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Biographical entry Jones, Thomas Wharton (1808 - 1891)

MRCS Aug 9th 1841; FRCS (by election) Aug 26th 1844; LRCS Edin 1827; FRS 1840.

9 January 1808
St. Andrews
7 November 1891
Ventnor, Isle of Wight
Ophthalmic surgeon and Physiologist


The son of Richard Jones, born at St Andrews on Jan 9th, 1808. His father (d1821) was one of the Secretaries of HM Customs for Scotland. He was descended on his father's side from a wealthy Shropshire family and on his mother's side from an old Essex family named Alliston, or Elliston, whose lands were confiscated by William the Conqueror, as well as from the Chesham family of Phillipps. Neither paternal nor maternal wealth came to Wharton Jones, and any money he may have inherited seems to have disappeared. He was educated first at Stirling, then at the parish school at Dalmeny, and afterwards at the Musselburgh Grammar School. He entered the literary classes at the University of Edinburgh in 1822, and did not begin to study medicine until a year or two later. He soon distinguished himself, took the LRCS in 1827, and at the age of 19 was appointed by Robert Knox, the Extramural Lecturer on Anatomy, one of his three demonstrators, the other two being William Fergusson (qv) and Alexander Miller. Wharton Jones held the post from 1827-1829, and thus became involved in the scandal associated with the murders committed by Burke and Hare to supply the school with subjects for dissection. It fell to Wharton Jones to pay Hare the £7 10s demanded for the body of the old pensioner, Donald. Driven from Edinburgh after the trial, he migrated to Glasgow, where he became associated with William Mackenzie, the ophthalmic surgeon, with Professor Harry Rainy, and with John Burns, under whom he studied embryology. He long kept up a correspondence with Mackenzie. He still maintained some connection with Edinburgh, for he published in 1833 a Manual of Pharmacology, which exhibits, in its precision, comprehensiveness, and logical method, many of the characteristics of his later work. Whilst working in Glasgow he discovered the germinal vesicle in the mammalian ovum, and published his observations in the Philosophical Magazine for 1835 (vii, 209). His second paper on the subject appeared in The Philosophical Transactions (1837, cxxvii, 339), and attracted the notice of J E Purkinje, the Professor of Physiology at Prague.

Wharton Jones went to Cork about 1835 and began to practise chiefly as a specialist in diseases of the eye and ear; in 1837 he travelled on the Continent, visiting the chief universities, and in 1838 returned to England and began to practise as an ophthalmic surgeon in London, at 35 George Street, Hanover Square. The house is described as being miserably small and has long since been demolished. He was appointed Lecturer on Physiology at the Charing Cross Hospital Medical School on May 3rd, 1841, in succession to Henry Hancock (qv), and held the post until 1851. His most distinguished pupils were Thomas Henry Huxley (qv) and Joseph Fayrer (qv). He was admitted FRS on April 30th, 1840, and was appointed Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution. In 1850 he was awarded the Astley Cooper Prize of £300 for his classical essay on "The State of the Blood-vessels in Inflammation as ascertained by Experiments, Injections and Observations under the Microscope". The essay was supplemented two years later by a paper describing the phenomena of inflammation in the wing of the bat, his previous observations having been made on the web of the frog's foot.

In this Astley Cooper Prize Essay he incidentally drew attention to the peculiar degeneration which takes place in the distal end of a divided nerve. The condition is now known as the 'Wallerian degeneration', and rightly so, for Waller had previously described it, although there is no doubt that his observations were unknown to Jones. In the year 1852 he showed that the veins of the bat's wing were furnished with valves, were rhythmically contractile, and assisted in the onward flow of the blood. In 1868 he published his observations on the caudal heart of the eel - a lymphatic heart - and on the anterior lymphatic heart of the frog, structures which Johann Muller had made the subject of a paper in the Philosophical Transactions as early as 1833 (cxxiii, 89). He also wrote many other papers on the blood; on the healing process; on the contents of the hepatic ducts; on the anatomy of the choroid gland of the fish's eye; and on muscle as a neuromagnetic apparatus. But even these papers did not exhaust his energy, for he was an historian and a genealogist as well as a man of science. In 1851 he won the Actonian Prize for an essay on "The Wisdom and Beneficence of the Almighty displayed in the Sense of Vision", and in 1858, a "Catechism of the Physiology and Philosophy of Body, Sense and Mind". He edited for the Camden Society in 1872 the "Life and Death" of his distinguished ancestral kinsman, Bishop Bedell of Kilmore, who perished in the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Lastly, in 1872 he published an interesting volume maintaining that the Darwinian doctrine of evolution is not sanctioned by science.

