John Sheldon had a thirst for scientific knowledge

Part One

John Sheldon

JOHN SHELDON WAS A LEADING 18th century anatomist and surgeon whose pioneering study of the lymphatic system earned him a worldwide reputation and ultimately recognition as one of the founders of modern-day surgery.

His scientific interests were many and varied, one result of which is that he is also remembered for being one of the first Englishman to make a manned balloon flight.

Indeed, Sheldon could lay claim to being the first ‘to fly’ in a balloon anywhere outside France when he made the ascent in the company of French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard from the Royal Military Academy at Little Chelsea on 16 October 1784.

The story of his pioneering flight is recorded in the second article in this three-part examination of his life.

John Sheldon, born in London on 6 July 1752, developed his thirst for scientific knowledge while apprenticed to Henry Watson, who the Surgeons Company had elected as their first professor of anatomy in 1766.

The Surgeons Company had been formed in 1745 and subsequently was granted a Royal Charter to become the Royal College of Surgeons in London in 1800. A further charter in 1843 saw it become the Royal College of Surgeons in England.

Sheldon studied and taught anatomy at Henry Watson’s museum in Tottenham Court Road, a private venture which aroused such suspicion among the local population that an unruly mob later broke in and destroyed much of the content.

In due course, Sheldon received a diploma from the Surgeons Company and went on to lecture on anatomy at a medical school in Great Windmill Street. In 1777 he opened a private anatomical theatre in Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, devoting much of his time to scientific research and teaching anatomy.

A prospectus of his lectures announced his intention of giving five courses of 20 lectures each, embracing anatomy, physiology, surgery, and comparative anatomy, for the whole of which the fee was to be ten guineas. Anyone paying this sum was to be constituted a perpetual pupil. He also offered facilities for dissection and for instruction in other branches of medical science, and was willing to give private instruction to any who might desire it.

His prospectus concluded with an advertisement for a house pupil or apprentice ‘whose situation will be attended with singular advantages.’

He held the post of surgeon to the General Medical Asylum in Sellback Street and in 1782 was appointed professor of anatomy to the Royal Academy in succession to William Hunter.

In 1784 he published The History of the Absorbent System, an important work on lymphatics. His work on the lymphatic system was somewhat restricted by ill health in later life.

In 1784 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and that same year he married Rebeca Palmer, daughter of the vicar of Combe Raleigh in Devon. In 1786 he became surgeon to Westminster Hospital before his own ill-health forced him to resign the post two years later.

This portrait of John Sheldon still occupies a prominent position in the London headquarters of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Three years later he published An Essay on the Fracture of the Patella or Kneepad… with Observations on the Fracture of the Olecranon in which he was the first to point out that, in order to get relaxation of the extensor muscles, and so good approximation of the fragments in cases of a fractured patella, it was essential that the thigh should be flexed upon the body; he was apparently the originator of the inclined-plane treatment of such fractures.

As well as ballooning Sheldon was also interested in the anatomy of whales. After devising a poisoned harpoon to help him secure specimens he set out on a voyage to Greenland in 1788.

At sea he had some sort of breakdown, an attack of ‘brain fever’ as his contemporaries put it and was transferred to another vessel making the return voyage to England. From that point on he suffered a recurring madness, possibly what we would recognise now as a bipolar disorder. It made it impossible for him to work regularly for the next ten years.

Following a petition from his brother the Queen gave him permission to continue to give an annual lecture at the Royal Academy and he published a couple of essays, one on the patella and the other on the iris, but otherwise he was out of work for a decade.

He moved to Combe Raleigh in Devon, where his wife’s father was vicar and there he lived quietly until 1797, when he had recovered sufficiently to be appointed surgeon to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. He died in October 1808 and was buried in his father-in-law’s churchyard.

He also devoted much of his attention to the art of embalming and also believed he had discovered a way of catching whales with poisoned harpoons, a theory he was unable to prove when he tested out his ideas on a trip to Greenland.

Evidence of the esteem in which Sheldon is held still to this day comes from the Royal College of Surgeons, which still proudly displays a life-size three-quarter-length portrait by A. W. Devis (1763–1822), in the conservator’s room at their headquarters in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Another, perhaps less savoury side of Sheldon emerges from a series of meetings he had with the French Geologist and traveller Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, who shared Sheldon’s passion for ballooning and met him on a trip to England and Scotland in 1772.

In 1797 he published his Voyage en Angleterre, en Écosse et aux Îles Hébrides, which contained a detailed account of their meeting at Sheldon’s London home. He had, Saint-Fond noted, “one of the finest anatomical cabinets in existence”, which we will examine in more detail in the third and final article.

PART TWO: The first Englishman ‘to fly’

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