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Biographical entry Pettigrew, Thomas Joseph (1791 - 1865)

MRCS, June 19th, 1812; FRCS, Dec 11th, 1843, one of the original 300 Fellows; FRS 1827; Hon DPh Gottingen 1826.

28 October 1791
London, UK
23 November 1865
London, UK
General surgeon


The son of William Pettigrew, whose ancestor, the Gowan Priest ‘Clerk Pettigrew’, is mentioned by Sir Walter Scott in Rob Roy. The father was a Naval Surgeon who served in the Victory before the time of Nelson. Thomas was born in Fleet Street, London, on Oct 28th, 1791, and was educated at a private school in the City. He began to learn anatomy at 12, left school at 14, and after acting for two years as assistant to his father, the parish doctor, was apprenticed at the age of 16 to John Taunton, founder of the City of London Truss Society. He afterwards entered the United Borough Hospitals and acted as Demonstrator of Anatomy at the private medical school kept by his master - Taunton. He was elected a Fellow of the Medical Society of London in 1808, and was made one of the Secretaries in 1811 after a contest with Dr Birkbeck. In 1813 he was appointed registrar and took up his residence in the Society’s house in Bolt Court, Fleet Street.

In 1808, as one of the founders of the City Philosophical Society, which met in Dorset Street, Salisbury Square, he gave the first lecture, choosing “Insanity” as his subject. In 1810 he helped to form the Philosophical Society of London and gave the inaugural address, “On the Objects of Science and Literature and the Advantages ensuing from the Establishment of Philosophical Societies”. In 1813 he was appointed, by the influence of Dr John Coakley Lettsom, Secretary of the Royal Humane Society, a post he resigned in 1820, after receiving in 1818 the Society’s medal for the restoration of a person who was apparently dead. In 1819, together with Chevalier Aldini of the Imperial University of Wilna, Pettigrew engaged in experiments at his house 22, Spring Gardens on the effects of galvanism in cases of suspended animation.

He became known to the Duke of Kent whilst he was Secretary of the Humane Society, who made him successively Surgeon Extraordinary and Surgeon in Ordinary to himself and, after his marriage, Surgeon to his wife, the Duchess of Kent. In the latter capacity he vaccinated her daughter, afterwards Queen Victoria, the lymph being obtained from one of the grandchildren of Dr Lettsom. Shortly before his death the Duke recommended Pettigrew to his brother, the Duke of Sussex. The latter appointed him Surgeon and occupied him in cataloguing his library, which was housed in Kensington Palace. The first volume of the catalogue was published in two parts in 1827 with the title Bibliotheca Sussexiana. The second volume appeared in 1839. The undertaking was on too large a scale, the theological portion of the library alone was dealt with, and the catalogue remained unfinished when the books were sold in 1844 and 1845. The catalogue was well received. Pettigrew was honoured with the diploma of Doctor of Philosophy by the University of Göttingen on Nov 7th, 1826.

In 1816 Pettigrew became Surgeon to the Dispensary for the Treatment of Diseases of Children then newly founded in St Andrew’s Hill, Doctors’ Commons. The Dispensary afterwards developed into the Royal Hospital for Children and Women in the Waterloo Road. He resigned the office in 1819, when he was elected Surgeon to the Asylum for Female Orphans. In this year, too, he delivered the Annual Oration at the Medical Society, taking as his subject “Medical Jurisprudence”, and pointing out the neglected position occupied by forensic medicine in England.

He moved from Bolt Court to Spring Gardens in 1818 and became connected with the West London Infirmary, which had been founded by Dr Benjamin Golding that year in St Martin’s Lane. The Infirmary was the immediate forerunner of the Charing Cross Hospital. Pettigrew was appointed the first Surgeon when the hospital was opened in 1822, and held office until 1836. He lectured on physiology from 1834-1836 and on anatomy from 1835-1836. He resigned his post of Surgeon and Lecturer in consequence of a quarrel with the Board of Management, and for some years afterwards he continued to practise in Savile Row, where he lived from 1825-1854.

Pettigrew was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1827, and 1830 he took a leading part in securing the election of the Duke of Sussex as President on the retirement of Davies Gilbert. For many years before his death he was a prominent Freemason.

Pettigrew’s love for antiquarian knowledge grew on him as he aged. His attention to the subject of embalming began in 1822, and in 1834 he published a work on the subject. When the British Archaeological Association was founded in 1843, he at once took a leading part in its management. He acted as Treasurer and was a Vice-President, and the town meetings were held at his house for some years.

He married in 1811 and had twelve children, three sons and three daughters surviving him. One of his sons was William Vesalius (qv); a second, Frederick Webb, was admitted MRCS on June 3rd, 1845, but did not obtain the Fellowship of the College.

He died on Nov 23rd, 1865, at his house, 16, Onslow Gardens, where he lived after the death of his wife in 1854. There is a steel engraving of Pettigrew, No 9, in the fourth volume of the Medical Portrait Gallery. The portrait in the College Collection is said to be a good likeness.

Views of the Base of the Brain and the Cranium, 4to, London, 1809.
Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the late John Coakley Lettsom, MD, 3 vols, 8vo, London, 1817.
History of Egyptian Mummies and an Account of the Worship and Embalming of the Sacred Animals, 4to, London, 1834.
Biographies of physicians and surgeons in Rose’s Biographical Dictionary down to Claude Nicholas le Cat. To this work he contributed 540 articles.
Bibliotheca Sussexiana. A descriptive Catalogue, accompanied by Historical and Biographical Notices, of the Manuscripts and Printed Books contained in the Library of His Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex in Kensington Palace, by Thos Joseph Pettigrew, vol i, part 1, finely illustrated with full-page illustrations and a portrait, comprising Burman Manuscripts, Singhalese Manuscripts, Arabic Manuscripts, English, Dutch, and Italian Manuscripts, Latin Manuscripts, Greek Manuscripts, etc, 2 vols in 8 parts, London: vol i, 1827; vol ii, 1839.
Memoir of John Cheyne, 8vo, London, 1839.
The Medical Portrait Gallery, 4 vols, 4to, London, 1840.
On Superstitions connected with the History and Practice of Medicine and Surgery, 8vo, London, 1844.
Life of Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson, 2 vols, London, 1849.
An Historiall Expostulation… by John Halle, edited for the Percy Society, 1844.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict Nat Biog, sub nomine et auct ibi cit. Hunter’s Historical Account of Charing Cross Hospital, London, 1914. Additional information given by Warren R Dawson, Esq].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England