany and pharmacy, chemistry, and mystic medicine. Of special interest is Lettsom’s account of magic and mystic medicine as practised among natives and tribes of non-European continents, with copious and long footnotes showing much miscellaneous learning. He gives examples of medical customs and rites in Africa (Great Benin), Mexico (Yucatan) among Incas of Peru, Indians in Amazonas, Surinam and Guinea, North American Indians (incl. Californians) and the newly discovered tribes in the South Pacific with references to Captain Cook. A most interesting feature of this book is the remarkable hand-coloured frontispiece depicting a chaplet that “belonged to a king of Brak near Senegal, who was killed in battle with this charm upon him. It is now in the princely collection of Sir Ashton Lever, who politely favoured me with a drawing of it“. Lettsom, quaker and philanthropist, was born on the Virgin Islands in the West Indies. When six years old he was sent to England for his education. He came under the the notice of Samule Fothergill, the quaker preacher, who later introduced him to his brother, John Fothergill, the physician, and he became a pupil at St.Thomas Hospital in London. In 1767 he returned to the West Indies to take possession of a small property left to him by his father, the most valuable portion of which consisted of fifty slaves, whom Lettsom at once set free. In 1768 he returned to England and studied medicine under Cullen and Home. In 1769 he graduated as M.D. at Leiden with a dissertation on tea, in the second expanded edition of which Linnaeus, in a complementary letter, allowed himself to be corrected. In 1770 he commenced practice in London and by his marriage in the same year he acquired a considerable fortune. For many years his income amounted to several thousand pounds, but his great munificence, and still more his lavish expenditure, kept him in continued pecuniary difficulties, so that constant occupation became a necessity, and for nineteen years he never took a holiday. Towards the close of his life he was compelled to part with his suburban house, Grove Hill, where he had spent immense sums on a museum, a library and a botanical garden. His name is chiefly connected with the Medical Society of London, which he enriched by the gift of a freehold house, a considerable library, and by the foundation of a gold medal named after its patron, the ”Fothergillian” to be given annually for a medical essay. Even if Lettsom left little of moment in the history of medicine his literary activity was the more remarkable, because most of his works as well as his private letters were written in his carriage while driving about to see his patients. His most important contribution to modern medicine is that on the effects of alcoholic excess on the nervous system of women, contained in his Some Remarks on the Effects of Lignum Quassiæ Amaræ.

Collation: Pp viii, 168. Large folding-out engraved frontispiece coloured by hand, repeated in uncoloured state at page 148. (Drawn by Sarah Stone, and engraved by William Battersby).

Binding: Untrimmed copy with wide margins in the original grey boards with printed spine label (restored).

References: Garrison-Morton 6381; DNB; Heirs of Hippocrates (3rd ed.), 1056; Pettigrew, Memoirs of J. C. Lettsom, with a selection from his correspondence, in three volumes (1817); Hagelin KIB, 120-21. Waller 14052.

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