Allbutt, Sir (Thomas) Clifford (1836–1925), physician
by H. D. Rolleston, rev. Alexander G. Bearn

Allbutt, Sir (Thomas) Clifford (1836–1925), physician, born at Dewsbury, Yorkshire, on 20 July 1836, was the only son of the Revd Thomas Allbutt, vicar of Dewsbury, and his wife, Marianne, daughter of Robert Wooler, of Dewsbury. Allbutt was sent to St Peter's School, York, from where he entered Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in 1855; he gained a classical scholarship there a year later. Profoundly influenced by his reading of Auguste Comte's works on positivism, he turned from studying the classics to medicine. In 1860 he obtained a first-class degree (the only one of the year) in the natural sciences tripos, with distinction in chemistry and geology. After studying medicine at St George's Hospital, London, and taking the Cambridge MB degree in 1861, he went to Paris and attended the clinics of Armand Trousseau, G. B. A. Duchenne, Bazin, and Hardy.

Allbutt's active professional life falls into three periods: from 1861 to 1889 he was an extremely successful consulting physician in Leeds; from 1889 to 1892 he was a commissioner in lunacy in London; and for the remainder of his long life he was regius professor of physic at Cambridge. At Leeds he utilized the early lean years in wide reading, writing medical essays, and pursuing clinical work at the fever hospital, the general infirmary, where he was physician from 1864 to 1884, and the West Riding asylum. During 1865 and 1866 he treated victims of an outbreak of typhus fever by open-air methods, a management which he later advocated for consumption.

During his time at Leeds, Allbutt invented a short clinical thermometer, greatly facilitating the routine taking of temperatures. The early thermometers had been extremely cumbersome, approximately 25 centimetres in length, and taking 20–25 minutes to register, whether placed in the mouth or axilla. In 1870 Allbutt wrote an extensive review entitled Medical Thermometry, in which he outlined the history of thermometry and described his own contribution to it: a thermometer approximately 6 inches in length that, as he put it, ‘Could live habitually in my pocket, and have as constantly with me as a stethoscope’. His version of the thermometer, devised in 1867, was quickly adopted elsewhere. In 1871 Allbutt also wrote a pioneering monograph on the use of the ophthalmoscope in nervous and other diseases, and he contributed equally significant papers on syphilitic disease of the cerebral arteries (1868), the effect of strain on the heart (1870, 1873), and anxiety as a cause of kidney disease (1876). He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1880, and, in addition, he initiated and encouraged the practice of consultation between medical witnesses before the hearing of legal cases. He delivered the Goulstonian lectures entitled ‘Chapters on visceral neuroses’ at the Royal College of Physicians in 1884, and in 1885 he introduced the surgical treatment of tuberculous glands in the neck. In an address at Glasgow in 1888 he began pleading for the study of comparative medicine, believing that a great deal could be learned by observing the physiology and diseases of animals, and that information gained thereby could often be applied to human medicine. Allbutt had the gratification of seeing a professorship of comparative medicine established at Cambridge in 1923.

The fatigue of consulting practice prompted Allbutt to move to London, to accept a commissionership in lunacy, in 1889. In London he greatly enjoyed the company of the literary and artistic lions of the day. However, in 1892 he was appointed regius professor of physic at Cambridge, though being the first regius professor not previously a resident in Cambridge he did not obtain a footing in Addenbrooke's Hospital until 1900.

Probably Allbutt's greatest service to contemporary medicine was his System of Medicine in eight volumes (1896–1899), which went into a second edition in eleven volumes (1905–1911). His most outstanding scientific contributions to medicine were his descriptions in 1895 of hyperpiesia or high blood pressure in the absence of kidney disease. In his time he was equally known for his paper in 1894 on the aortic origin of angina pectoris, and he stubbornly held to his views on the subject despite increasing evidence to the contrary. He gave numerous addresses and in his eightieth year he published Diseases of the Arteries and Angina Pectoris (1915), an encyclopaedic but not lasting volume, of only modest consequence; six years later, in 1921, he published Greek Medicine in Rome. These essays were widely acclaimed and can be read with advantage today. His scholarly and meticulous care in the use of words was shown in his Notes on the Composition of Scientific Papers (1904; 3rd edn, 1923), an enduring and still useful volume, if somewhat dated.

Allbutt was married to Susan, daughter of Thomas England, merchant, of Headingley, Leeds, on 15 September 1869. They had no children. He was created KCB in 1907. He was president of the British Medical Association in 1920 and in the same year was admitted a member of the privy council, a rare if not unique honour for a practising physician. There is good evidence that George Eliot drew on him, in part at least, for the character of Lydgate in Middlemarch (1872). A serious, somewhat humourless man, Allbutt died suddenly on 22 February 1925 at his home, St Radegunds, 5 Chaucer Road, Cambridge; he was buried in the nearby churchyard at Trumpington.



H. D. Rolleston, The Right Honorable Sir Thomas Clifford Allbutt KCB: a memoir (1929) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. · personal knowledge (1937)


BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MS 55248 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Viscount Addison · King's AC Cam., letters to Oscar Browning


W. Orpen, oils, 1919–20, U. Cam., medical school library; on loan from FM Cam. [see illus.] · M. G. Gillick, bronze relief plaque, 1928, U. Cam., department of medicine · J. Russell & Sons, photograph, NPG · mezzotint (after W. Orpen) · photograph, Wellcome L.

Wealth at death  

£56,963 14s. 7d.: probate, 24 April 1925, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Sir (Thomas) Clifford Allbutt (1836–1925): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/30382