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Dr George BODINGTON MD (1799-1882)

Dr George Bodington MD (1799-1882)
Dr George Bodington MD published in 1840 a revolutionary essay on the treatment and cure of pulmonary consumption in which he roundly condemned the current therapy and advocated instead fresh air in abundance, gentle exercise in the open, an adequate and varied diet and a minimum of medicaments. Violently attacked by reviewers he became discouraged about tuberculosis and devoted the remainder of his professional life to the care of the mentally ill.The life of Dr Bodington has been fully researched by Andrew MacFarlane and I am very much indebted to him for all the following text which is his summary of his research. The full story has been published by Sutton Coldfield Local History Research Group in 2013 and is obtainable from them.

George Bodington: Pioneer Physician
Treating TB and Mental Illness

George Bodington (1799–1882) is renowned in medical history as the first known physician to publish written evidence describing the successful treatment of Pulmonary Consumption (Tuberculosis of the lungs) by use of the Sanatorium/ fresh air method. After severe criticism, Bodington discontinued this work.1 However, by the end of the Nineteenth Century, due to the efforts of later physicians, the Sanatorium method had become the accepted treatment for TB until antibiotics came into general use. Bodington went on to build another pioneering career, providing skilled and humane care for mentally ill patients (known in those times as "lunatics").

Bodington came from a large, landed family and was born in Calverton, Buckinghamshire. He was educated at Magdalen College School, Oxford and decided at the age of 17 to become a physician.2 In those times, there were few formal medical schools and most students had to arrange their own training, normally watching and assisting practising physicians. Thus, from 1817, Bodington worked as apprentice to two surgeons, in Atherstone, Warwickshire and London to gain surgical and medical experience. In the early 1820s, he went St Bartholomew's Hospital, London. That great institution had not yet become a medical training school. Like other aspiring physicians, Bodington arranged his own training "on the job", assisting on the wards and, where possible, gaining knowledge at whatever meetings and lectures were available.3

By 1825, Bodington's only qualification was a Licence from the Society of Apothecaries, which allowed him to prepare and dispense medication.4 He opened his GP practice in Hillaries Road, Erdington (then in Warwickshire, now in Birmingham), and married Ann Fowler, daughter of a prosperous local family.

Bodington showed great interest in developing new ways of treating disease, which differed considerably from conventional practices. He was convinced that building up a patient's resistance and fostering well being was vital. To this end, he stressed the importance of building up the resistance and well being of patients. He recommended healthy, wholesome food, exercise, fresh air, and regular sleep. This went against age old beliefs among physicians who were fixated with using leeches, emetics, mercury-based medicines and other unpleasant "purgatives" to drain and purify the patient's blood and internal organs. Bodington knew that doctors were weakening and killing far more patients by these methods than they were curing.5

His place in history rests upon the application of these ideas to treat Tuberculosis (TB) by what later became universally known as the "Sanatorium Method", and which was adopted world-wide as the standard method of treatment until the advent of antibiotics.

First in Erdington, and from 1836 in Sutton Coldfield, Bodington treated at least six patients with TB. For seven years, he rented a house in Maney, Sutton Coldfield. Known as "The White House" this was the first known building used for specialist treatment of TB patients. (It was unfortunately demolished in the 1930s, to make way for shops and a cinema!).6 In 1840, Bodington published his now-famous Essay On the Treatment and Cure of Pulmonary Consumption, which was widely circulated and reviewed.

Title page of essay

Title Page of Bodington's Essay, 1840

Bodington described treating his patients in a cool environment, with plenty of fresh air and giving them a full and healthy diet, topped up with a relaxing glass of wine! These strategies contrasted with normal treatment within tightly closed, hot and stuffy rooms and fed only with a sparse, unappetising diet. Bodington followed up his treatment at night with sleeping drafts and sometimes more wine!7 From the start Bodington encouraged patients to take as much exercise as possible, building up from gentle movement to longer walks and riding in the open countryside. He wrote that patients should "live and breathe freely in the open air … the only gas fit for the lungs …" His first recorded patient (perhaps the first in the world known to have received the "fresh air / diet / exercise" treatment was a young tool-maker from Erdington. According to Bodington's Essay he came in a breathless and exhausted condition, expecting to die. After a healthy diet, port wine, exposure to the open air, sleep and daily exercise, he eventually returned to work. He was also taught to re-apply these "natural" treatments whenever his symptoms threatened to return.

