Charles Turner Thackrah is known for his pioneering work in the field of occupational medicine and as a founder member of the Leeds School of Medicine.
In 19th century England, clinical training was limited to four hospital medical schools in London, in Dublin and at three Scottish universities. Thackrah, born in Leeds in 1795, was apprenticed at the General Infirmary and studied at Guys. He passed the examinations of the Royal College of Surgeons and of the Society of Apothecaries at age 20. He returned to Leeds and in 1817 was appointed the town’s surgeon. This was less prestigious an appointment than he might have hoped, giving him little influence at the Infirmary. He was a distinguished investigator, publishing on the properties of blood in 1819 and contributing papers to scientific meetings. He became interested in teaching, taught the apprentices at the Infirmary and gave popular lectures on physiology. He eventually set up a private School of Anatomy in his own home in 1826.
This led to conflict with the surgeons at the Infirmary; in 1827 he and Samuel Smith MRCS conducted an acrimonious debate in the pages of the Leeds newspapers. Eventually they became reconciled, probably over their joint concerns about child labour and the injuries arising from industrial working conditions in and around Leeds.
New schools of medicine were being established in the growing industrial cities; by 1831 there were schools in Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield. On the 6th of June that year, a group of six surgeons and physicians of the Infirmary and the Dispensary, including Smith, resolved on the establishment of the School in Leeds. A deputation was sent to Thackrah inviting his cooperation, which he accepted.
There was civic support behind the establishment of a school of medicine in Leeds and it opened four months later. Thackrah closed his School of Anatomy and during the next two years he delivered lectures on anatomy, physiology, pathology and surgery.
Thackrah’s reputation as one of the founders of English provincial medical education is surpassed only by his reputation as father of Occupational Medicine in the English-speaking world. His whole career had been spent in Leeds. His work brought him into contact with a wealth of clinical material arising from the working conditions of the different trades in Leeds, particularly the textile mills. Despite being dogged with ill-health, he brought forth the first edition of his work on industrial diseases in 1831. His book was a triumph and reprinted in America almost immediately. A larger and definitive edition followed in 1832, entitled ‘The Effects of Arts, Trades and Professions and of civic states and habits of living on Health and Longevity with suggestions for removal of many of the agents which produce disease and shorten the duration of life’.
The book’s strength was its breadth of coverage of over 100 trades in Leeds at the time. In it he addressed, for example, postural deformities in child mill workers and dust diseases in miners. He made important recommendations for prevention and considered that ‘Thoughtlessness or apathy is the only obstacle to success (in the removal of injurious agents).’ Occupational Medicine as a discipline was established as a result. His work contributed to the passing of the Factory Act 1833, which prohibited the employment of children under nine years old in the textile mills.
Thackrah died of tuberculosis in 1833, at the age of 38. The first chief medical officer in 1855, Sir John Simon, considered Thackrah’s contribution to preventive medicine as comparable to the work of Jenner on smallpox.
A. Meiklejohn, Charles Turner Thackrah, The Effects of Arts, Trades and Professions on Health and Longevity, with an introductory essay on his life, work and times, E and S Livingstone, Edinburgh and London, 1957
Hunter's Diseases of Occupations, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 9th Edition, 1999