He was elected in 1851 Professor of Ophthalmic Medicine and Surgery in University College, and resigned in 1881, when he was given the title of Emeritus Professor. His last years were clouded by poverty until his colleagues realized his condition and hastened unobtrusively to relieve him. The story is told by one of them in the following words:

"Sir John, then Mr Tweedy, being present at a staff meeting of the Lancet, was asked whether he had got ready his biography of Mr Wharton Jones, as the latter had written to University College to say that he was unable to give his lectures and it was therefore inferred that he was ill. Illness at his age was held to indicate 'the last phase'. Mr Tweedy accordingly called on Mr Wharton Jones during the week of the great blizzard in the winter of 1881, when the snow lay heavily in the streets of London for seven days and all traffic was at a standstill. Wharton Jones occupied a house, where he had given rooms to a poor couple - husband and wife - who looked after him in return for their lodging. To Mr Tweedy's horror, when he entered his old teacher's room, he found him crouched over a fireless grate, his shoulders hunched up under a mass of shawls and shabby wraps, the picture of destitution. He was gnawing a cold and uninviting piece of beef-steak and a crust of bread, the wretched meal being all, as the woman of the house declared, that she and her husband could spare from their own scanty food-supply. Mr Wharton Jones, the distinguished man of science, and teacher of Huxley, was in a perishing condition. He had not a penny of money, he was ill, his food was such as his visitor saw it. Mr Tweedy decided on prompt measures and called on Dr Sidney Ringer to whom he said: 'Do you know that Wharton Jones is dying of starvation?' At once a rescue party was formed. Mrs Sidney Ringer, with much experience as a nurse and a kind heart, started off at once with soup, jelly, and other restoratives. Dr Sidney Ringer sat down and wrote a cheque for £25. Armed with this, Mr Tweedy stepped over to Sir William Fergusson's and told the story. Sir William, as greatly concerned and surprised as Dr Ringer, wrote a handsome cheque. Mr Tweedy paid other calls on leading medical and scientific men and, in a few hours, had collected £140. This sum was paid into a bank for Wharton Jones by Fergusson. The money was paid out in sovereigns so that the beneficiary - Jones - might not suspect to whom he was indebted. His life was saved.

"About this time Huxley, on whom Mr Tweedy had called, went to Gladstone and laid the case before him. The Premier said that the Civil List (Pensions) was then made up, but that Jones should head the next list. Eventually he received a substantial pension (£100 or £200). Another pension was granted him by the Royal Society at the instance of the President. Wharton Jones never knew who his benefactors were."

Wharton Jones has a double claim to remembrance; he was a great pioneer physiologist and he was also a distinguished ophthalmologist. As a physiologist he marks, with Waller, the beginning of modern scientific physiology in England. He continued the work of Harvey on the lines of the great investigator, and throughout his life was engaged on the problems of the vascular system. As an ophthalmologist he published in 1847 a valuable treatise on ophthalmic medicine and surgery. He suggested, in opposition to Thomas Young, that astigmatism was due to a fault in the curvature of the cornea rather than to an error in the lens. He was the first to observe the frequent association of retinitis pigmentosa with deaf-mutism and other neurotic disorders; he devised an ingenious method of curing cicatricial ectropion, and was probably one of the first to observe the beneficial action of calabar bean applied locally in certain cases of acute glaucoma. As a surgeon he obtained good results from his operations, though he was not dexterous. He was rather a physician than a surgeon in his treatment, and as such was learned, observant, sagacious, full of knowledge and experience. He shone greatly as a teacher, and preferred to teach as a man of science whose maxim was "Let us look, let us see." Huxley says of him:-

