Friday 11 April 2014

Men of Yore: Thomas Wakley

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity. 

Thomas Wakley

Thomas Wakley, the youngest of Henry Wakley's eleven children, was born in Membury, Devon, on 11th July, 1795. Henry Wakley was a country squire who bred racehorses. After being educated at the local grammar school, he left at the age of sixteen, to be apprenticed as an apothecary in Taunton. Thomas enjoyed the work and decided to become a surgeon. After training at Guy's Hospital, London, Wakley qualified in 1817.
Wakley established himself as a doctor in Argyll Street, one of the most expensive areas in London and in February 1820 married the daughter of a wealthy iron merchant. Six months later the Wakley's house was destroyed by fire. Wakley's claim for insurance was refused as the fire had been started deliberately. Thomas Wakley claimed that the fire had been an attempt to murder him. While waiting for the insurance company to pay him for his losses, Wakley became a doctor in a less prosperous part of London.
In 1821 Wakley met the radical journalist William Cobbett, who published the weekly newspaper Political Register. Wakley told Cobbett about how the need to reform in the medical profession. Cobbett suggested that Wakley should publish a journal that could be used to campaign for these reforms.
Wakley liked the idea and in October 1823 began publishing The Lancet. In the journal Wakley criticised the autocratic powers of the council that ran the Royal College of Surgeons. He also campaigned for a united profession of apothecaries, physicians and surgeons and a new system of medical qualifications to help improve standards in the medical profession.
In 1828 Thomas Wakley became involved in the campaign for parliamentary reform. This brought Wakley into contact with other political reformers in London and in 1832 he was asked to become the Radical candidate for Finsbury. With 330.000 potential voters, this new constituency was one of the largest in Britain. With the support of his two closest political friends, Joseph Hume and William Cobbett, Wakley campaigned for an extension of the vote, the removal of property qualifications for parliamentary candidates, the repeal of the Corn Laws, the abolition of slavery and the suspension of the Newspaper Stamp Act. Wakley was defeated in 1832 but he won when he tried again in January 1835.
Thomas Wakley spent the next seventeen years in the House of Commons. Thomas Wakley's maiden speech was an attack on the decision to convict the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Wakley was the main spokesman for the campaign to have the men reprieved and when their freedom was celebrated in 1838 by a vast procession through London, Wakley was the guest of honour, in recognition of the fact that he had done more than any other person in Britain to secure their pardon.
Thomas Wakley was also one of the main opponents of the stamp duty on newspapers. As part of the campaign, Wakley published six issues in 1836 of an unstamped newspaper called A Voice from the Commons. Wakley was also a passionate opponent of the 1834 Poor Law and in 1845 helped to expose the Andover Workhouse scandal.
Wakley remained a strong supporter of parliamentary reform and was one of the few members of the House of Commons who defended the activities of the Chartists. However, Wakley did not agree with all the six points of the Charter. Although he wanted an extension of the franchise, he never publicly argued for universal suffrage. Wakley also had doubts about the wisdom of annual parliaments arguing that he would prefer a triennial system of elections.
As a former doctor Wakley took a particular interest in medical reform. He was mainly responsible for the setting up of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1843 and the General Council of Medical Education and Registration in 1858. His long campaign against the adulteration of food and drink resulted in the passing of the Food and Drugs Act in 1860. Wakley died on 16th May, 1862, and like many other Radicals of the period, was buried at Kensall Green Cemetery. 
Quite often we place too much trust in other people, other people who like to call themselves experts.  Experts in medicine, experts in economics, experts in metaphysics, experts in fitness.  Experts who are vocal in pointing out how correct they are and how incorrect the proverbial unwashed masses are.  When these types of experts end up gaining a large amount of prestige and power in society they cause the masses to suffer.  This was the case during the Victorian era when the priesthood of the doctors was prominent in Britain.  Doctors could do what they want and charge what they want and not be held accountable for their actions.  Their theories and beliefs went unchallenged, and this caused much suffering for the masses.  Thomas Wakley was one man who challenged the priesthood of the doctors, who challenged the status quo and demanded that doctors prove that they were the good doctors that they claimed to be.

His drive to improve standards and to tear down the edifice of superiority worked.  He established the Lancet medical journal which was like a Promethean publication of the era, allowing men to publish their own ideas and importantly allow them to be scrutinised, critiqued, by others in order to allow them to be purged of errors.


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