John Coakley Lettsom (1744-1815)
John Coakley Lettsom aka Lettsome was born into the small Quaker community on the island of Little Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. He was sent to England to be educated. At school in Lancashire he attracted the attention of the Quaker preacher Samuel Fothergill, who introduced his protégé to his brother, the London physician John Fothergill. Having completed an apprenticeship to a Yorkshire apothecary, Lettsom came to London in 1766 and with the sponsorship of the Fothergill brothers he began his medical training at St Thomas's Hospital.
His studies were interrupted by the death of his father, which led to his return to the Virgin Islands. Here he freed the slaves he had inherited. He would later become a leading campaigner in Britain for the abolition of the slave trade, a member of the Quaker committee on the slave trade set up in 1783. Later he resumed his medical studies at Leyden University, where in 1769 he gained his MD with a thesis on the natural history of the tea-tree, which was first published in London in 1772, and a revised edition with colour illustrations in 1799 (see right).
By the age of 30 he had established a reputation in London as a physician and author. In 1773, he founded the Medical Society of London to combine the work of physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries. He inherited the practice of his mentor John Fothergill on the latter’s death in 1779.
Page from 1799 edition of The Natural history of the tea tree; with observations on the medical qualities of tea and effects of tea-drinking [Lib. Ref. SR L075.8]
As an author, he wrote many pamphlets on all manner of subjects, most of which are preserved in the collection of the Society of Friends’ Library. Some were published as a series of “Hints” - promoting Sunday schools, female industry, and provision for the blind and condemning card parties and alcohol.
He became sufficiently well known in London society to become the subject of satire – an oft-repeated rhyme with a pun on his name ran:
When any sick to me apply, I physics, bleeds, and sweats ‘em
If after that, they choose to die - what’s that to me?– I. Lettsom