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Thomas SYDENHAM was born in the year 1624, at Winford Eagle in Dorsetshire, where his father, William Sydenham, Esq. had a large fortune. Under whose care he was educated, or in what manner he passed his childhood, whether he made any early discoveries of a genius peculiarly adapted to the study of nature, or gave any presages of his future eminence in medicine, no information is to be obtained. We must therefore repress that curiosity which would naturally incline us to watch the first attempts of so vigorous a mind, to pursue it in its childish inquiries, and see it struggling with rustick prejudices, breaking on trifling occasions the shackles of credulity, and giving proofs, in its casual excursions that it was formed to shake off the yoke of prescription, and dispel the phantoms of hypothesis.
That the strength of Sydenham's understanding, the accuracy of his discernment, and ardour of his curiosity, might have been remarked from his infancy by a diligent observer, there is no reason to doubt. For there is no instance of any man, whose history has been minutely related, that did not in every part of life discover the same proportion of intellectual vigour; but it has been the lot of the greatest part of those who have excelled in science to be known only by their own writings, and to have left behind them no remembrance of their domestick life, or private transactions, or only such memorials of particular passages as are, on certain occasions, necessarily recorded in publick registers.
* Originally prefixed to the New Translation of Dr. Sydenham's Works, by John Swan, M. D. of Newcastle, in Staffordshire, 1742.
From these it is discovered, that at the age of eighteen, in 1642, he commenced a commoner of Magdalen Hall, in Oxford, where it is not probable that he continued long; for he informs us himself, that he was withheld from the university by the commencement of the war; nor is it known in what state of life he engaged, or where he resided during that long series of publick commotion. It is indeed reported that he had a commission in the king's army, but no particular account is given of his military conduct; nor are we told what rank he obtained when he entered into the army, or when, or on what occasion, he retired from it. It is, however, certain, that if ever he took
upon him the profession of arms, he spent but few years in the camp ; for in 1648 he obtained at Oxford the degree of bachelor of physick, for which, as some medicinal knowledge is necessary, it may be imagined that he spent some time in qualifying himself.
His application to the study of physick was, as he himself relates, produced by an accidental ac
quaintance with Dr. Cox, a physician eminent at that time in London, who in some sickness prescribed to his brother, and, attending him frequently on that occasion, inquired of him what profession he designed to follow. The young man answering that he was undetermined, the Doctor recommended physick to him, on what account, or with what arguments, it is not related ; but his persuasions were so effectual, that Sydenham determined to follow his advice, and retired to Oxford for leisure and opportunity to pursue his studies.
It is evident that this conversation must have happened before his promotion to any degree in physick, because he himself fixes it in the interval of his absence from the university; a circumstance which will enable us to confute
many relating to Dr. Sydenham, which have been confidently inculcated, and implicitly believed.
It is the general opinion that he was made a physician by accident and necessity, and Sir Richard Blackmore reports in plain terms [Preface to his Treatise on the Small-Pox], that he engaged in practice without any preparatory study, or previous knowledge, of the medicinal sciences; and affirms, that, when he was consulted by him what books he should read to qualify him for the same profession, he recommended Don Quixote.
That he recommended Don Quixote to Blackmore, we are not allowed to doubt; but the relater is hindered by that self-love which dazzles all mankind from discovering that he might intend a satire very different from a general censure of all the ancient and modern writers on medicine, since
he might perhaps mean, either seriously or in jest, to insinuate that Blackmore was not adapted by nature to the study of physick, and that, whether he should read Cervantes or Hippocrates, he would be equally unqualified for practice, and equally unsuccessful in it.
Whatsoever was his meaning, nothing is more evident than that it was a transient sally of an imagination warmed with gaiety, or the negligent effusion of a mind intent upon some other employment, and in haste to dismiss a troublesome intruder; for it is certain that Sydenham did not think it impossible to write usefully on medicine, because he has himself written upon it; and it is not probable that he carried his vanity so far, as to imagine that no man had ever acquired the same qualifications besides himself. He could not but know that he rather restored than invented most of his principles, and therefore could not but acknowledge the value of those writers whose doctrines he adopted and enforced.
That he engaged in the practice of physick without any acquaintance with the theory, or knowledge of the opinions or precepts of former writers, is undoubtedly false ; for he declares, that after he had, in pursuance of his conversation with Dr. Cox, determined upon the profession of physick, he applied himself in earnest to it, and spent several years in the university [aliquot annos in academica palæstra], before he began to practise in London,
Nor was he satisfied with the opportunities of knowledge which Oxford afforded, but travelled to Montpellier, as Desault relates [Dissertation on Consumptions], in quest of farther information; Montpellier being at that time the most celebrated school of physick : so far was Sydenham from any contempt of academical institutions, and so far from thinking it reasonable to learn physick by experiments alone, which must necessarily be made at the hazard of life.
What can be demanded beyond this by the most zealous advocate for regular education? What can be expected from the most cautious and most industrious student, than that he should dedicate several years to the rudiments of his art, and travel for further instructions from one university to another?
It is likewise a common opinion, that Sydenham was thirty years old before he formed his resolution of studying physick, for which I can discover no other foundation than one expression in his dedication to Dr. Mapletoft, which seems to have given rise to it by a gross misinterpretation ; for he only observes, that from his conversation with Dr. Cox to the publication of that treatise thirty years had intervened.
Whatever may have produced this notion, or how long soever it may have prevailed, it is now proved beyond controversy to be false, since it
appears that Sydenham, having been for some time absent from the university, returned to it in order to pursue his physical inquiries before he was twenty-four years old; for in 1648 he was admitted to the degree of bachelor of physick.
That such reports should be confidently spread, even among the contemporaries of the author to whom they relate, and obtain in a few years such credit as to require a regular confutation; that it should be imagined that the greatest physician of