Richardson, Sir Benjamin Ward (1828–1896), physician
by Patrick Wallis

Richardson, Sir Benjamin Ward (1828–1896), physician, was born at Somerby, Leicestershire, on 31 October 1828, the only son of Benjamin Richardson and Mary Ward (c.1800–1838), his wife. He was educated locally at a dame-school, and then at the Burrow Hill School, Leicestershire, under the Revd W. Young Nutt. The direction of his life was set in 1838, when, on the deathbed wish of his mother, he dedicated himself to the study of medicine. He later recorded that she was inspired by a deep admiration for the eighteenth-century surgeon William Chesleden, whose portrait she had inherited (Richardson, 6).

Richardson was therefore apprenticed at an early age to Henry Hudson, a surgeon at Somerby. In 1847 he entered Anderson's University, Glasgow, but he was forced to leave before completing his training after he contracted slum fever, probably while attending the delivery of a poor Irishwoman in a cellar dwelling. After a period of convalescence he became assistant to Thomas Browne, of Saffron Walden in Essex. Later he worked for Edward Dudley Hudson, the elder brother of his first master, who practised as a surgeon at Littlebury, Narborough, near Leicester. While working for Hudson, Richardson met Professor Taylor, lecturer in chemistry at the Middlesex Hospital in London. Taylor, impressed by the young man, arranged in 1849 for him to become the partner of Robert Willis of Barnes, Surrey; Willis was well known as the editor of the works of William Harvey, and the librarian of the Royal College of Surgeons from 1828 to 1845. Richardson then returned briefly to Glasgow in 1850, to be admitted a licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow; later he was made faculty lecturer (1877) and fellow (1878). Also in 1850 Richardson moved to Mortlake in Surrey, near Barnes, where he set up a household of his own and began to practise alongside Willis.

At Mortlake, Richardson's scientific and medical interests developed. In the laboratory he established in his house, he began to research a range of subjects, including the coagulation of blood, antiseptic properties of gasses, and resuscitation. In response to the threat of cholera Richardson established the East Surrey Society for the Investigation of Cholera, in 1853. Through Willis he was introduced to many of the best-known physicians of the time, including Richard Bright, Thomas Hodgkin, and Thomas Addison. At the same time, thanks to an accidental meeting with Douglas Jerrold, he became a member of the circle of literary figures and wits known as ‘Our Club’, where he met, among others, W. M. Thackeray and George Cruikshank, whose executor he later became.

In 1854 Richardson was admitted MA and MD by St Andrews University. He later became a staunch defender of the university: when a bill sponsored by Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen universities threatened to remove its right to award MDs, he established the St Andrews Medical Graduate Association to help in its defence. He was president of the association for thirty-five years, also becoming a member of the university court and assessor of the general council. In 1877 he was awarded an honorary LLD degree for his services.

Richardson had moved to London early in 1854. He took a house at 12 Hinde Street, where he remained until 1880, when he moved to 25 Manchester Square. He rapidly established himself in the capital; he was made physician to the Blenheim Street Dispensary and in 1854 lecturer on forensic medicine at the Grosvenor Place school of medicine. In the same year he was awarded the Fothergillian gold medal of the Medical Society of London for his essay, ‘Diseases of the foetus in utero’. In 1856 Richardson's researches at Mortlake again bore fruit, when he won the Astley Cooper prize of 300 guineas for his essay on the coagulation of the blood. That year he was made physician to the Royal Infirmary for Diseases of the Chest, and to the Metropolitan, Marylebone, and Margaret Street dispensaries. One of the earliest English followers of Laënnec's work on chest diseases, he helped to found the Society for the Study of Chest Diseases, and was among the first to use the stethoscope.

Helped by his prizes and developing reputation as a medical researcher, Richardson quickly built up an extensive practice. By 1857 he was secure enough to marry, on 21 February, Mary J. Smith of Mortlake, where the couple had met through the local musical circle. They had three children: two sons, Bertram and Aubrey, and a daughter, Mary Stella. Even on their honeymoon in Hastings, Richardson did not leave behind his involvement with medicine: while there he befriended another young physician, William Greenhill, with whom he long maintained a fruitful correspondence.

Richardson's upward progress within his profession continued through the 1850s and 1860s. In 1856 he was admitted a member of the Royal College of Physicians, London, of which he was elected fellow in 1865 and chosen lecturer on materia medica in 1866. Meanwhile he held several posts at the Grosvenor Place school, lecturing on public hygiene and physiology before becoming dean of the school. Richardson remained dean until 1863, when the premises were sold and demolished. He also lectured to the College of Dentists in this period. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1867 and in 1873 delivered the Croonian lecture, entitled ‘The muscular irritability after systemic death’; it was based on his research into resuscitation. In 1868 he was elected president of the Medical Society of London.

