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LAWRENCE, Thomas (1711-1783)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0113 MS-LAWRT
Held at: Royal College of Physicians
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Full title: LAWRENCE, Thomas (1711-1783)
Date(s): c.1750-1766
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 14 volumes
Name of creator(s): Lawrence | Thomas | 1711-1783 | physician


Administrative/Biographical history:

Thomas Lawrence was born on 25 May 1711 in Westminster, London, the second son of Captain Thomas Lawrence. He was educated first in Dublin, after his father was posted to Ireland in 1715. His mother died in 1724 and his father brought the family to live with his widowed sister in Southampton, who looked after the children. Lawrence continued his education at school in Southampton. In October 1727 he was admitted a commoner to Trinity College, Oxford. He graduated BA in 1730, MA in 1733, and then chose medicine as his profession. He moved to London and attended the anatomical lectures of the physician Frank Nicholls and the practice at St Thomas' Hospital. He graduated BM in 1736, and MD at Oxford in 1740.

Lawrence became anatomy reader in the University of Oxford upon Nicholls' resignation. He remained in this office for several years although he resided in London where he also delivered lectures in anatomy. He took the house previously occupied by Nicholls, in Lincoln's Inn Field. Lawrence became a candidate of the Royal College of Physicians in 1743, and a fellow the following year. He was also Goulstonian Lecturer at the College in 1744. In the same year he married Frances Chauncey, daughter of a physician at Derby, and moved to Essex Street, off the Strand. He was a censor at the College five times between 1746 and 1759, and became registrar in 1747, a position he held for almost 20 years until 1766. In 1748 he delivered the Harveian Oration.

In 1750 Lawrence stopped lecturing, in the face of the overwhelming success of the lectures of the Scottish surgeon William Hunter, and instead devoted himself entirely to general practice. In 1751 he delivered the Royal College of Physicians' Croonian Lectures, and was appointed Lumleian Lecturer in 1755. The following year he published Hydrops: Disputatio Medica, which took the form of an imaginary conversation between the great physicians Baldwin Hamey, Sir George Ent, and William Harvey. Lawrence was named an elect of the College in 1759, and was made consiliarius (adviser to the president) in 1760, 1761, and 1763. He wrote a biography of Harvey, which was prefixed to the College's publication on the works of Harvey, Guilielmi Harveii Opera Omnia a Collegio Medicorum (1766). Lawrence was awarded 100 for his services.

Lawrence became president of the College in 1767. He was elected upon the resignation of Sir William Browne, after the famous siege of the College. A group of licentiates had forced their way into a Comitia meeting in June 1767, in an attempt to obtain a dispensation from the College, causing Browne to dissolve the Comitia. The licentiates were protesting against the College policy that only graduates from Oxford and Cambridge could become fellows. Ultimately it was not until 1834 that the fellowship was thrown open to graduates of other universities, although in 1771 Lawrence did accept four such candidates for fellowship. Lawrence was made president in September 1767, and was re-elected every year for the following seven years.

Despite his elevated position within the College, he never really attained great success as a physician. It has been said of him that he was

`an elegant scholar, a good anatomist, and a sound practitioner; but in his endeavour to attain to eminence it was his misfortune to fail' (Munk's Roll, p.151).

His failure has been put down to personal traits, namely a vacant countenance and a convulsive tic. He was an intimate friend of the lexicographer Samuel Johnson, a fellow sufferer of the latter affliction, who considered him `"one of the best men whom I have known"' (ibid, p.152). Johnson had a very high opinion of his friend, which was a testimony to the latter's prowess as a scholar. Lawrence often submitted his Latin for Johnson's correction, and it is believed that Johnson did the same to him. Johnson was also one of Lawrence's patients. Much about their relationship is discernible through Johnson's letters to Lawrence.

