Sir Thomas Clifford Allbutt (1836-1925)
Physician and Scholar

Sir Thomas Clifford Allbutt (1836-1925)When visiting Leeds in 1868, the novelist George Eliot found consolation in her host and friend Clifford Allbutt: ‘a good, clever, graceful man, enough to enable one to be cheerful under the horrible smoke of ugly Leeds’. For 20 years he was Leeds’ most distinguished physician, serving at the Infirmary, teaching at the School of Medicine, running an extensive private practice, writing books and papers, and leading the field in developing new treatments and theories. One of his lasting achievements was the invention of the short clinical thermometer, still used today – the previous model was 10 inches long and took 20 minutes to register!

Thomas Clifford Allbutt was born in 1836, the only son of Thomas Allbutt, vicar of Dewsbury, and his wife Marianne. His mother was a friend of the Brontes, and the family had other literary connections, and medical ones – five of Clifford’s uncles were doctors. Initially educated privately, Clifford went on to St Peter’s School, York, and then to Cambridge to study Classics, with the vague notion of a literary or artistic career. But after a year he turned to the natural sciences and a socially useful future in medicine, although he retained a life-long interest in classics and the history of ancient and medieval medicine.

He trained initially at St George’s hospital in London, and then in Paris. A distinguished, elegant, charming man, he could have followed a career in London but in 1861 he returned to Leeds and, aged 25, set up in practice first in East Parade, then prestigious Park Square. He quickly gained posts at the House of Recovery (the fever hospital for the poor) and the Infirmary, and as tutor at the School of Medicine – he had strong views on what made a good doctor.

When dreadful epidemics of typhus hit Leeds he was ahead of his time in recommending fresh air and cleanliness – along with the best brandy, no doubt popular with his patients! He led the way in recognising the significance of measuring temperature in diagnosis, and this work led to his new thermometer, always handy in his pocket. He became interested in the use of the ophthalmoscope, particularly in the treatment of the mentally ill, and published an influential book on its uses which opened a door to new developments in treatment. As his reputation grew with his work and publications, he was in demand as a lecturer and as a consultant physician, and success bred success. He was elected FRS in 1880, and Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1884. Further honours followed.

In 1869 he married Susan, daughter of the wealthy corn dealer Thomas England of Headingley Castle. During their long courtship he confided in his friend George Eliot, in an intimate exchange of letters. (It’s said, though disputed, that she based Dr Lydgate in ‘Middlemarch’ on him.) He and Susan had no children, but in 1873 when her older brother died they adopted his two-year-old daughter Margaret. They lived initially at Lyddon Hall (Leeds University now) but in 1879 bought an old property in Stonegate Road, Meanwood, and commissioned the Arts and Crafts architect E S Prior to design a house for them – Carr Manor, built in the style of a seventeenth century manor house. For many years now this fine house has been used as the Judges’ Lodgings for Leeds.

In spite of his heavy commitments Clifford Allbutt took a full part in Leeds social and public life: from 1878-81 President of the Philosophical and Literary Society, and a long-serving JP. Yet he still found time for his life-long love of cycling, walking and mountaineering, in the Lake District and Europe. He always promoted the health benefits of exercise and good diet: modern thinking, though he still believed in occasional blood-letting! His life was full – perhaps too full. Suddenly, in 1889, he announced that he was leaving Leeds to take up the government post of Commissioner of Lunacy in London– although presented as promotion it was poorly paid compared with his high-earning practice. People were dismayed: ‘a deep loss to Leeds’. Was he exhausted? Or disillusioned by the harsh treatment of his uncle, Henry Allbutt, who was struck off  the medical register for publishing a booklet delicately advising women about contraception?

Three years later he was elected Regius Professor of Physic at Cambridge where he remained until his death in 1925. He continued to publish, including a major medical textbook and learned books on the history of medicine. Honours were heaped upon him, including KCBE in 1907 – he refused a peerage. One of his many special interests was the Papworth village settlement for tuberculosis victims (now Papworth Hospital). His memorial there reads: ‘A scholar-physician, an inspiring leader, and a beloved humanist’.

Eveleigh Bradford
August 2015