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An Appreciation of Sir Henry Thompson.

1. Heroes and hero worship.

Hero worship, like the proverbial poverty, always is with us. Martial artists like David Petraeus are as lionized in many circles as Kitchener was in Edwardian England, even if today’s generals resemble managers likely to own MBAs more than the impetuous adventurers of empire. Royalty represents a similar constant, even if the fascination today stems more from voyeurism than admiration. We do revere the likes of Bill Gates, who left Harvard in favor of finding a fortune, and we gasp at the stoic genius of Stephen Hawking. Celebrities of course fascinate the masses in this era of media saturation not to say instant communicative gratification.

Aside from battle winners, and, oddly, celebrity chefs, the focus of much worship has shifted from past obsessions. High technology, decoding the genome and saving the planet generate ink and buzz during this incipient twenty-first century, and yet it would be difficult for the average internet surfer able to stalk the hourly behavior of Angelina and Brad to name a practicing physician other than her own.

It was different for the Victorians and their Edwardian successors. Theirs, obviously, was a pre-electronic world, but a world in which the nature and pace of change arguably were more breathtaking than in our own. They worshipped men (and the public figures were, overwhelmingly, male, so no aggrieved letters please) who wrought tangible changes as well as the more ephemerally creative. Engineers, the builders of bridges, embankments, railroads and ships; pioneering doctors, including revolutionary surgeons in a nascent age of anesthesia; and explorers of the earth’s extremest coordinates became figures of fascination to the Victorians. Today even an unusually alert and well-educated Briton or American would be pressed to name an engineer who built those bridges or ships, but during the nineteenth century Isambard Kingdom Brunel did both, in astonishing feats of structure and style, and was the talk of the (British) nation.

Sir Henry Thompson2. A Celebrity Urologist and polymath.

Specialization had not yet taken command: It remained possible for polymaths to dominate disparate fields. One of these great if slightly lesser lights, Sir Henry Thompson, is forgotten. Today he probably would be called a Celebrity Urologist of all things, but he also was a great deal more, a restless soul who championed not only surgical technique but also cremation, a progressive and hygienically useful cause in an overcrowded, all too septic urban landscape; and dietary, sanitary and social reform. These and other efforts would secure his election as Vice President of the British Sanitary Institute. Thompson was an astronomer, collector, flautist, motorist, novelist, painter, philanthropist, photographer, socialite and epicure too; in short something of a polymath. He was an Improver in the best and most awkward Victorian sense. Back in 1951, Thompson’s not altogether sympathetic biographer, Zachary Cope, explained that:

Sir Henry Thompson from Vanity Fair 1874

“It is common for the moderns to sneer at the Victorian period, but those who do so are prone to take note only of the stiffness, the conventionality, and the inconsistencies of that time, while the vigorous intellectual activity, the earnest and perservering search after truth and the capacity for intense hard work are overlooked. It was in the possession of these latter qualities, and in other respects, that Thompson was a typical Victorian.” (Versatile 1)

Thompson was miserable for the twelve years following his fifteenth birthday. His father, a stern Calvinist who forbade even cooking on Sunday, insisted that his son follow him into the family businesses, “a wholesale establishment for supplying small country shops with staple goods” and a small factory that manufactured candles. (Versatile 10-11) Thompson, however, had wanted since childhood to become a doctor and later wrote that these years in trade had been a time of “over-ruled wishes, thwarted aims, uncongenial occupations and associations, distress of mind, dejection of spirits and seriously impaired health.” (Versatile 11) His father’s obduracy was superstitious as well as tribal; he “objected to his son studying medicine because he thought the necessary studies might pervert his religious faith.” (Versatile 169)

Both Thompson and his various doctors attributed the depression and illnesses “to his close and exhausting application to an occupation which had never been congenial and the prolonged disappointment at the frustration of his wishes.” (Versatile 15) Partially as a result, his father finally relented and allowed him to start a medical apprenticeship in 1847 at the age of twenty-seven. He went on to study at University College Hospital in London where he shone, and won its Gold Medal in anatomy and Silver Medal in chemistry.