Richardson was best-known for his research into anaesthetics and for his involvement in public health and the sanitary movement. He was a close friend of John Snow, who shared his laboratory on occasion; Richardson edited Snow's classic work, Chloroform and other Anaesthetics (1858) after the latter's death. Both pursued the pharmaceutical action of simple molecular structures, seeking safe, effective, and economical anaesthetics. Starting with amyl nitrate, Richardson systematically investigated an extensive range of compounds in the methyl and ethyl series. Between 1863 and 1871 his work was subsidized by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, an unusual favour for that time. He was highly productive, discovering fourteen new anaesthetics, several of which were soon widely used (particularly methylene bichloride), and inventing the first double-valved mouthpiece for the administration of chloroform. He also invented the ether spray, the only known method of local anaesthesia until the introduction of the topical use of cocaine in 1884. In addition he investigated the potential of mesmerism, electricity, and other possible alternatives to chemical anaesthetics. These researches were far from confined to this field, however; Richardson explored a variety of questions, including the uses of colloids and methods of embalming. A by-product of this work was the introduction of hydrogen peroxide, both as a medicinal substance and as a bleach for hair dyes. Richardson's interest in the prevention of suffering extended to animals: in 1853 he invented a lethal chamber for the painless slaughter of animals, and thirty years later he installed a large version of it at the Battersea dogs' home. The issue of humane slaughter combined his concerns with suffering and his public health interests (in preventing the deterioration of meat). He established the Model Abattoir Society in 1882 and remained its president until his death.

Richardson's investigation of anaesthetics came to convince him that alcohol was a potent and dangerous drug. Although for many years a believer in the pleasure and value of drinking, while giving his Cantor lectures on alcohol for the Society of Arts from 1874 to 1875 he became a committed teetotaller. He later lectured influentially on temperance across the country, and in 1892 he joined the staff of the London Temperance Hospital. Although some of his acquaintances were offended by his abstinence, one feeling unable ‘to acquit it of some shame in bringing about a death which at least was premature’ (Transactions of the Epidemiological Society, 292), others thought he ‘proved that alcohol is not essential to postprandial eloquence’ (BMJ, 1612).

Through his interest in cholera and his friendship with Snow, Richardson became one of the pioneers of the sanitary movement. He became a friend of William Farr and Edwin Chadwick, whose work he later reviewed and collected as The Health of Nations (1887). He founded and edited the first journal dedicated to public health, the Journal of Public Health and Sanitary Review, in 1855, and was a senior officer of the Sanitary Institute for many years, helping to establish examinations for sanitary inspectors. He gave a celebrated address to the Social Science Association in 1875, in which he described a health utopia, a city of spotless cleanliness and hygiene; this was later published as Hygiea, a City of Health (1876). Richardson's conviction of the importance of environmental factors in disease led him consistently to oppose Pasteur's germ theory, rather emphasizing cleanliness and preventive medicine.

Richardson was a man of wide interests. A prolific writer, he wrote plays, biographies, poems, songs, and even a romantic novel, The Son of a Star (3 vols., 1888). Much of his work was printed in The Asclepiad, a journal of researches in science, art, and medicine, which he edited and published from 1861 until his death. He was also an early cycling enthusiast, advocating bicycle use for the preservation of health. In the parliamentary election of 1892 he (unsuccessfully) contested the Walton division of Liverpool as a Gladstonian Liberal. He practised extensively as a physician throughout his life, serving several bodies, including the Newspaper Press Fund and the Royal Literary Fund.

Recognition of Richardson's scientific and humanitarian work led to his election as a fellow of numerous international bodies, including the Philosophical Society of America, the Pathological Society of Berlin, and the Imperial Academy of Sciences at Dresden. In 1877 he became a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. He was knighted in June 1893.

Richardson died at his house, 25 Manchester Square, London, on 21 November 1896, and his body was cremated at Woking crematorium, Surrey. Active to the end, he had dictated the final chapter of his autobiography only two hours before falling ill with his final sickness.



A. S. MacNalty, A biography of Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson (1950) · B. W. Richardson, Vita medica: chapters of a medical life and work (1897) · W. F. Bynum, ‘Chemical structure and pharmacological action: a chapter in the history of 19th century molecular pharmacology’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 44 (1970), 518–38 · PRS, 75 (1905), 51–2 · Transactions of the Epidemiological Society of London, 16 (1896–7), 289–93 · Journal of the Sanitary Institute, 17 (1896–7), 618 · BMJ (28 Nov 1896), 1612 · The Lancet (28 Nov 1896), 1575 · E. H. Ackerknecht, ‘Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson and the Jews’, Gesnerus, 45/3–4 (1988), 317–21 · DNB · private information (2008) [R. Christophers]


RCP Lond., corresp. and papers · Wellcome L., lecture notes |  UCL, letters to Sir Edwin Chadwick


S. Pearce, oils, 1865, NPG · group portrait, wood-engraving, 1875 (A group of starving and emaciated physicians lamenting their lack of work; after G. Du Maurier), Wellcome L. · G. Cruikshank, group portrait, wood-engraving (Lecture at the Charterhouse on Stephen Gray's discoveries in electricity), NPG; repro. in ILN (21 Feb 1874) · Lock & Whitfield, photograph, Wellcome L. · Lock & Whitfield, woodburytype photograph, NPG; repro. in T. Cooper, Men of mark: a gallery of contemporary portraits (1883) · group portrait, wood-engraving (Departure of the Arctic Searching Expedition; after photograph by Beard), NPG; repro. in ILN (1 May 1852) · photograph, repro. in G. B. Rushman, N. J. H. Davies, and R. S. Atkinson, A short history of anaesthesia (1996), 138, fig. 15.1

Wealth at death  

£8726 7s. 0d.: probate, 3 Feb 1897, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson (1828–1896): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/23544