John Elliotson

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John Elliotson
John Elliotson
Born 29 October 1791
Southwark, London
Died 29 July 1868(1868-07-29) (aged 76)
Nationality United Kingdom
Fields medicine
Alma mater University of Edinburgh
Known for Mesmerism, Phrenology, The Zoist, introducing stethoscope to United Kingdom
Influences Thomas Brown

John Elliotson (29 October 1791 – 29 July 1868), M.D. (Edinburgh, 1810),[1] M.R.C.P. (London, 1810), M.B. (Oxford, 1816), M.D. (Oxford, 1821), F.R.C.P. (London, 1822), F.R.S. (1829), professor of the principles and practice of medicine at University College London (1832), and senior physician to University College Hospital (1834).

He was a prolific and influential author, a respected teacher, always at the ‘leading edge’ of his profession (one of the first to use and promote the stethoscope,[2] and one of the first in Britain to use acupuncture),[3] renowned for both his diagnostic skills as a clinician and his extremely strong prescriptions: "his students said that one should let him diagnose but not treat the patient".[4]

In concert with William Collins Engledue, M.D., Elliotson was the co-editor of The Zoist: A Journal of Cerebral Physiology & Mesmerism, and Their Applications to Human Welfare, an influential British journal, devoted to the promotion of the theories and practices (and the collection and dissemination of reports of the applications) of mesmerism and phrenology, and the enterprise of "connecting and harmonizing practical science with little understood laws governing the mental structure of man",[5] that was published quarterly, without a break, for fifteen years: from March 1843 until January 1856.


The son of the prosperous London chemist and apothecary John Elliotson and Elizabeth Elliotson, he was born in Southwark on 29 October 1791.

He was a private pupil of the rector of St Saviours, Southwark,[6] and went on to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh,[7] from 1805 to 1810[8] — where he was influenced by Thomas Brown, M.D. (1778–1820) — and then at Jesus College, Cambridge, from 1810 to 1821), from both of which institutions he took the degree of M.D.,[9] 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.[10]

Physical characteristics

Barely 5 ft (152 cm) tall, with dark complexion and a very large head,[11] he was also lame (following an 1828 carriage accident).

His appearance presented a strong contrast to his ‘intramural enemy’ Robert Liston (1794-1847), F.R.C.S. (Edinburgh, 1818), F.R.S. (1841), the University College’s Professor of Clinical Surgery, one of the fastest surgeons of all time (on one occasion Liston amputated a leg, mid-thigh, in 25 seconds), who was pale skinned, and at least 6 ft 2in (188 cm) tall. Liston was fiercely opposed to Elliotson’s ‘contamination’ of the hospital with his demonstrations of ‘higher states’ of mesmerism (i.e., rather than its ‘medical’ applications).

Despite his unusual physical characteristics, Elliotson was greatly admired as a lecturer, both for the structured clarity of his lectures, and the theatrical liveliness of their delivery. Once he began lecturing at the University College, his widely respected lectures were extensively reported in the medical press; and he published a number of collections of his lectures over the years. At his peak, he was the first President of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society (in 1833), a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society, he had one of the largest private practices in London and, at his peak, was one of the pre-eminent physicians in the entire British Empire.

Phrenology and Mesmerism

He became interested in phrenology, and was founder and first President of the London Phrenological Society (in 1823). His interest in mesmerism had been aroused initially by the demonstrations conducted by Richard Chenevix in 1829, and re-awakened by Dupotet de Sennevoy’s demonstrations in 1837.

The Okey sisters

This prompted Elliotson to begin experimenting with the Okey (a.k.a. O'Key) Sisters who had been admitted to his hospital, in April 1837, for treatment of their epilepsy. Elliotson soon began using them as subjects — in 1837 he inserted "a large seton needle with a skein of silk into it",[12] entirely painlessly, and without her even being aware that such a penetration had taken place, into the neck of Elizabeth Okey (the younger sister) whilst she was mesmerized[13] — within the confines of the hospital, in public demonstrations of the so-called ‘higher states’ of mesmerism: clairvoyance, transposition of the senses (seeing with the fingers, etc.), thought transmission, physical rapport or “community of sensation”, psychical rapport, etc. Convinced that the elder sister, Elizabeth, had a talent for medical clairvoyance (able to see into the body, diagnose illness, prescribe treatment, and deliver a prognosis), Elliotson took her down into the wards in the dead of night and had her both diagnose and prescribe treatments.[14]

Thomas Wakley

A series of examinations conducted by Thomas Wakley and others, in August 1838, conclusively proved to all and sundry (apart from Elliotson) that the Okey Sisters were outright frauds. By the end of 1838, Elliotson was, in effect, expelled from the hospital. The Council of the University College, after months of deliberation, passed a resolution on 27 December 1838, "That the Hospital Committee be instructed to take such steps as they shall deem most advisable, to prevent the practice of Mesmerism or Animal Magnetism within the Hospital";[15] and Elliotson, on reading the contents of the resolution, resigned all of his appointments forthwith.[16]

