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Biographical entry Tomkins, John Newton (1812 - 1876)

MRCS July 25th 1834; FRCS Dec 11th 1843 one of the original 300 Fellows.

Public health officer


Born at 76 Lombard Street, the second son of Samuel Tomkins, partner in the firm of Willis & Percival, and Eliza Alicia Isabella Smith, daughter of Edward Tyrrell Smith, a contemporary of Nelson. Tomkins was educated at St Thomas's Hospital, where he entered as a pupil of Joseph Henry Green, of Lincoln's Inn Fields, to whom £525 was paid as premium, and formed a close and life-long friendship with John Simon, afterwards Sir John Simon, KCB (qv). At St Thomas's he won the Cheselden Medal (silver). Through his excellence as an anatomist Tomkins was appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy to the Medical School of St Thomas's. At about this time he travelled in Germany and studied at Berlin and Heidelberg. He was always a good German scholar. In these days he became a fine microscopist, and at different times subsequently acquired some high-power microscope objectives - magnificent according to the standards of the past. His circle at St Thomas's was a very distinguished one, numbering such men as Green, Le Gros Clark, Simon, and J A Gillham (a Blackfriars neighbour, whom he succeeded at the Vaccine Institute).

Tomkins held the Demonstratorship till some time before 1840, when he obtained the appointment of Inspector to the National Vaccine Establishment at 8 Russell Square and at 16 Fitzroy Street, Fitzroy Square. This was a Government appointment of importance. The emoluments attaching to his position were considered good £300 per annum, a spacious house, a manservant, coal, and gas. The duties attached were chiefly concerned with the inspection of vaccine. With the help of his microscopes the new Inspector examined specimens of the vaccine which it was his duty to send out for the Government to various Vaccination Stations throughout the country. In these examinations he was assisted by a favourite sister, mother of Victor G Plarr, Librarian to the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

There can be no doubt that the comfortable official life now lived by Tomkins dimmed his ambitions, but he continued to be active in the world of microscopical discovery - for such it then was - and was consulted by the College Library Committee about the purchase of histological works, as Mr Chatto's letter-book proves. Whilst he was showing his microscopes once to the Prince Consort, the august visitor inquired of him: "Is that the body of the flea?" pronouncing the word 'body' to rhyme with 'toady'.

The last phase of his life was one of melancholy and eccentricity. He continued to vaccinate and to distribute vaccine, but became strangely odd in his habits, spent all his leisure time like a character in Dickens at Jack Straw's Castle on Hampstead Heath, turned night into day, dined at midnight on a chop, took a midnight constitutional round Fitzroy Square, and ended by developing serious symptoms of heart disease, from which he succumbed in 1876. His portrait (a photograph) hangs in the Board Room at St Thomas's Hospital, where it was replaced - after being condemned - by the kind offices of H H Clutton (qv). There is also an admirable tinted pencil sketch, dated 1845, by Mrs Croudace.

The Royal College of Surgeons of England