Charles Turner Thackrah (1795-1833)
Doctor, Researcher, Reformer

Charles Thackrah‘The employment of young children in any labour is wrong’. So wrote Charles Turner Thackrah at a time when thousands of children in Leeds, many aged only six or seven, were roused from their beds at dawn, hurried to the mills to begin work at half past five or six, and kept there till late at night, with hardly a break. Fragile, vulnerable men, women and children had become, he said, ‘yokefellows to iron and steam’, enslaved by the mill engines. His passionate words, his documented research on occupational diseases, helped to bring about change. His life was short and contentious, plagued by illness, but his influence spread far; and had a significant impact on medical training in his home town of Leeds, where he was a founder of the first School of Medicine.

He was born in 1795, the only child of a Leeds chemist and druggist with a business in Vicar Lane. He was educated in the classics. His mother wanted him to be a clergyman, but he chose medicine. At 16 he was apprenticed to a local doctor, but in order to qualify to practise he had to complete his studies in London, where in 1815 he enrolled at Guy’s Hospital. The poet John Keats was a fellow student. Although he fell ill during his year there – probably the onset of tuberculosis, common for students working in the dissecting rooms, and destined to kill Keats at twenty-five – he qualified at the early age of twenty and returned to Leeds to practise, setting up in North Street. This was a time of immense social and industrial change, which he experienced at first-hand when he got the post of ‘Town Surgeon’, responsible for the care of the poor. It was badly paid but offered him an invaluable opportunity to study the diseases afflicting people living and working in the most wretched circumstances. This became his life’s work.

He found time for research and writing. In 1819 he published a prize-winning study of the properties of blood.  In the same year he became joint secretary of the newly-formed Philosophical and Literary Society and on the opening of Philosophical Hall in 1821 presented a wide-ranging paper on the sciences and ‘the ardent spirit of research’. A natural teacher, he began to take on apprentices himself and in 1826 established a private school of anatomy at 9 South Parade: the bodies required for dissection were apparently on occasion ‘resurrected’ from the local burial ground! His courses were meticulously planned and he tried desperately to get them recognised by the Royal College of Surgeons, but to no avail. Increasingly frustrated, chronically ill, and volatile by nature, he fell out with his medical colleagues and became embroiled in angry public exchanges, which he pursued with fervour.

His personal life was marked with problems too. In 1823 he became romantically involved with a patient and fathered an illegitimate son, to social and professional outrage. He married (someone else) the following year but she, and their small daughter, died only four years later. He finally married again in 1830, Grace Greenwood, a relationship which brought him happiness in his final years.

By 1831 he was ready to achieve his long-term aim of publishing his research. Over the years he had been systematically recording the diseases he encountered in his work with the poor and in general practice, and studying the connection with people’s work and lives. He published the results in a book which covered a huge range of trades and occupations, the diseases and health problems of each group of workers, and his suggestions for improvements: a ground-breaking work which lay the foundation for occupational medicine. It won him instant professional praise and recognition; an American edition was quickly published, and he produced a second enlarged edition in 1832. It was quoted in Parliament in support of the movement to regulate the employment of children and working hours.

His other achievement in 1831 was the foundation of the Leeds Medical School with one of his colleagues, their former arguments put aside. Provincial medical training was finally recognised and all his efforts justified. But his health was failing and in 1833 he died of tuberculosis, aged 38. He was buried at St John’s, Dewsbury, where he had married his wife Grace.

A lecture series at Leeds Medical School and a building at Leeds University are named after him, and the poet Tony Harrison has written about him. After almost 200 years, his book still makes fascinating reading, not only for the details of all the occupations he describes but also for his comments – we hear his voice across the years, thoughtful, passionate, humane.

Eveleigh Bradford
November 2014