Wakley did all that he could, as editor of The Lancet, and as an individual, to oppose Elliotson, and to place all of his endeavours and enterprises in the worst possible light;[17] for example, in addition to an extensive range of articles in The Lancet, over a number of years, there is also an anti-Elliotson (pseudonymous) work attributed to Wakley, Undeniable facts concerning the strange practices of Dr. Elliotson, ... with his female patients; and his medical experiments upon the bodies of ... E. & J. Okey, etc. (1842) which is held by the British Library,[18] and another, most likely written by either Wakley or one of his associates, held in the collection of the Wellcome Library (see right).[19]

Harveian Oration

In 1846 — by this stage bereft of all his institutional affiliations — and despite many earnest efforts made to prevent him doing so, as the Royal College of Physicians' youngest fellow, Elliotson delivered the Harveian Oration to the Royal College of Physicians of London,[20] in which he controversially spoke of how William Harvey, the man whom the Oration was honouring, had been forced to fight against the entrenched conservatism of the medical profession and its initial incredulity and resistance to his discoveries, and stressed the strength of the analogy with the current (equally misguided and ignorant) critics of mesmerism.

"In 1846, Elliotson's turn came to deliver the Harveian Oration, but, as soon as it was known that he had accepted the office, he was attacked in the most savage manner, in order to prevent his appearing. For example, the Lancet called him a professional pariah, stated that his oration would strike a vital blow at legitimate medicine, and would be a black infamy degrading the arms of the College.

Undeterred by this, Elliotson made mesmerism the subject of his address. Without referring to the attacks which had been made upon him, he simply stated the result of his researches, and respectfully invited the College to examine alleged facts of overwhelming interest and importance.
He exhorted his hearers to study mesmerism calmly and dispassionately, and reminded them, with more truth than tact, that all the greatest discoveries in medical science, and the most important improvements in its practice, had been opposed by the profession in the most violent and unprincipled manner. As examples of scientific discoveries which had been received in this way, he cited those of the lacteal vessels, the thoracic duct, the sexual system of plants, the circulation of the blood, the sounds of the chest and their relation to the diseases of the heart and lungs and their coverings, etc. As instances of improvement in practice which had been treated in like manner, he referred to the employment of Peruvian bark, inoculation and vaccination for small-pox, the use of mild dressings, instead of boiling oil, in gun-shot wounds, the ligature of the bleeding vessels after operation, instead of the application of burning pitch or red-hot irons, etc.
We should, Elliotson said, never forget these things, nor allow authority, conceit, habit, or the fear of ridicule to make us hostile to truth. We should always have before our eyes that memorable passage in Harvey's works: "True philosophers, compelled by the love of truth and wisdom, never fancy themselves so wise and full of sense as not to yield to truth from any source and at all times: nor are they so narrow-minded as to believe any art or science has been handed down in such a state of perfection to us by our predecessors that nothing remains for future industry."
All this, Elliotson said, should be borne in mind when considering the alleged facts of mesmerism. In his opinion many of these were indisputable; for ten years he had shown how mesmerism could prevent pain during surgical operation, produce sleep and ease in sickness, and even cure many diseases which had been unrelieved by ordinary methods. It was the imperative and solemn duty of the profession to carefully and dispassionately examine the subject.
He therefore earnestly implored them to do so, if they cared for truth, their own dignity, and the good of mankind.” — John Milne Bramwell (1903)[21]

File:John Elliotson in his last years.jpg
John Elliotson in his last years

Mesmeric Infirmary

Elliotson continued to provide mesmeric demonstrations from his own residence at 37 Conduit Street, Hanover Square (which he eventually quit in 1865). In partnership with Engledue, he began publishing The Zoist in 1843, and, in 1849 founded the London Mesmeric Infirmary. As his reputation rapidly declined, his once lucrative practice also disappeared, and he died, penniless, in 1868 in the London home of a medical colleague, Edmond Sheppard Symes (1805-1881), L.S.A. (1830), M.R.C.S (England, 1832), M.D. (Aberdeen, 1851).[22]

"Elliotson firmly believed that mesmerism and phreno-mesmerism could be explained fully in physical terms [and, of] all Elliotson's achievements, The Zoist is probably the most useful, mainly because it provides a detailed record of a crucial thirteen year period in the development of Victorian psychology.

