CHARLES WHITE MRCS, FRS, MLP (1728-1813)

 

plaque

Sign in King Street, Manchester

Charles White was the only son of Thomas White MD (1696-1776). He was born in Manchester and received his early education from the Rev. Radcliffe Russell. He was then trained by his father and subsequently studied medicine in London and Edinburgh. One of his fellow students and friends in London was John Hunter, later a celebrated surgeon and anatomist. Charles White then returned to Manchester to work with this father. In 1752, along with Joseph Bancroft, a merchant, he was instrumental in founding Manchester Infirmary. This was the first hospital in the area. The premises were a house in Garden Street but a new, purpose-built, hospital was opened overlooking what is now Picadilly Gardens in 1756. White was a surgeon at the infirmary for 28 years. An account of the founding of the Manchester Infirmary is given in Portrait of a Hospital by William Brockbank.

Charles White married Ann Bradshaw in 1757 and they had eight children. The published registers show that three sons were admitted to the Manchester School - Thomas White on 16 January 1771, Charles White on 18 January 1772 and John Bradshaw White in 1780. Thomas followed his father into medicine, studying in London and Edinburgh, and took the degree of MD.

White became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1761 and a member of the Corporation (now the Royal College) of Surgeons. In 1781 he took an active role in the foundation of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society and was one of its first Vice Presidents.

In 1783, he was one of the founders of the College of Arts and Sciences and he lectured there on anatomy. It is believed that these were the first such lectures outside London. In 1790, Charles White and his son Thomas, together with Edward and Richard Hall founded the Manchester Lying-in Hospital, now St. Mary's. Charles White was a consultant surgeon there for 21 years. The Whites and Halls had resigned from the Manchester Infirmary following a dispute which is outlined in the article on John Ferriar.

Charles White was prominent in medicine not only for his work in founding hospitals but also for advances in technique. He made a number of advances in surgery and was the first person to describe accurately 'white leg' in lying-in women. White was one of the first to stress the importance of good hygiene in childbirth to avoid the high mortality from child bed fever current at that time. His paper entitled Treatise on the Management of Pregnant and Lying-in Women published in 1773, was reprinted several times in England and also in Massachusetts and Leipzig. The book became a standard work on obstetrics. It was almost a hundred years before the existence and role of bacteria in disease was proved by Pasteur but White's views on the importance of hygiene were based on his own experience. His work anticipated that of Semmelweiss by more than half a century .

De Quincy, in his autobiography, described White as the most eminent surgeon by far in the north of England and commented on his collection of 300 anatomical specimens, which he gave to St Mary's Hospital. Most of the material was destroyed in a fire in 1847. White developed opthalmia in 1803 that led to blindness by 1812. He died at his country home at Sale Priory on 20 February 1813. There is a monument to him at the church of Ashton on Mersey.

A portrait of Charles White was painted by J. Allen and engraved by William Ward. A portrait by W. Tate is at the Manchester Infirmary where there is also a bust, presented by Charles Gordon in 1886.

I have made a transcription of Chapters 1 and VI of White's book The Treatment of Pregnant and Lying-In Women. These chapters deal with the puerperal fever. The document can be read with Adobe Acrobat Reader and forms part of my site on the History of Medicine.

Sources:

Dictionary of National Biography, which gives a full list of Charles White's publications.

Portrait of a Hospital: 1752-1948, by William Brockbank, Heinemann, London 1952. The book refers to an earlier work, A Short History of the Rise and Progress of the Manchester Royal Infirmary, by F. Renaud, Cornish, Manchester 1898.

Charles White of Manchester, (1728-1813) and The Arrest of Puerperal Fever, by J. George Adami, CBE MD FRS, Vice Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, published by Hoeber Inc. 1923

Manchester School Register, Vol. 1, 1730-1775, Chetham Soc. Vol. LXIX, pp. 164, 171, 1866.

There are portraits of Charles White and his father in Gregson's Fragments of Lancashire published in 1824 and a view of White's house in King Street, Manchester in Ralston's Manchester Views of 1823. Bancks's Manchester and Salford Directory published in 1800 shows Charles White's residence as 19 King Street.

Manchester & the Northwest Region of England, A Virtual Encyclopaedia of Greater Manchester in the Third Millennium, at http://www.manchester2002-uk.com/celebs/scientists1.html

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