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Biographical entry Postgate, John (1820 - 1881)

MRCS July 19th 1844; FRCS May 11th 1854; LSA 1845.

26 September 1881
General surgeon


The son of Thomas Postgate, a builder of Scarborough, by his wife Jane, née Ward, who was descended from an old Yorkshire Roman Catholic family living at Ugthorpe. He was born at Scarborough on Oct 21st, 1820, and started life as a grocer's boy at the age of 11. He became a surgeon's boy in 1834 at a wage of half a crown a week, and taught himself Latin, chemistry, and botany. At the age of 17 he wrote a paper on "Rare Plants and their Properties" which was published in the Yorkshire Magazine. He attended lectures at the Leeds School of Medicine, and after qualifying became Assistant to a firm in the East End of London whilst attending the practice of the London Hospital.

He settled in Birmingham in 1851 and began a lifelong crusade against the adulteration of food, with the secrets of which he had become acquainted when serving as a grocer's boy. He succeeded in interesting the Birmingham Members of Parliament - William Scholefield and George Frederick Muntz - and on June 26th, 1855, Scholefield moved in the House of Commons for a Select Committee of Inquiry. Altogether nine Bills were introduced into Parliament on the subject. They met with strenuous opposition until in 1860 a measure was passed giving local authorities permission to appoint public analysts with powers to prosecute offending tradesmen. Additional powers were given by the Act of 1872 mainly at Postgate's suggestion, and these were tightened up by the Sale of Food and Drugs Act of 1880. Postgate never received any recognition of the important services he thus rendered to the community. He took an active part in the inauguration in Birmingham of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science in 1857, and on May 7th, 1860, was appointed Professor of Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology at Queen's College, Birmingham, having previously been Lecturer on Descriptive and Surgical Anatomy and Demonstrator at Sydenham College.

He married in May, 1850, Mary Ann, daughter of Joshua Horwood, of Driffield, Yorkshire, by whom he had children. He died in the London Hospital on Sept 26th, 1881, having been admitted at his own request upon his return from Neuenahr, near Bonn, in a dying condition, and was buried at Birmingham in the new cemetery. His epitaph records that "for twenty-five years of his life without reward and under heavy discouragement he laboured to protect the health and purify the commerce of this people". An excellent portrait by Vivian Crome, a grandson of 'Old Crome,' hangs in the Council Chamber at Scarborough.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict Nat Biog, sub nomine et auct ibi cit].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England