"I suspect that it was not easy for even his equals in age and station to be intimate with Mr Wharton Jones; and my relations with him, forty years ago, were merely those of a young learner to a greatly respected teacher. From the first I was strongly attracted by Wharton Jones's lectures. Singularly dry and cold in form, they were admirable in logical construction and full of knowledge derived from personal observation and wide reading. The true lumen siccum of science glowed in every proposition which fell from the lips of the pale adust little man, as he stood with downcast eyes, and fingering his watch-chain at one corner of the table. He never had any notes, but the lectures would have read perfectly well if they had been printed straight off. I used to wonder at and envy his 'facility', not having learned in those days what price has to be paid for easy speaking of that quality.

"Instruction of this kind was something quite new in my limited experience, and I may say that I have rarely met with its match since. It drew me to the subject of physiology and, working hard at it, I fancy my answers in the examina¬tions were better than those of most of my neighbours, and interested Mr Jones. At any rate, he was very kind in his encouragement and readiness to give information; and in 1845 he sent my first attempt at original histological work - a very little one - to the editor of the Medical Gazette, who would hardly have published it without such recommendation.

"Not infrequently I was invited to take tea in George Street, and used to listen with great interest to Wharton Jones's talk about this or that scientific question of the day, or about the work on the blood-corpuscles in which he was then engaged; and, not rarely, about his griefs against various persons of eminence in the scientific world of that time by whom he considered himself to have been ill treated, and whose conduct he resented with no little vehemence. I am deliberately of opinion that my old master had great ground for complaint; he had seen work which he knew to be worthless, and which all the world now knows to be so, preferred and rewarded in the teeth of his remonstrances, with the effect of discrediting his own valuable labours. Injustice of this kind is hard to bear, and Mr Jones protested against it with more energy than worldly wisdom perhaps. It grievously embittered his life and, I suspect, interfered with his success.

"I do not remember ever to have heard Mr Jones say anything about what may be called the human side of his life, except a chance allusion now and then to Germany, which led me to believe he had studied there. You see that my relations with him were almost purely intellectual, except in so far as I have always felt extremely indebted to him for personal encouragement, and for giving me a high conception of what oral teaching should be. On my return to England I saw but little of him; our ways lay very much apart, and we drifted along them, as men do in London, without meeting. The last time I saw Mr Jones was when my wife and I were on a visit to the Isle of Wight, some years ago. Physically and otherwise I was surprised to see how little he was altered ; and I had to listen to some rather sharp tirades against modern physiology in general, and certain excellent friends of mine in particular; indeed, I am not sure but that there were some glances at my own doctrines and misdeeds."

There is no doubt that Wharton Jones was a genius, able to look backwards as well as forwards, with many and varied interests. Not very human, for he was absorbed in his work; rather unsociable, so that he had but few friends; ill adapted to make money, and least of all by the practice of a specialty which was as yet hardly recognized; bitter of speech and outspoken in criticism, he made enemies of those who might have done much to help him, yet he founded a school and marks an epoch in the history of English science.

He died unmarried on Nov 7th, 1891, at Ventnor in the Isle of Wight, where he had settled down after leaving London in 1881. There is a photograph of him, No 28 in the Fellows' Album, and a poor print from a collodion negative taken by Jabez Hogg about the year 1855. There is also said to be a daguerrotype in the College collection, but it has not yet been identified.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Lancet, 1891, ii, 1256, 1319. Brit Med Jour, 1891, ii, 1175. Brit Jour Ophthalmol, 1921, v, 97, 147, with portrait and a bibliography compiled by Arthur Fusedale, clerk in the Library, RCS. Additional information kindly supplied by Mr Maitland Ramsay, of Glasgow, who states that the letters from Wharton Jones to Mackenzie are in the possession of Dr Reid Joseph Fayrer's Recollections of My Life, 21].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England