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344 pp; price £55 ISBN 0905082-35-00
London: Medical Society of London, 2003 .
The Medical Society of London, founded 230 years ago by the Quaker physician and philanthropist John Coakley Lettsom is the oldest medical society in England, possibly in the world. It was established as a forum for physicians, surgeons, apothecaries and accoucheurs to give them the opportunity of meeting together for the exchange of medical intelligence. Its stability was ensured by the broad representation of its membership and its security was based on the possession of a valuable library and freehold property.
Penelope Hunting has previously written histories of the Society of Apothecaries (1998) and The Royal Society of Medicine (2001), and her latest work sustains her reputation as a scholarly and entertaining writer. As a reviewer I must declare several interests: I am the Society's most senior Fellow, a former secretary and president and a present trustee. If there were errors, however, I would wish to point them out. I have found none.
The chapters include well-researched accounts of the Society's early meetings in taverns and in the homes of Fellows. The story includes Jenner and smallpox vaccination, the Napoleonic wars, Nelson's fatal wounds at Trafalgar, Walcheren fever, the death of Napoleon, the Crimean War, the Boer War, the great wars of 1914–1918 and 1939–1945, and the discovery of penicillin. There is an authoritative basic account of the pioneering influence of Lettsom and the Medical Society on American medicine during the nineteenth and twentieth century (Lettsom, born in the West Indies, regarded himself as an American colonist). Lettsom was diligent in corresponding with his American medical friends and was generous in sending books and plants; these pioneer American doctors are awarded brief but useful biographies. Edward Bancroft of Massachusetts was secretary of the Medical Society of London in 1775, at a time when he was a double spy for both America and Britain; his activities as a spy were not disclosed until seventy years after his death.
The book includes numerous elegant illustrations, some in colour, and exhaustive appendices of all Presidents, Fothergillian Medallists, Lettsomian Lecturers, Orators and Registrars. These provide helpful background information for speakers invited to talk at Society meetings, to historians writing on medical themes of that era, and to all students of medicine who enjoy medical yarns of yesteryear.