At the outset of his practice, Thompson also won the Royal College of Surgeons’ prestigious Jacksonian Prize for his paper on “stricture,” became a Fellow of the College and subsequently published the paper. During his residency at the Marylebone Workhouse Infirmary, Thompson secured an appointment as surgeon at its Dispensary, acted as medical examiner for two insurance companies and published four articles in the Lancet. He was making up for lost time and this was but the beginning. Thompson subsequently became assistant surgeon at University College Hospital, published another book and won a second Jacksonian Prize, this time on treatment of the prostate. (Versatile 27-28, 31-33)

His surgical specialty became lithotripsy, an operation for the removal of bladder stones, and he developed a reputation as a skilled cutter. Thompson obtained both a knighthood and celebrity status after successfully performing the procedure on King Leopold of Belgium, eventually obtained another clutch of medical honors and then became Professor of Surgery and Pathology in the Royal College of Surgeons.

In all, Thompson wrote some twenty-three books, articles and pamphlets including nine on medical subjects, two novels and five on food and drink.

3. Social skills.

This son of a Dissenting tradesman also reached the pinnacle of intellectual and aristocratic society. In 1854, when he was thirty-four, Thompson met William Makepeace Thackeray: They became lifelong friends. Other friends and acquaintances included Dickens, Gerome, Huxley and Landseer.

Thackary by Henry Thompson

Portrait of Thackary by Thompson

Many of these people attended the Octaves, the famous dinner parties that Thompson threw for over three decades until his death in 1904. He would invite eight guests to an eight course dinner held, always, at eight in the evening. The purpose of an Octave was, according to Thompson,

“to bring together men of different professions and varied experience, men engaged in art, literature and politics, or foreigners and occasional strangers visiting London, at small and well selected parties, in any case not to exceed in number a group which, seated at a round or oval table, could discuss a single topic of conversation when one naturally arose, of interest enough to invite discussion, elicit information or witty comment respecting it…. ” (Versatile 92-93)

According to Thompson’s biographer, “[t]o be invited to one of theses Octaves came to be a distinction, and most of the famous men of that time attended at one or more dinners.” (Versatile 94) They included Asquith, Browning, Conan Doyle, Stanley (‘Dr. Livingstone I presume’), Field Marshall Wolseley and two princes who would become kings, Edward VII and George V.

4. Hard times.

There is, however, something, if not tragic, then poignant about Sir Henry. His wife became paralyzed in 1872 and no longer could join him in his considerable range of extramedical activities. Napoleon III did not survive an operation by Thompson similar to the one he previously had performed on King Leopold (although uremia, rather than the surgery itself, caused the death).

Neither rebel nor visionary, Thompson became set in his surgical ways, and disdained medical innovation in an era of rapid advance. By temperament an empiricist in the practical English tradition, he put no faith in theory. This considerable strength became the source of his professional decline, and while his career has been described as “one continued and almost monotonous success,” academic colleagues came to note his stubborn adherence to obsolescent technique. (Versatile 52) As Thompson’s biographer writes, “[h]is teaching derived its value from the fact that it was the product of his personal experience, but it contained a weakness in that--due to this very fact--he was apt to limit it to his own experience.” (Versatile 54)

Poor Thompson; owing to unclear ailments late in life, the epicure and dietary reformer no longer could eat the array of foods that he relished, and indeed could not eat much of anything at all in terms either of variety or quantity. He did, however, soldier on with his Octaves until the end, and never stinted on the foods that he presented to his guests.

We may infer that Thompson could be domineering and difficult, in common both with physicians of any era and with wealthy Victorian paterfamilia. A guest at one of the Octaves said that “[h]e was courteous and dignified, but I should never describe him as genial--indeed I thought him rather formidable. He was in many ways a typical Victorian.” (Versatile 97)

He would not admit to self-doubt let alone tolerate a second opinion. One patient demurred at Thompson’s diagnosis by explaining that “a very rising surgeon” disagreed with it. “Sir,” Thompson curtly replied, “I have risen.” (Versatile 143) His arrogance could be insufferable. One acquaintance, a Lady St. Helier, found him “most intolerant of contradiction, and would never admit that there could be any opposition to the subject in which he was interested, treating everybody who differed with him with scant courtesy.” (Versatile 143)

Like his father, Thompson was “of serious disposition.” At this remove he does seem priggish; his relationships with women appear chaste and he became an advocate of absinence, but then again taciturn Victorian waters ran deep. His biographer tells us that there “appear few occasions on which he displayed a sense of humour” and yet Thompson was a charmer of women; according to his obituary in The Times, he was “the favourite of women, of princes and of fortune.” (Times) Lady St. Helier, obviously no sycophant, called him “one of the most agreeable persons I had ever met.” (Versatile 142) It is sad to envision so sensitive and willful a personality submitting to the vocation demanded of him by his father for those twelve long years.