Lawrence's wife died in 1780 and he never really recovered from the bereavement. He and his wife had had six sons and three daughters. Soon after his wife's death he lost his hearing. In 1780 he had privately printed his biography of his friend and patron Frank Nicholls. In 1782 Lawrence was struck with paralysis. He resigned from his position as elect at the Royal College of Physicians, and retired with his family to Canterbury. In 1783 he began to suffer from angina pectoris. He died on 6 June 1783, at the age of 72. He was buried in the church of St Margaret, Canterbury. His two surviving children erected a memorial tablet in Canterbury Cathedral.

Oratio Harvaeana (London, 1748)
Hydrops: Disputatio Medica (London, 1756)
Praelectiones Medicae Duodecim de Calvariae et Capitis Morbis (Croonian Lectures) (London, 1757)
De Natura Musculorum Praelectiones Tres in Theatro Collegii Medicorum Londinensium Habitae (London, 1759)
Guilielmi Harveii Opera Omnia a Collegio Medicorum, Mark Akenside (ed.) (London, 1766) collected edition of Harvey's works, with prefixed biography by Thomas Lawrence
Franci Nichollsii, MD, Vita, cum Conjecturis Eiusdem de Natura et Usu Partium Humani Corporis Similarium (London, 1780)


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers of Thomas Lawrence, c.1750-1766, consisting of his comment on lectures in the physician Frank Nicholls's Compendium Anatomicum, c.1750; Lawrence's compendium of pathology and therapeutics, in his own hand, c.1750; Lectures on digestion, given at the Royal College of Physicians, in his own hand, c.1750; Course of lectures on pathology and therapeutics, dictated by Lawrence, 1751; Lectures on inflammation, the liver, and the kidneys, given at the Royal College of Physicians, in his own hand, 1766 and c.1766; Unpublished manuscript on human physiology, 'De Natura Animali', in his own hand, with corrections by Samuel Johnson, the lexicographer, mid-18th century.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:
Latin and English

System of arrangement:

Conditions governing access:


Conditions governing reproduction:

All requests should be referred to the Archivist

Finding aids:

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

The provenance of the collection is unknown

Allied Materials

Related material:

There is also material relating to Lawrence held elsewhere in the College archives, including family settlements of Lawrence and his family, including the probate of the will of his grandfather Thomas Lawrence, physician, 1712-1766 (MS846-852); His name on a list of stewards at the College's Harveian dinner, 1759 (MS1024/18), and amongst those present at a meeting of the Elects of the College, 1771 (MS1022/16); His name amongst the physicians present at the post-mortem of George Grenville, 1770 (MS109/3); Reference to and copy of Johnson's additional comments on Lawrence's 'De Natura Animali', in a letter to the Library from Howard Weinbrot, 1969 (MS436a); Biographical notes about Lawrence in Allan George Williams Whitfield's notes on the first 37 registrars of the College, 1979-81 (MS799/24); There are also two letters addressed to Lawrence amongst the College's Autographed Letters Collection (ALS).

Lawrence's account of continental travels, 1777-78, is held at the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine. See the National Register of Archives for details.

National Register of Archives: Click here to view NRA record

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Sources: The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, Vol. II, 1701-1800, William Munk (London, 1878) [Munk's Roll, 1878, pp.150-54]; Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. XXXII, Sidney Lee (ed.) (London, 1892) [DNB, 1892, p.278]; `Thomas Lawrence, MD, PRCP (1711-1783), Sir Russell Brain, Medical History, Vol. I, No. 4, October 1957, pp.293-306; `Samuel Johnson's Unpublished Manuscript Notes to Dr Thomas Lawrence's 'De Natura Animali Dissertatio'', Howard D. Weinbrot, The Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, May 1975; `Thomas Lawrence - The Man and his Memorial', Friends of Canterbury Cathedral, Twenty-Seventh Annual Report, April 1954, pp.24-25; The First Thirty Seven Registrars of the College, George Whitfield (Sutton Coldfield, 1981, privately printed); Historical Manuscripts Commission On-Line National Register of Archives.
Compiled by Katharine Martin

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives, Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
Compiled November 2003

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