Thomas Wakely: From setting up The Lancet to campaigning for the Tolpuddle Martyrs to be pardoned

Black and white image of Thomas Wakley

Thomas Wakley - Credit: Honiton Museum

Margaret Lewis, curator of Honiton Museum, writes for the Herald.

Margaret Lewis (outside the Honiton Museum) is keen for the building to host the town's new TIC. mhh

Margaret Lewis (outside the Honiton Museum) is keen for the building to host the town's new TIC. mhh 25-16TI 2287. Picture: Terry Ife - Credit: Archant

Thomas Wakely was born in Membury in 1795 and he was the youngest of eleven children of Henry who was a local landowner and racehorse breeder.

Thomas left grammar school and became an apprentice apothecary in Taunton.

He went to London and trained as a surgeon at Guys Hospital and qualified in 1817.

At this time, the medical profession was primitive and unregulated. Poorly trained doctors dealt with diseases with no effective treatments and body snatching was rife.

Thomas married in 1820 and six months later he answered his door in Argyle Street to a stranger.

He was attacked, stabbed and robbed and his home was destroyed by fire.

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He had been receiving threatening letters and was wrongly suspected of being the masked person who decapitated the five members of the Thistlewood Gang after they were hanged at Newgate for plotting to murder the Prime Minister.

The insurance company refused to pay out for the fire and Thomas began the first of many legal battles which the Lord Chief Justice found in his favour and the company had to pay.

Thomas is most famous for founding The Lancet, a weekly newspaper devoted to medical matters in 1823. He announced, "A lancet can be an arched window to let in the light or it can be a sharp surgical instrument to cut out the dross and I intend to use it in both senses.”

He criticised the Royal College of Surgeons and campaigned for a system of medical qualifications to improve standards in the medical profession.

He became Member of Parliament for Finsbury, the largest constituency in Britain, and was largely responsible for the content of the Medical Act of 1858, when the General Council of Medical Education and Registration was established. He campaigned for the abolition of slavery and the repeal of the corn laws.

Thomas was also the first medically qualified Coroner.

His maiden speech in the House of Commons was an attack on the conviction and transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. He was the main spokesperson for the campaign to pardon them.

After many petitions to the King, the Dorset labourers returned to London in 1838 where they were greeted by a procession of ten thousand people.

Thomas Wakely died in Madeira in 1862 after a fall from a boat in the harbour.