Roy Porter
The Creation of the Modern World

A prime promoter of the enlightened alliance of science, utility and philanthropy under the banner of improvement was the Quaker John Coakley Lettsom. Born in 1744 in the West Indies, where his father was a plantation owner, Lettsom was sent to England for his education, studying medicine in London and Edinburgh. On his father's death in 1767, he returned to the Caribbean as heir to the family estates. There he performed a deed both pious and enlightened: 'The moment I came of age,' he later recalled, 'I found my chief property was in slaves, and without considering of future support, I gave them freedom, and began the world without fortune, without a friend.'

Setting up in medical practice in London, Lettsom proved highly successful. In 1782, he noted that 'sometimes for the space of a week, I cannot command twenty minutes' leisure in my own house'. Acquiring many prominent patients, including Lord Shelburne, patron of Priestley and Bentham, his busy practice made him wealthy—by 1800, his earnings amounted to a princely £12,000 annually. Prosperity underwrote philanthropy—'who will thank us for dying rich!' Indefatigably charitable, Lettsom was a founder of several forward-looking institutions. In 1770, he launched the General Dispensary in Aldersgate Street, the first of its kind, and became one of its physicians. This provided free outpatient treatment to the poor through a resident apothecary, and inaugurated domiciliary visiting. In 1774 he assisted in founding the (Royal) Humane Society, to pioneer techniques and publicize the practice of resuscitating the drowned; he was the driving force behind the Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary at Margate (1791), a convalescent home for the tubercular; and he also helped found the Medical Society of London (1773), whose very Addisonian aim was to unite improvement and conviviality.

Building a house in suburban Camberwell, Lettsom there laid out a fortune on a museum, library and botanical garden. Like other enlightened Quakers, he valued sociability and the exchange of knowledge, keeping up a correspondence with (among others) George Washington, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, Erasmus Darwin and Albrecht von Haller, Despite his Quaker pacifism, Lettsom became physician to the Gamberwell Volunteer Infantry in 1803, declaring, 'May I fall by the sword rather than live to see this free country the domain of a Corsican murderer and usurper!'

Lettsom enthused over useful knowledge, scientific experimentation, medical advance and moral improvement; a tireless writer, he produced pamphlets against drunkenness, while his The Natural History of the Tea Tree with Observations on its Medical Qualities, and Effects of Tea-Drinking (1772) exposed the evils of that pernicious habit. Among a plethora of projects, he was an advocate of soup kitchens for the poor, and his passion for education led him to write on the management of boarding schools, giving advice as to games, diet, attire and cleanliness. This busy bee also fittingly directed attention to beehives, 'as appendages both of ornament and utility to the gardens about the metropolis': within twenty miles of London, up to 50,000 hives might be maintained, enriching the nation by a guinea per hive per annum.

In 1801 Lettsom collected his improving ideas into the 3-volume Hints Designed to Promote Beneficence, Temperance, and Medical Science, which gave instruction on such varied subjects as poverty, discharged prisoners, prostitution, infectious fevers, a Samaritan society, crimes and punishments, wills and testaments, lying-in charities, the deaf and dumb, village societies, the blind, a society for promoting useful literature, religious persecution, Sunday schools, the Philanthropic Society, dispensaries, hydrophobia, sea-bathing infirmaries, and 'A Substitute for Wheat Bread'—Indian corn made a thrifty porridge. It all amounted to a veritable enlightenment omnium gatherum.

If piqued at his exclusion, as a Quaker, from the fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians, Lettsom was a passionate champion of science and his own profession. He waged newspaper wars against quacks, became an early advocate of smallpox vaccination and also championed John Howard, the hospital and prison reformer.

As well as botany, fossils, medicine and natural history, Lettsom was an enthusiast for scientific agriculture, playing a part in the introduction into Britain of the mangelwurzel. All such scientific and philanthropic activities were the more remarkable, because, like his physician contemporary Erasmus Darwin, his works tended to be written in his carriage while scurrying about to see his patients. Like others featured in later chapters—Darwin himself, Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Joseph Priestley, for instance—Lettsom exemplifies the ardent promotion of practical, science-based improvement by enlightened Englishmen.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.