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Biographical entry Toynbee, Joseph (1815 - 1866)

MRCS Jan 26th 1838; FRCS (by election) Aug 26th 1844; FRS 1842.

30 December 1815
Heckington, Lincolnshire
7 July 1866
ENT surgeon, General surgeon and Philanthropist


The second son of George Toynbee, a large tenant farmer and landowner in Lincolnshire, was born at Heckington in that county on Dec 30th, 1815. He was educated at King's Lynn Grammar School, and was apprenticed at the age of 17 to William Wade, of the Westminster General Dispensary in Gerrard Street, Soho. He studied anatomy at the Little Windmill Street School under George Derby Dermott and became an expert dissector. He attended the practice of St George's and University College Hospitals, and showed his interest in diseases of the ear as early as 1836, when he wrote letters to the Lancet under the initials 'J T'. In 1838 he assisted Richard Owen (qv), who was then Conservator of the Hunterian Museum, and was soon afterwards elected one of the Surgeons to the St James's and St George's Dispensary, where he established a useful Samaritan Fund. He also promoted the building of a model lodging-house near Broad Street, Golden Square.

He was admitted a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1842 for his researches demonstrating that articular cartilage, the cornea, the crystalline lens, the vitreous humour, and the epidermal appendages contained no blood-vessels.

Toynbee lived in Argyll Place, Regent Street, so long as he was Surgeon to the Dispensary, and there began to specialize in aural surgery, but soon becoming successful moved to 18 Savile Row. When St Mary's Hospital was established in 1852 he was nominated the first Aural Surgeon and Lecturer on Diseases of the Ear, holding the appointments until 1864.

He married in August, 1846, Harriet, daughter of Nathaniel Holmes, and by her had nine children, of whom the second son, Arnold (1852-1883), was the well-known social philosopher and economist, a founder of the first University Settlement - Toynbee Hall.

Joseph Toynbee died from an overdose of chloroform on July 7th, 1866, and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary's, Wimbledon. At the time of his death he was Aural Surgeon to the Earlswood Asylum for Idiots, Consulting Aural Surgeon to the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, President of the Quekett Microscopical Society, and Treasurer of the Medical Benevolent Fund, an office he had filled since 1867.

Toynbee raised aural surgery from a neglected condition and made it a legitimate branch of medicine. The Toynbee Collection illustrating various diseases of the ear is exhibited in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn Fields. It is the result of minute dissections extending over twenty years, during which time he is said to have made preparations from more than two thousand human ears. Many of the specimens came from the patients in the Deaf and Dumb Asylum whose ears he had examined during life. One of his most valuable contributions to the treatment of deafness was his invention of an artificial tympanic membrane. He first demonstrated the existence of many bony and other tumours of the ear, of the ossicles, and of the tympanum, and demonstrated that the Eustachian tube is always closed except during the act of swallowing.

As a philanthropist the English public owes much to Toynbee. He advocated the improvement of workmen's dwellings and surroundings at a time when the duties of a Government in regard to public health were hardly beginning to be appreciated. His benevolent efforts centred in Wimbledon, where he occupied a country house from 1854. Here he was indefatigable in forming and maintaining a village club and a local museum. He published in 1863 Hints on the Formation of Local Museums, and his enthusiastic advocacy was of great value in furthering the establishment of similar clubs and museums in other parts of the kingdom. He also took a deep interest in the condition of the deaf and dumb, and devised plans by which they were taught to speak.

The Otological Society subscribed a sum of money to name the Committee Room at the Royal Society of Medicine which is called the 'Joseph Toynbee Room'.

The Diseases of the Ear; their Nature, Diagnosis and Treatment, 8vo, London, 1860. A new edition with a supplement by JAMES HINTON, 1868. Translated into German, W├╝rzburg, 1863. This was Toynbee's chief work, and placed aural surgery on a firm basis. It is still interesting on account of the details of cases and methods of treatment.
On the Use of Artificial Membrane Tympani in Cases of Deafness, 8vo, London, 1853; 6th ed, 1857.
A Descriptive Catalogue of Preparations illustrative of the Diseases of the Ear in the Museum of Joseph Toynbee, 8vo, London, 1857.

Sources used to compile this entry: [G T Bettany's Eminent Doctors, ii, 272. Dict Nat Biog, sub nomine et auct ibi cit].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England