Aikin, Dr. John

Near here at the end of Row 94 lived John Aikin MD, 1747-1822, physician, unitarian and author.

Dr. John Aikin lived in Row 94 (from King Street to Deneside), Great Yarmouth, on the northwest corner in a stately house. He was born in 1747 in Kibworth, Leicestershire. He was educated at the Presbyterian Warrington Academy, where his father, Rev’d. John Aikin was a teacher. It was intended that he should enter the ministry, but the weakness of his voice and the liveliness of his temper caused a change in the direction of his career and he opted for the medical profession.

At 15 years of age, he was apprenticed to Mr. Garthshore, a surgeon and apothecary at Uppingham, Rutland. His three years spent there, he found irksome and uninstructive. He later wrote, what can you possibly do worse with a youth than send him from the comfort of a lettered and civilised home to a master, probably of sordid habits, in a place where he can find none but gross and vulgar company, if he seeks for any, and where drinking and low vice will be the only pastimes offered him. The restraints of morality and religion held me from rushing into degradation and ruin. Next, he studied medicine at Edinburgh.

In 1766, he became a pupil, for three years, of Mr. Charles White, a skilful surgeon and obstetrician in Manchester, and found himself treated as a gentleman by his family. In 1770, Akin attempted to settle in Chester as a physician, but found that there was little space for a newcomer in medicine. He moved back to Warrington and worked as a physician and a part-time tutor at the academy teaching anatomy, physics and chemistry. In 1784, Akin took a physician’s degree (Doctor of Medicine) at Leiden, Holland. He came to Great Yarmouth in 1784 and was given a friendly reception. He found the comparatively superior education of the clergy made them agreeable company and he became friends with them. Akin found that the other physician in Great Yarmouth was already well-established and that the town was not big enough to support two physicians (as opposed to surgeons) and friends suggested that he set up practice in London, which he did in the following year. Scarcely had he started practice there when the physician in Great Yarmouth retired, and Aikin accepted an invitation, signed by the leading inhabitants of Great Yarmouth, to return to the town. It was then that he purchased the house, which he described as a very good and pleasant one. Aikin wrote: the invitation was drawn up and signed by almost everybody of all parties in the town, promising their upmost support. Such a testimony of respect and attachment could not but move me. I was compelled therefore, to accept and return.

When the French Revolution came Aikin supported it, along with many of the most enlightened community, as it would establish liberty, equality and fraternity. In 1780s, Great Yarmouth society was hostile to dissenters. In 1790, Akin was anxious for the repeal of the Corporation and Tests Acts, which were under discussion in Parliament. The Corporation Act of 1661 excluded from public office those who refused to take Holy Communion in the Church of England. The Test Act of 1673 was designed to exclude non-conformists from civil and military office. Office holders had to receive the Anglican Communion and to affirm the monarch’s supremacy as the head of the Church and repudiate the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. These acts were not repealed until 1829. On this subject, Aikin, whose political and religious views conformed to those of the dissenters, published two pamphlets against the Acts, and therefore, lost the support of most of his more orthodox friends and patients. The pamphlets were published anonymously, but Aikin was soon identified as their author. His professional prospects in Great Yarmouth were virtually ruined. In a letter to a friend he wrote: I had no idea of becoming a hero of the cause, but at my age it would be trifling not to have character and cowardly not to avow and stick to it. His position, ruined by his pen, in Great Yarmouth became more and more intolerable and in 1792 he moved back to London and was in easy reach of Hackney, then the stronghold of dissenters, where he found a more agreeable field for his literary and medical work.

In 1771, Aikin recognised the spread of infection and the connection with poor ventilation. It was observed that inflammation and gangrene were more prevalent in crowded London hospitals than in private practices and country infirmaries. Aikin advocated cleanliness, fresh air, space between beds and the disposal of contaminated clothing and dressings. In 1784, Aikin wrote, Yarmouth is recommended by a striking air of cheerfulness and neatness. The manners of the lower classes are remarkably decent and civilised. The cry of the night watchman, NNE is the wind, became very familiar. In one of his letters Aikin stated: the grand sight of 500 ships at anchor in Yarmouth Roads waiting for a southern breeze had lost its effect upon him from its familiarity.

Aikin’s career as a physician was cut short by a stroke. He retired to a country residence and eventually to Stoke Newington in London. There he spent the last 24 years of his life in study and died in 1822, aged 74 years. His wish to not live longer than I can use my pen was not fulfilled, as he slipped into senility in his final years. A contemporary of the time described him as a man of talent and of the highest personal worth, one of the salt of the earth.

His varied attainments earned him many friends, including Darwin, Southey, Walter Scott, Charles Lamb, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Sidney Smith and Josiah Wedgwood. Akin had a long personal association with John Howard. Aikin felt he owed his inspiration to Joseph Priestly, one of the discoverers of oxygen, who taught at the Warrington Academy. Aikin assisted William Wilberforce in the abolition of the slave trade.

Akin wrote the following books: England Delineated, Materia Medica, Political Pamphlets, An Address to the Dissenters of England on their Late Defeat, Poems, Essays on Song Writing, A Translation of the Germania and the Agricola of Tacitus, Journal of a Tour through Surrey, Observations on the External use of Preparations of Lead, Woodland Companion, An Account of British Forest Trees, A Journal of a Tour through Holland, Annals of the Reign of George III, The Life of John Howard, prison reformer, Evenings at Home, General Biography (10 volumes), The Life of John Selden and Letters from a Father to his Son etc