Elliotson was a relentless advocate for his "truth." His articulateness as a writer and his energy as an editor almost triumph over the limitations of his vision and the demands of advocacy … The wonder is that in the face of so much criticism Elliotson was able to maintain as much objectivity and professional rigor as he did, though clearly the pages of The Zoist need to be filtered carefully to distinguish what is of value from what is sheer advocacy and contentiousness …
Elliotson made three important contributions to the history of psychology and medicine.
By stressing the physical basis of mesmeric phenomena and its underlying causes in so far as they had therapeutic potential, he demonstrated that mesmerism could be used effectively in illnesses associated with the nervous system and as an anaesthesia in surgical procedures. Elliotson's approach to the mind was through the body …
In addition, Elliotson was the first to attempt to detach the operations of mesmerism and the conditions of the procedure from conscious acts of will on the part of the subject and the operator, the patient and the doctor … In his appreciation of the non-rational and non-conscious elements within the procedure, [he] gave some direction and encouragement to those forces … that were laying the groundwork for Freud and other exponents of the relationship between the unconscious and psychiatric therapy.
Finally, Elliotson's imposing mid-century presence and his widely reported mesmeric activities provided both the degree of legitimacy and the intellectual stimulation that encouraged James Braid, a Manchester surgeon, to develop his theories on the role of suggestion and auto-suggestion in mesmerism.” — Fred Kaplan (1982)[23]

Literary Connections

He was highly regarded in literary circles. WM Thackeray's Pendennis was dedicated to his friend, Elliotson; and the character, Dr Goodenough (in Thackeray's last novel, The Adventures of Philip (1862), was based on Elliotson,[24] who had attended Thackeray when suffered a life-threatening illness in 1849.[25]

Elliotson was a friend of Charles Dickens, and introduced Dickens to Mesmerisn.[26] Wilkie Collins, a close friend of Dickens 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.[27]

In popular cluture

He is a major antagonist in the game Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, who performs brutal and fatal experiments on the insane at Lambeth Asylum and is a secret member of the Templar Order. He is later killed by the Master Assassin Jacob Frye.[citation needed]

See also

The Zoist: A Journal of Cerebral Physiology & Mesmerism, and Their Applications to Human Welfare

External Media


  1. Elliotson's doctoral dissertation "On Inflammation", was self-published in Edinburgh in 1810: see Elliotson, Joannes, Dissertatio medica inauguralis de inflammatione communi, Abernathy & Walker, (Edinburgh), 1810.
  2. Rosen (1936), p.601.
  3. Elliotson (1827); Elliotson (1832).]
  4. Gauld (2004).
  5. Godwin (1994), p.213.
  6. King's College London Archives: Elliotson, John (1791-1868)
  7. The University of Edinburgh was also the alma mater of James Braid and James Esdaile.
  8. The University of Edinburgh Students of Medicine, 1762-1826: Individual Record: Elliotson, John.
  9. "Elliotson, John (ELT810J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. For a detailed and comprehensive description of his rather unusual medical education, see the transcript of the evidence that Elliotson gave to the House of Commons’ Select Committee on Medical Education chaired by Henry Warburton on 24 March 1834: at pp.104-117 of Warburton, H., Report from the Select Committee on Medical Education: With the Minutes of Evidence, and Appendix: Part III: Society of Apothecaries, London, The House of Commons, (London), 1834.
  11. Cooter (1984), p.53.
  12. Elliotson (1843), p.65.
  13. This had been witnessed by Surgeon General James Mouat, VC KCB, M.R.C.S., at the time a medical student, and clinical clerk under Elliotson (see "Testimony to the reality of the Mesmeric Phenomena in University College Hospital, by Mr. James Mouat, Army Surgeon", The Zoist, Vol.7, No.25, (April 1849), pp.41-44).
  14. Clarke (1874), pp.155-169; Anon (1911).
  15. See, for example, "Note by The Zoist, The Zoist, Volume 10, No.38, (July 1852), p.218.
  16. Clarke (1874), pp.176-179.
  17. See, for example, Winter, (1998), pp.93-108.
  18. British Library system number: 003831461.
  19. Wellcome Library reference number: 23360069: Anon, A full discovery of the strange practices of Dr. Elliotson on the bodies of his female patients! At his house, in Conduit Street, Hanover Sq. with all the secret experiments he makes upon them, and the curious postures they are put into while sitting or standing, when awake or Asleep! The whole as seen by an eyewitness, and now fully divulged!, E. Hancock, (London), 1842.
  20. Elliotson, (1846).
  21. Bramwell, J.M., Hypnotism: Its History, Practice and Theory, Grant Richards, (London), 1903, pp.7-8.
  22. Clarke (1874), pp.155-169; Anon (1911).
  23. Kaplan (1982), pp.xii-xv.
  24. Anon (1911).
  25. Schneck (1963), p.126.
  26. This aspect of Dicken's life and work is discussed by Steven Connor: Steven Connor All I Believed is True: Dickens under the Influence. Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century No 10 (2010). London: Birkbeck College
  27. Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone, Oxford World's Classics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 458.
  28. This entry verifies that Elliotson was registered (as of 1 January 1859, the first day of the registration system) as a practitioner under the Medical Act 1858 (an Act to Regulate the Qualifications of Practitioners in Medicine and Surgery), which took effect on 1 October 1858: the Act's official date of commencement.