Saturday 5 December 2015

Men of Yore: Arthur Hill Hassall

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. 

Arthur Hill Hassall

Hassall, Arthur Hill (1817–1894), physician and microscopist, was born at Teddington, Middlesex, on 13 December 1817, the son of Thomas Hassall (1771–1844), surgeon, and Ann Sherrock (1778×80–1817). After attending school at Richmond, Surrey, he was apprenticed in 1834 to his uncle Sir James Murray, who had a fashionable Dublin medical practice. In 1839 he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, in London, and in 1841 he was awarded the diploma of the Society of Apothecaries. Hassall's apprenticeship had included walking the wards of Jervis Street Hospital in Dublin, and the Mercers' Hospital. He had also taken the midwifery diploma in 1837 from Trinity College, Dublin, studied the nearby seashore and the coasts, and won a prize in botany. He presented his Catalogue of Irish Zoophytes to the Dublin Natural History Society on 6 November 1840. Hassall went on in 1848 to graduate MB from University College, London; in 1851 he proceeded MD and became a member of the Royal College of Physicians.

His return to Richmond, near the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, enabled Hassall to study structural and physiological botany at Kew. Between 1840 and 1845 he published several articles and books on botanical topics, mostly on freshwater algae, though many of the papers suggested a rather haughty concern with claims to priority. His History of the British Freshwater Algae (1845) became something of a controversial classic in the field; most of his research for this work came from the region of Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, and the specimens he left are now largely in the possession of the Natural History Museum, London. Hassall's studies on fungal rot of fruits and potatoes by experimental inoculation of sound tissues were highly apposite given the subsequent potato famine in Ireland. On 26 May 1846 Hassall married Fanny Augusta, daughter of Alexander Du Corron.

Hassall came to public attention with his book A microscopical examination of the water supplied to the inhabitants of London and the suburban districts (1850), in which he reported on the state of the water supplied by each of the London water companies. Containing colour illustrations of the organisms found, this work helped to convince people of the revolting nature of having living organisms in their water and drew their attention to the ‘carcasses of dead animals, rotting, festering, swarming with flies and maggots’ on the banks of the Thames (Hamlin, 115). According to Christopher Hamlin, the book was ‘one of the most effective appeals to sensibility in the history of public health’, and that one of the most important things it did ‘was to make microscopic life a new category of impurity’ (ibid., 104). There was, however, a great deal of debate about what the presence of such organisms in the water signified. Hassall found that all waters contained microscopic life but ‘was not able to recognise a distinct flora and fauna for each company as he had hoped to’ (ibid., 111). He testified before the Board of Health in March or April of 1850 and in parliament Sir Benjamin Hall used Hassall's drawings to attack opponents of water reform. Organisms came to be seen as proof of impurity.

Over this same period, and despite ill health, Hassall began to study food adulteration. This brought him to the attention of Thomas Wakley, who between 1851 and 1854 published in The Lancet reports by Hassall concerning the virtually universal practice of adulteration. The Lancet reports led in 1855 to a parliamentary select committee (with Hassall as chief scientific witness) and later to the first general preventative (and other) Adulteration Acts (1860), as well as to the presentation on 4 May 1856 from both houses of parliament to Hassall, for public services, of an elegant silver statuette of Angel Ithuriel. Hassall established a reputation as Britain's leading food analyst and was employed as an analytical microscopist by the General Board of Health.

Hassall also became a physician at the Royal Free Hospital, London, which later named a ward after him. By 1866 he was suffering from severe lung problems. His recovery involved long periods confined to bed at his brother's house in Richmond, at Hastings, and at St Leonards, before he transferred to Ventnor, Isle of Wight, as winter approached. Hassall made his home there until at least mid-1877, though he was still able to undertake professional duties in London at least twice a week. During 1866 he was allotted a civil-list pension of £100 per year for public service. While at Ventnor, Hassall and his assistants continued to investigate food adulteration, using the laboratory he had built there.

Hassall decided that Ventnor would be an ideal place to establish a hospital for treating lung disease. The first block was completed in 1868 and the Ventnor Hospital inspired moves to establish similar institutions in Vienna and elsewhere. Hassall's concept was so successful that, by 1908, 23,000 or more patients had been treated there. This hospital finally closed on 15 April 1964, the remaining patients being transferred to the Hassall ward in St Mary's Hospital, Newport, Isle of Wight.

Hassall left Ventnor in 1877 and was presented with a silver service and 300 guineas. Aiming to rest in warmer climes, he spent over a year in Germany and one winter season in Cannes. Italy's ready acceptance of foreign medical qualifications led Hassall finally to settle in San Remo, with occasional stays in London over the summer. Hassall acquired permission to practise in Switzerland and thereafter worked in Lucerne in summer and San Remo in winter; at San Remo he attended Edward Lear. Hassall's time on the continent enabled him to establish a role in pioneering climatic cures for consumption. His San Remo and the Western Riviera Climatically and Medically Considered (1879) was a classic of its kind. Hassall died at his home, Casa Bosso, San Remo, on 9 April 1894 and was buried at All Saints' Church, San Remo. He was survived by his second wife, Alice Margaret, whom he had married some time between 1858 and 1866.

James H. Price


We live in cities; we are dependent upon the provision of food from others; we are dependent upon others to ensure that food is what it claims to be and is un-adulterated.  It's no good going down to your local bakery to buy a loaf of bread, then coming back home and discovering to your dismay that the loaf is a menagerie of flour, sawdust, bone-meal, ash, and other odds 'n' sods.  You want that loaf of bread from that bakery to be a loaf of bread, and not a something else.  And better still you want all loaves of bread in all bakeries to be loaves of bread and not something else.

If we lived in a perfect world then food manufacturers would not adulterate their product with non-foodstuffs because they would be honest and decent, but alas we don't live in a perfect world, so we need Food Safety laws to ensure that scoundrels don't ruin everyone's day by selling adulterated or dodgy food.  And like everything else in the modern world it requires someone, usually a man, to create those laws ex nihlo.  In the case of food safety laws that man was Arthur Hill Hassall.

Arthur Hill Hassall is the reason that you can tuck into your mince pies, slurp some mulled wine, and feast on your Christmas dinner without worrying if it's going to give you and your family the squits tomorrow morning.


1 comment:


    Another great article. It’s always a pleasure to read about such outstanding people.