White House

The White House, Maney, prior to demolition

Bodington claimed to have achieved other successes, including the cure of a "16 year old lady". He did not reveal that she was his wife's own niece, Hannah Fowler from Birches Green, Erdington. He treated at a very late stage after stern opposition from her (and his wife's!) family, who only relented when she was near to death. In 1902, she wrote (as Mrs E M) to a TB Physician in Switzerland, describing her treatment, praising her uncle for her cure, and claiming still to be very well 66 years later!8

As well as describing his treatments, Bodington advocated specialist facilities for TB patients, almost uncannily predicting the exact course that later generations would follow in the TB Sanatoria that existed from around the 1890s to the 1960s.

Regrettably, but perhaps understandably, Bodington received savage and hostile reviews in the medical press. He was accused of being an unknown and inexperienced country physician, without higher qualifications.9 His Essay was also described elsewhere as a poor and unwanted advertisement for his medical practice. Although he had pledged in the Essay to continue his treatment of TB, Bodington had totally given up TB treatment within three years. The "White House" was closed and Bodington even gave up his general practice. He does not seem to have given any reasons for his decision. Perhaps he felt humiliated and feared the loss of his reputation. Perhaps the flow of patients and income ceased. We do not know. His only mention of regret came in 1866 when he wrote to his son confessing that he wished he had "persevered more with the Consumption issue".10

There was one positive element. Despite the ridicule in England, Bodington submitted his Essay in 1843 to the University of Erlangen, Bavaria along with a money order for £20 and some excellent testimonials. His work was recognized by the award of his Doctorate in Medicine.11

Bodington's letter of application to the University of Erlangen, 1842 (University of Erlangen Archives)

Bodington's letter of application to the University of Erlangen, 1842
(University of Erlangen Archives)

Bodington's MD Certificate 1843 (University of Erlangen Archives)

Bodington's MD Certificate 1843
(University of Erlangen Archives)

Towards the end of his career, Bodington was also awarded a higher degree, the Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians, by Edinburgh University.12 Even while engaged in general practice, Bodington was already becoming very involved with care of the mentally ill known, without censure, in his times as Lunatics. He had purchased Driffold House Lunatic Asylum, Sutton Coldfield in 1836 and was building a new and demanding career devoted to the care of mentally ill people. This aspect of Bodington's life and work has been very sorely neglected by his biographers; even memorials in Sutton Coldfield and in Erdington, make very little mention of his 30 years work, treating the mentally-ill. Neither does his widely published Obituary.Bodington ran one of the only private asylums in Warwickshire, at a time when there was little expertise in treating people with mental illness. There was also much ignorance and even cruel abuse reported from numerous public and private asylums. It was unusual for the owner of an Asylum to make his family home on the premises, and also to be providing the medical supervision.13 There is evidence that Driffold House Asylum was a family business, with especial participation from Bodington's wife and daughters.14 Many private owners were often criticised as absentees, taking their fees and paying staff, who were often untrained, to provide unsatisfactory levels of "care". There are many recorded instances of abuses, and often brutality, in these situations.15

Driffold House in the 1880s

Driffold House in the 1880s

Typically, Bodington has left plenty of written evidence, showing that he provided exercise, stimulation and good food for his patients. He also made good use of the surrounding farm and parkland attached to Driffold House to enhance their treatment. Census information between 1841 and 1871, also confirms that he restricted the number of patients, below the approved levels, to ensure better care. His writings describe interesting and creative treatments and record some complete cures. There was, for example, a 59 year old lady who had "experienced horrors" in a large asylum that seemed to be a "place of punishment". She recovered at Driffold House and became "a sincerely attached friend to the female part of my family".16

Bodington also describes treatment of a very colourful character who became delusional after a wildly alcoholic visit to France. This man was convinced that enemies had followed him, and were trying to poison his food and drink. Bodington colourfully describes this "boisterous, joyous and somewhat domineering" patient. The man had become "thin, of a dirty, yellowish complexion, with an expression of anxiety and melancholy". He eventually used ingenious strategies, using the resources of his own attached farm and dairy, to gain Mr J's trust. He slowly resumed eating and drinking and remained under treatment for 15 months, before returning to his family.17