His chosen career, however, failed to alleviate his youthful “distress of mind,” for Thompson endured terrible migraines and recurrent waves of ‘melancholy;’ almost certainly these now would be diagnosed as episodes of clinical depression. He was, admirably, not the type to wallow. His biographer finds “no doubt that his temperament was highly strung and that at least some of his ailments were due to mental strain and disappointment. He himself recognized this fact.” (Versatile 138) Many of his avocations were explicit attempts at self-medication. They did not work.

Thompson traveled extensively with a beloved daughter, took up and abandoned sketching, painting (he exhibited at the Royal Academy), then photography, amassed one of the great collections of Chinese porcelain only to sell it off, gave away his cutting edge array of astronomical instruments to the Royal Observatory (which helped earn him a baronetcy). It appears that none of these avocations endured because none of them chased his demons.

5. Food and Feeding.

One of his books, Food and Feeding, was a heartfelt effort to improve the nutrition of the nation, including both its working and middle classes. Thompson admired traditional English foodways while lamenting the decline of British eating habits: He published Food and Feeding in an effort to help arrest, then reverse, the trend. He had no illusion about the difficulty of the task:

“On questioning the average middle-class Englishman as to the nature of his food, the all but universal answer is ‘My living is plain, always roast and boiled’--words which but too clearly indicate the dreary monotony, not to say unwholesomeness, of his daily food; while they furthermore express his satisfaction, such as it is, that he is no luxurious feeder.... I am not sanguine enough to suppose that this uniform routine, which rules the dietary of the great majority of British families of moderate and even of ample means, will be disturbed by any suggestions of mine. Nonetheless, in some younger households, where habits, gradually forming through the force of example, have not yet hardened into law, there may be a disposition to adopt a healthier diet and a more agreeable variety of aliment.” (Food 90-91)

Could we have some more variety of alimentCould we have some more variety of aliment?

Thompson must, however, have exerted some impact, for Food and Feeding spanned the Victorian and Edwardian eras with twelve editions over a period of three decades starting in 1880. The book, and Thompson’s articles on diet, also found favor with Ernest Hart, the celebrated editor of the British Medical Journal. (“Doctor”)

What, exactly, did Thompson propose? For a start, to “the consideration of variety, and the method of attaining it.” He believed it incumbent to “deal with the ‘Roast and Boiled’ already referred to.” Thompson sought to disavow British housekeepers of the notion that the two methods “are, in fact, the Alpha and Omega, not as two terminal items in a series, but as constituting the sum total of the culinary forces known to our respected paterfamilias.” (Food 91)

Some of the prose in Food and Feeding can sound musty and pompous. The book is interlaced with the pseudo-scientific jargon beloved of high Victorian amateurs, but the tone never hectors like Elizabeth David’s. Thompson’s voice is more exasperated or even anguished, and it is humane enough to grow on his reader; the Editor, for one, came to admire and even like the severe old sawbones. Ever the stubborn empiricist, Thompson’s style reflects his personality: “The teaching was dogmatic but the practical advice was sound and trustworthy, for [unlike David, for one] Thompson recommended only that of which he had experience.” (Versatile 110)

Much in Food and Feeding sounds startlingly current. Thompson advocates eating less meat and more produce: “It is this habit of adopting meat as the chief element of his dietary, which the sedentary man, with little opportunity for bodily exercise, the man who uses his brain more than his muscles, should avoid. (Food 68-69); considers olive oil “the best available form of fat for frying” (Food 128); warns that vegetables must not be overcooked; includes ‘Instructions for salad-making’ that ring true today (Food 173); and prefers steaming to boiling fish. He anticipates Jane Grigson by a century when he complains that “while Great Britain possesses perhaps the best opportunities in the world for securing a large and cheap supply of fish, she fails to attain it…. ” (Food 67)

Victorian Indian ServerThompson likes curry but not clumsy imitations; “when skillfully made it is almost universally admitted to be one of the most attractive combinations which can be offered to the senses of taste and smell.” (Food 234) In common with Mrs. David and Mrs. Grigson, as well as the Editor and other current thinking, Thompson admires ‘Wyvern,’ Col. Kenney-Herbert, for his Culinary Jottings from Madras. There is a degree of enlightened toleration in this; Thompson realizes that Culinary Jottings was aimed at Anglo-Indians, but in a reflexively prejudiced age nonetheless considered it also a “most interesting and suggestive work to the European” and “one of the best practical cook’s guides I know… no culinary library, even of modest pretensions, is complete without it.” (Food 168n) He is right on all of these counts.

