Sunday 19 February 2012

Sir William Knighton (1777-1836): Part 1 Regency physician

Sir William Knighton
From Memoirs of Sir William Knighton
 by Lady Knighton (1838)

Obituary in the Medical Gazette

“Sir William was unquestionably a man of excellent talents; but he was still more conspicuous for his fine sagacity and knowledge of the world. His success in life was remarkable; such was at one time his interest at court, that it is quite certain he might have commanded almost anything which the highest influence in the empire could bestow; yet he never showed himself either avaricious or greedy of honours.”

Family life

There were no indications from William Knighton’s early life that he was destined for greatness. He was baptised in January 1777, in Bere Ferrers in Devon, the only son of William Knighton, a farmer, and his wife, Dorothy Hill. After his father’s premature death, Knighton, his mother and his sister, Thamzin, were left in impoverished circumstances.

Medical training

In 1793, Knighton was apprenticed to his uncle, William Bredall, a surgeon-apothecary in Tavistock, Devon. To complete his training, he went to London and on 29 September 1796, he enrolled at St Thomas’ hospital to “walk the wards” under the tutelage of Henry Cline, an eminent surgeon.

In February 1797, Knighton received a diploma from the Company of Surgeons and was approved as assistant surgeon at the Royal Naval Hospital in Plymouth, where he worked for two and a half years. He inherited the private practice of Dr Francis Geach, senior surgeon at the Royal, on Geach’s death in 1798.

A happy marriage

In 1800, Knighton married Dorothea Hawker, the daughter of Captain James Hawker, head of one of Plymouth’s most respected families. The couple were devoted to each other. The Knightons had four children, Dorothea (1807), William Wellesley (1811), Mary Frances (1816) and a son who died in 1802.

The Royal College of Physicians

After the death of his son, the grief-stricken Knighton decided to move to London. Although he had received an MD, Doctor of Medicine, degree from St Andrews in 1800, he soon discovered that this was insufficient qualification to allow him to practice; to be examined by the Royal College of Physicians of London, he had to have studied at a university for two years.

To gain this experience, in 1804 Knighton moved to Edinburgh where he studied at the university. Having completed two years of study, Knighton applied for a degree, not from Edinburgh, but from King’s College, Aberdeen, which he was awarded in April 1806. He was duly examined and was admitted to the Royal College of Physicians on 25 June 1806. He set up practice in Hanover Square, primarily as an accoucheur – that is, a man-midwife.

Nineteenth century networking

Knighton’s rise to a position of influence in the court of George IV was largely due to what we would now term networking. He was fortunate to gain Sally Douglas, a courtesan who was also known as Moll Raffles or Mrs Lashley, as his patient. At the time, she was mistress to the Marquess Wellesley and she persuaded Wellesley to take Knighton with them on a trip to Spain in 1809. Knighton was to be given the sum of £5000 as compensation for loss of fees while he was abroad.

On their return, Wellesley was not in a position to pay the full sum and, in recompense, he introduced Knighton to the future George IV when he was taken ill at Oatlands in 1811. George thought Knighton “proud and overbearing” but “the best-mannered medical man” he had ever met. In January 1812, Knighton was appointed a physician-in-ordinary to George, giving him access to the royal household.

Famous patients

Knighton earned as much as £10,000 a year from his profitable London practice. As a gentleman, he did not charge for his services; he received what his patients chose to give in gratitude. His role gave him a position of influence in many leading households where the strength of his personality enabled him to gain ascendancy over the minds of his patients for their health and welfare. These included Lord Byron and the Duchess of Clarence, when her baby was born prematurely in December 1820, as well as George IV.

Queen Adelaide, Duchess of Clarence
From The History of the Life and Reign of William IV
by Robert Huish (1837)
Physician to courtier

George increasingly relied upon Knighton as his trusted advisor giving him less and less time to devote to his patients. Consequently, in September 1822, he gave up his medical practice and in 1823, he even resigned as physician-in-ordinary to the King so that he could devote himself to his other duties.

Read more about Sir William Knighton, royal advisor

Sources used include:
Frost, Charlotte, Sir William Knighton: The Strange Career of a Regency Physician (Authors OnLine, 2010)
Hamilton, J A, Knighton, Sir William, first baronet (1776-1836), revd Judith Schneid Lewis, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn, May 2009)
Hibbert, Christopher, George IV (©1972, 1973; Penguin, 1976)
Knighton, Lady, Memoirs of Sir William Knighton, Volumes I and II (London, Richard Bentley, 1838)
Parissien, Steven, George IV, The Grand Entertainment (John Murray, 2001)

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