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Biographical entry Pennington, Robert Rainey (1766 - 1849)

Diploma Membership of the Corporation of Surgeons, April 5th, 1787; FRCS Dec 11th 1843; one of the original 300 Fellows.

8 March 1849
General surgeon


Studied under Percivall Pott at St Bartholomew's Hospital, and Pott was one of his eight examiners for Membership of the Corporation. He practised in Lamb's Conduit Street, and was President of the National Institute of Medicine, Surgery, and Midwifery. For the last two years he practised in Portman Square, where he died on March 8th, 1849.

The following by J F C appeared in the Medical Times and Gazette, 1869, i, 361;-
“The late Mr Pennington, who was a fellow-student at St. Bartholomew's with Mr Abernethy, related to me the following anecdote in the course of a conversation at a very advanced period of his life. He and Abernethy were dressers at the same time to the celebrated Percivall Pott, and each claimed precedence. Pennington was certain that he was entitled to be first, but for some time, in order to avoid a quarrel, gave way to the ‘pretension’ of Abernethy. On one occasion, however, ‘Johnny’ carried his presumption a little too far. Pott was crossing the quadrangle of the Hospital, followed by the students. He was giving a kind of ‘running clinique’ on a case in which Pennington was deeply interested, and, anxious to hear all that was said, he stuck close to the teacher. Abernethy came up and absolutely elbowed me out of my position. I then found it was time to put a stop to his impertinence, particularly as the insult was given in the presence of so many of our fellows. I took no notice of it at the moment, though the circumstance did not escape the observation of Mr Pott. Immediately on the conclusion of “the round”, I made up my mind to act, and accordingly, in the presence of a number of students, I addressed Abernethy: “Jack, this won't do; I have given way to you too long, and for the future you must be content to play second fiddle.” Abernethy began to bluster, and said, “I'll be d—d if I do!” At that time disputes of the kind were settled in a summary way, and I immediately prepared to assert my right by an appeal to the fist. The place of combat was in the corner of the ground which is near to the anatomical theatre, and thither we repaired, followed by our anxious and admiring confrères. I took off my coat and prepared for action. Jack did not follow suit, and began, like Bob Acres, to show unmistakable symptoms of not coming to the scratch. In fact, he declined the ordeal of battle, and I was for the future first. We were closely associated for nearly fifty years afterwards, but we never had an angry word. Dining with him some forty years after in Bedford Row, the old quarrel between us accidentally cropped up. “Well,” said Abernethy, “the truth of the case was this – the moment I saw you uncover your biceps, I was certain I should be thrashed, and so, my boy, I surrendered at discretion.”’

“Pennington was a great physicker, and has often been called the originator of ‘homeopathy’. However this may be, he was in the habit of ordering three, four, or more draughts a day, to be ‘continued’ until further orders. These repetitions amounted, on an average, to one hundred a day, and his dispensary in Keppel Street, behind his house in Montagu Place, was a regular manufactory of physic. The boys who ‘took out the medicine’ were furnished with a string and hook, and the parcel was let down into the area by this simple mode. When orders were given by the patient that no more medicine was required, the fact was duly announced in a book kept for the purpose. ‘Ah,’ said Pennington, ‘I see I must change the medicine; I will call to-morrow.’ He did so, changed the colour of the dose, and the repetition was ordered for three weeks. In those days this was regarded as orthodox; but chiefly in respect to the ‘tip-top apothecary’. But then Pennington attended eleven out of the twelve judges, and could do pretty much as he liked. In proof of this I may mention a circumstance which was related to me by a gentleman who at one time was one of his dispensing assistants in Keppel Street. This gentleman some years since retired from general practice on account of ill health, and is now deservedly high in the profession as a dentist.

“The late Lord Wynford, then Serjeant Best, was subject to severe attacks of the gout. The serjeant was irritable, and Mrs Best anxious and nervous. When she wished to see Pennington about her husband, she used to lie in wait for him in Keppel Street, and follow him into his dispensing establishment. Here she would stay with wonderful patience until he had finished his entries. On one occasion, says my informant, Mrs Best looked up imploringly to ‘the great man’. ‘The serjeant is very bad,’ said his wife, ‘in great pain.’ ‘Well,’ said Pennington, ‘what am I to do? I saw him yesterday; let him go on with his medicine.’ ‘But do tell me when you will kindly see him again.’ ‘Well,’ said he, ‘I will tell you to a minute. I will see him this day six weeks at 25 minutes to 12.’ But Pennington, however much he enjoyed a joke, did not carry this one out. He was at Best's house the next morning before breakfast.

“Pennington boasted that he had never worn a great-coat in his life; nay, in the coldest weather you might see him in his pumps and silk stockings, for to the last he was proud of his ‘leg’. ‘Ah,’ said he to me on one occasion, ‘I am not such a fool as to neglect my creature comforts. I am clothed in flannel underneath, and have a pair of lamb's-wool stockings under the silk.’ I may mention here, en passant, that the late Dr Clutterbuck, who lived to nearly 90 years, and then succumbed to an accident, used to boast that nobody had ever seen him wear an outer coat, but he wrapped up almost like a mummy underneath.

“Pennington's practice was large and laborious, and, in addition to seeing patients in town, he was frequently called upon to pay visits in the country. These he always managed to make at night. He would, after a hard day's work, take a warm bath, and travel in a post-chaise all the night, getting back in the morning sufficiently early to see his home patients. He had a vigorous constitution, and could sleep almost anywhere. It is said that Pennington made £10,000 a year for many years by physic. At all events he accumulated a very large fortune. He sold his practice to Mr Hillier, who, however, did not succeed in keeping it together. Pennington was a thorough man of business, and did not attend the societies. He was, however, very sociable and hospitable. When the National Association of General Practitioners was instituted, he was elected President, but he was then an octogenarian and did not display any of his former energy or ability. He was not a man of much acquirement, but he was possessed of a large amount of good common sense, had considerable power of diagnosis, and was most successful as a prescriber. He was a remarkably handsome man, with a fine presence and a manner which inspired confidence. He was in harness to the last.”

A fine mezzotint in the College collection (Stone) represents Pennington as a quaint-looking old man with a humorous expression. It is from a painting by F R Say, and was engraved by W Walker in 1840.

Sources used to compile this entry: [J. F. Clarke's Autobiographical Recollections of the Medical Profession, London, 1874, 353].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England