Bodington did not always escape criticism. In 1862, towards the end of his time running Driffold House, the national Commissioners in Lunacy praised the quality of care shown over many years but noted some flaws in the state of the accommodation. John Connolly, who was a great national reformer of mental health treatment, also praised Bodington for being "as kind and candid a man" as any in charge of the private asylum, but also went on to criticise his views. Connolly was leading a national campaign to abolish the use of physical restraint within asylums. He strongly attacked Bodington's written defence of "kindly" physical methods to deter violent patients from harming themselves and others. In the Asylum Journal he ridiculed Bodington's views, comparing the size of Driffold House with that of his own, vast Middlesex asylum. The attack was unfair, since Bodington did not favour the open and brutal suppression that Connolly was fighting against.18

Bodington retired in 1866, moving to a nearby house with his wife and daughters and passing the Asylum on to his eldest son. He did not seek a quiet retirement and devoted the rest of his life to local civic affairs. He had strong political views and even stood, very unsuccessfully, for Parliament in 1859.19 He had been appointed to the (non-elected) Warden and Society (Sutton Coldfield's traditional governing body) in 1848. He was Warden (Mayor) for two years.

Sutton Coldfield's former Moot Hall

Sutton Coldfield's former Moot Hall

A further page: A son of Dr George Bodington, Dr George Fowler Bodington (1829-1902).

Key to References:

  1. Richard J Cyriax: George Bodington 1799-1882 British Journal of Tuberculosis (April 1941)
  2. Bodington's Obituary British Medical Journal 15th March 1882
  3. Thomas Neville Bonner: Becoming a Physician. Medical Education in Britain France, Germany and the United States 1750-1945 1995
  4. University of Erlangen Archives, Germany: Biographical Information, including Bodington's degree application and supporting evidence
  5. George Bodington: Essay On the Treatment and Cure of Pulmonary Consumption 1840 (Accessible in Google Library)
  6. Richard J Cyriax see (1) above
  7. George Bodington: Essay … see (5) above
  8. A J Tucker-Wise MD: The Origins of the Modern Treatment of Pulmonary Consumption British Medical Journal 22nd February 1902, the 1841 Census (Aston) and information from A H Saxton Bygone Erdington 1928 p102
  9. Lancet Review of Bodington's Essay (5) above 11th July 1840
  10. Copy of 1866 Letter from George Bodington to his son George Fowler Bodington in Sutton Coldfield Reference Library Archives
  11. University of Erlangen Archives see (4) above
  12. Bodington's Obituary see (2) above
  13. William Parry-Jones The Trade in Lunacy: A Study of Private Madhouses in England and Wales….RKP 1972
  14. Census Returns for Sutton Coldfield 1841-1871
  15. Annual Reports of the Commissioners in Lunacy
  16. Lancet 11th September 1841
  17. Lancet 8th December 1838
  18. The Asylum Journal 15th November 1853
  19. Rev W K Riland-Bedford: P 55 History of Sutton Coldfield 1891
  20. Proceedings of the Sutton Coldfield Local History Research Group Vol 3 1994 Article by David Bramham
  21. Minutes of the Sutton Coldfield Warden and Society 2nd May 1881
  22. Birmingham Registry Office
  23. George Bodington's Obituary see (2) above

Important sources:

  • Richard J Cyriax: George Bodington 1799-1882 British Journal of Tuberculosis (April 1941).
  • Thomas Neville Bonner: Becoming a Physician. Medical Education in Britain France, Germany and the United States 1750-1945 1995.
  • Bodington's Letters in The Lancet and the British Medical Journal (see web sites, or University of Birmingham Library for details).
  • George Bodington: Essay On the Treatment and Cure of Pulmonary Consumption 1840 (Accessible in Google Library).
  • Rev W K Riland-Bedford: History of Sutton Coldfield 1891.
  • Minutes of Sutton Coldfield's Warden and Society 1836-1882 (Sutton Coldfield Reference Library Archives).
  • Census Returns for Sutton Coldfield 1841-1881.
  • William Parry-Jones The Trade in Lunacy: A Study of Private Madhouses in England and Wales….RKP 1972.
  • Annual Reports of the Commissioners in Lunacy 1848-1867.
  • University of Erlangen Archives, Germany: Biographical Information, including
  • Bodington's degree application and supporting evidence.
  • Bodington's Obituary British Medical Journal 15th March 1882.

Photographs by courtesy of Sutton Coldfield Reference Library Archives.

Text © Andrew MacFarlane 2013.
No unauthorised copying or publication.
All rights reserved.

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