Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 10 April 2021

Adams, Josephfree

  • Jean Loudon

Adams, Joseph (1755x7–1818), physician, was the youngest of the three sons of Joseph Adams (1725?–1783), an apothecary in Basinghall Street, London. He was educated to succeed his father, studying in London under David Pitcairn and Percivall Pott at St Bartholomew's Hospital and Guy's Hospital; most importantly, he attended the lectures of John Hunter at St George's Hospital. Hunter became a lifelong influence for Adams, who showed him 'a partiality bordering on enthusiasm' (Uwins, 168). Adams worked in London as an apothecary, probably taking apprentices. In 1795 appeared what he and his contemporaries considered his most important work, Observations on Morbid Poisons (2nd rev. edn 1807). He divided poisons into two categories: those that were harmless to the host (for example, the venom of a snake) and those that were 'morbid' and carried a disease. In 1796 he bought an Aberdeen MD and in the same year was elected an extra-licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians, London. He was elected licentiate in 1809.

About 1796, at the suggestion of Dr Saunders (probably William Saunders), Adams and his wife, who had no children, travelled to Madeira, an island popular with consumptives. Adams practised there for eight years. While in Madeira he wrote on cancer of the breast (1801), and an account of leprosy and the lazaretto (1806), as well as more than one article or pamphlet about Madeira, presumably intended to attract patients. From 1801 until his death there is hardly a volume of the Medical and Physical Journal (London Medical and Physical Journal from 1815) that does not have a contribution from Adams. He obviously enjoyed writing: his style is clear, his meaning precise. Writing was also a way of bringing himself to the attention of his medical colleagues.

By 1805 Adams had returned to London. He was elected physician to the Smallpox Hospital as successor to William Woodville. He was also physician at the New Finsbury or Central Dispensary, an editor of the Medical and Physical Journal from 1808 to 1809, president of the Medical Society of London and the London Philosophical Society, and a fellow of the Linnean Society. Adams built up a substantial private practice and gave lectures, which included lectures on heredity, from his house in Hatton Garden. He never stopped writing, publishing articles and works on cowpox (1807), inoculation and vaccination (1807), Madeira (1808), epidemics (1809), and a memoir of John Hunter (1817, 2nd edn 1818). He divided diseases into endemic (those arising in secluded communities), epidemic (such as influenza), infectious (arising from confined air, or poverty), and contagious (such as smallpox, scarlet fever, and measles). Adams was in favour of vaccination rather than inoculation against smallpox. He concluded that plague and yellow fever were not contagious, because they were not invariably caught by those who came into contact with them.

Adams's A Treatise on the Supposed Hereditary Properties of Diseases (1814; 2nd edn with different title, 1815), the theoretical part of which attracted little contemporary attention, is now regarded as perhaps the first work setting out modern principles of genetic inheritance. A. G. Motulsky was the first (1959), followed by A. E. H. Emery (1989), to notice Adams's importance to genetics in that he distinguished between hereditary (dominant) and familial (recessive) disease, and defined congenital illness, both hereditary and non-hereditary. Emery wrote that Adams 'emphasised the role of inbreeding in producing clustering of certain inherited disorders' (founder effect), 'the occasional appearance of a disorder in only certain members of a family while others, who have affected descendants, remain healthy', and 'variable age at onset'; he also 'emphasised the importance of environmental factors in precipitating disease in certain genetic disorders; and finally, recommended the establishment of registers for the purpose of preventing genetic disease' (Emery, 116, 117). Adams's work was the result of reading, observation, and clinical experience, rather than scientific experiment. Adams himself said that heredity does 'not admit of experiment' (Adams, 10). He discussed earlier work at length, but made no reference to P. L. M. de Maupertuis, who in 1745 and 1752 had demonstrated the inheritance in one family of polydactyly (extra fingers or toes). Adams's reading was wide: he appeared to be at home with both Latin and Greek, and was familiar with contemporary medical writing. Among those who consulted Adams were Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Joanna Southcott.

Adams died at his home, 17 Hatton Garden, London, on 20 June 1818. He had broken his leg about two weeks before, was recovering well, but died suddenly from what was probably a pulmonary embolus; there was said to be a history of sudden death in his family. Writing a long and affectionate obituary, his good friend David Uwins clearly thought highly of Adams, but did notice his concern for reputation and dislike of criticism. Adams was buried at Bunhill Fields, London, with the motto (Vir justus et bonus'A just and good man') on his grave.


  • D. Uwins, London Medical Repository, 10 (1818), 167–70
  • A. E. H. Emery, ‘Joseph Adams (1756–1818)’, Journal of Medical Genetics, 26 (1989), 116–18
  • A. G. Motulsky, ‘Joseph Adams (1756–1818)’, AMA Archives of Internal Medicine, 104 (1959), 490–96
  • GM, 1st ser., 88/1 (1818), 638–9
  • J. Adams, A treatise on the supposed hereditary properties of diseases (1814)
  • B. Glass, ‘Maupertuis and the beginnings of genetics’, Quarterly Review of Biology, 22 (1947), 196–210
  • Monthly Gazette of Health, 3 (1818), 966–8
  • London Medical Journal, 4 (1784), 213 [obit. of father]
  • P. J. Wallis [and] R. V. Wallis, Eighteenth century medics, 2nd edn (1988)


  • engraving, RCS Eng.; repro. in Emery, ‘Joseph Adams’, 116
W. Munk, , 2 vols. (1861) 2nd edn, 3 vols. (1878)
Gentleman's Magazine