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John Elliotson—friend of Dickens, champion of mesmerism and vegetarianism

Dr John Elliotson (1791 - 1868 ), though attacked in his own time for his unconventional practices, would have thrived today as a go-to TV doctor on all things to do with alternative medicine. He was conventional enough as a medical student, but then went on to study phrenology, and afterwards introduced his friend Dickens to mesmerism, on which he became an acknowledged expert. Thackeray dedicated Pendennis to him and based his character Dr Goodenough in his last novel, The Adventures of Philip, on Elliotson. He was a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Physicians and the Royal Society, and was one of the first doctors to advocate the use of the stethoscope. Wilkie Collins called him ‘one of the greatest English physiologists’.  He was also, though the biographical sources don’t mention it, a firm fan of vegetarianism, which in mid Victorian England was still frowned on. In this undated letter, which was found in a collection of autographed material, Elliotson recommends to an unknown correspondent that his brother continue with his non-meat diet:

'He need not take fish--milk & all sorts of vegetable productions, offer dishes without end. Tell him to read the account of the meeting of the Vegetarian Society in the Daily News of this morning. I know members who eat no meat (excluding fish also) & drink neither wine … & are in the finest health. I would not wish him to eat fish if it disquiets him –but tell them one thousand good dishes (are) made from milk & vegetable matter…Bread & milk, custards, use arrowroot, sago, tapioca pudding, sweet omelettes, fruits of all kinds, in all ways.'

Despite being censured by many members of the medical community—and in particular Thomas Wakley, editor of The Lancet-- for his interest in mesmerism Elliotson persisted in championing the subject and even edited a magazine, The Zoist, which promoted the topic. He also founded a mesmeric hospital. [RR]

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