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THOMAS WAKLEY (1795-1862)

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Originally appearing in Volume V28, Page 251 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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THOMAS WAKLEY (1795-1862), English medical and social reformer, was born in Devonshire, and was early apprenticed to a Taunton apothecary. He then went to London and qualified as a surgeon, setting up in practice in Regent Street, and marrying (182o) Miss Goodchild, whose father was a merchant and a governor of St Thomas's Hospital. All through his career Wakley proved to be a man of aggressive personality, and his experiences in this respect had a sensational beginning. In August 1820 a gang of men who had some grievance against him burnt down his house and severely wounded him in a murderous assault. The whole affair was obscure, and Wakley was even suspected, unjustly, of setting fire to his house himself; but he won his case against the insurance company which contested his claim. He became a friend of William Cobbett, with whose radicalism he was in sympathy. In 1823 he started the well-known medical weekly paper, the Lancet, and began a series of attacks on the jobbery in vogue among the practitioners of the day, who were accustomed to treat the medical profession as a close borough. In opposition to the hospital doctors he insisted on publishing reports of their lectures and exposing various malpractices, and he had to fight a number of lawsuits, which, however, only increased his influence. He attacked the whole constitution of the Royal College of Surgeons, and obtained so much support from among the general body of the profession, now roused to a sense of the abuses he exposed, that in 1827 a petition to parliament resulted in a return being ordered of the public money granted to it. But reform in the college was slow, and Wakley now set himself to rouse the House of Commons from within. He became a radical candidate for parliament, and in 1835 was returned for Finsbury, retaining his seat till 1852. In this capacity, and also as coroner for West Middlesex—an appointment he secured in 1839—he was indefatigable in upholding the interests of the working classes and advocating humanitarian reforms, as well as in pursuing his campaign against medical restrictions and abuses; and he made the Lancet not only a professional organ but a powerful engine of social reform. He died on the 16th of May 1862, leaving three sons, the proprietor-ship of the Lancet remaining in the family. See Samuel Squire Sprigge, Life and Times of Thomas Wakley (1897)•
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