He is a champion of the slow simmer and anticipated the twenty-first century ‘Slow Food’ movement that has spread from Italy to the United Kingdom and United States. Slow Food today of course denotes a return to culinary roots and concomitant disavowal of the disposable fast food culture epitomized by McDonald’s, but by 1881 the concept had become equally alien to British cooks. Not Thompson; he writes that

“[t]he subject of ‘slow cookery’ is one which I have long practically studied with much interest, and I have recorded the results of various experiments. I am satisfied that in cooking food derived from the animal kingdom, the longer application of low temperatures will render it more easily digestible and nutritious, as well as more agreeable than the old methods.” (Food 6)

This too is a tribute to Thompson’s curiosity and open-mindedness; it was written during 1901, when he was eighty years old and attended the coronation of his friend the Prince of Wales as Edward VII, in the revised preface to the expanded eleventh edition.

The ‘old methods,’ however, had their utility. Typically of his protoEdwardian class, Thompson was enamored of ‘foreign,’ and particularly French, food, but atypically of his class and its cooks, he understood the differing techniques that traditionally underpin the various cuisines, and as noted did not disdain his native foodways. Thompson understood the bastard fare that passed for French in much of British ‘Society’ and reflects in Food and Feeding that he does

“not know that any writer has explained the origin of widely differing methods in the practice of culinary art, adopted in France and in England respectively. These two distinct systems have been produced… on principles directly opposed to each other…. Both are rational--each system, perhaps, the better of the two in its own place… and only examples of defective taste can arise in practical cookery by confounding the two, as ever, however, which is far from uncommon....” (Food 130)

No Franglais fusion for Sir Henry, and no jingo either.

Food and Feeding by Sir Henry ThompsonHe includes recipes for a traditional and homely English fish soup instead of bouillabaisse, native vegetable broths instead of thickened potage, and lightly cooked, simply dressed vegetables in the English style instead of the heavily laden French constructions. As Thompson notes, “here again, the distinctive principles, already referred to, of French and English cuisine, are illustrated in relation to the cooking of vegetables; and again, not always to the disadvantage of our own system.” (Food 156)

6. Principled to the end.

Despite his flighty nature, Thompson was unwavering in his dislike of organized religion and unflinching when faced with mortality. He may have shared his father’s predilection for severity, but did not share either his faith or the disabilities that it attempted to impose, and the father’s fears of apostasy proved prophetic. Thompson was a founder of the Sunday Society that agitated with eventual success for the opening of museums and other state supported cultural institutions on the Sabbath, and late in life wrote a tract renouncing organized religion.

This was “The Unknown God,” which appeared during 1902 in the Fortnightly. The editor of a competing journal had urged Thompson to publish the inflammatory essay anonymously but he would have none of it. The thrust of the essay was influenced by Huxley and Spencer and is empiricist: Believe nothing unsupported by irrefutable evidence. Thompson died two years later, days after a jaunt in his motorcar.

At the end, Thompson believed that “religion ought to mean simply a reverence and love for the ethical ideal, and the desire to realize that ideal in life.” (Versatile 170) There was, he thought, a ‘Source of Infinite Energy,’ but that was about it. Thompson had striven with some success to meet that ideal despite his considerable inner demons and it is a shame that we have not remembered him. At least, of course, until now.


The Editor joins Sir Henry Thompson in building a simple Edwardian salad with the help of Phoebe Dinsmore in the practical.


Anon., obituary of Sir Henry Thompson, Bart., The Times (London), 19 April 1904

Our Guest Historian, “The Doctor in the (Victorian) Kitchen,” the critical, No. 9 (September 2010)

Zachary Cope, The Versatile Victorian: The Life of Sir Henry Thompson Bt. (London 1951)

Lady St. Helier, Memories of Fifty Years (London 1909)

Henry Thompson, Food and Feeding (11th ed. London 1901)