Thomas Beddoes: An Amalgamation of Science, Politics, and Philanthropy
By: William Nemetz, Michael Kamor, Caitlyn Arnold, Luke Derochers, Laura Roberts, and Michael Ehmann

Dr. Thomas Beddoes (1760-1808), Chemist, Physician, Philanthropist, political activist and
proponent of social and medical reform, who was the founder of the Pneumatic institution in Clifton, near Bristol, England which opened in 1798, is best known for his discovery of, and the Institution’s greatest contribution—his Protégé, Humphry Davy. Scholar Trevor H. Levere asserts “Davy’s appointment as a chemical superintendent of the Institution is well known; he…said to have been Beddoes’ greatest discovery …” (VII, 8). Dorothy A. Stansfield claims that Beddoes’ “… greatest achievement was..[being]… a catalyst”, and she also alleges that the Institution was “bound to fail and to survive only as a historical curiosity.”(174) Both scholars suggest that it was not the work of Beddoes that was at the heart of the Institution, but rather had the highly publicized Nitrous Oxide inhalation experiments never occurred at the Institution, Beddoes would be almost completely irrelevant. However, with further research and a more open-minded definition of success and significance, it is revealed that his true accomplishments lie in his fight for the creation of the Pneumatic Institute and pioneering of the new medical philosophy of Preventative medicine, the perseverance and strength to hold strong in his much less than popular political Jacobin and democratic associations and his entrance into the fray with his political writings, or even his persistence in research and reform in his and the institution’s decline at after the Davy years. Thomas Beddoes certainly found a gem in Davy, but Davy’s shadow often casts the rest of the life of his first employer, his scientific mentor and the institute’s original purpose, into darkness.

Preventative Medicine, Reform & Philanthropy

Illustration for Equipment from Beddoes' Considerations on the medicinal use of factitious airs

Thomas Beddoes’ Pneumatic Institute was unique for the period in its ideation and mission. The Institute was to offer something previously unheard of—preventative treatment and cures for common yet incurable diseases and free admission to all patients. In the Public Notice of it’s opening in the Bristol Gazette and Public Advertiser on March 21st, 1799, the article explained that “It is intended among other purposes for treating diseases, hitherto found incurable, upon a new plan” (Bristol Gazette). Some of those diseases included consumption, asthma, palsy, dropsy, obstinate venereal complaints, scrofula and King’s Evil, all of which had no certain cures at the time and were a plague upon the general public health. The revolutionary structure for the facility truly revolved around its need for the poor that it claimed to help. The Hotwells at Clifton had been a known as a last resort for those entering the late and final stages of consumption, so Beddoes thought that the steady stream of patients locally would be more than adequate to allow for the success of his research facility. Yet, this kind of medical care was very difficult to fund since most prominent physicians served the needs of those who could afford to pay a hefty sum for treatment from a professional. Beddoes was not only making progress in medicine and chemistry with the Pneumatic Institute but also in philanthropy and medical reform. However, this type of work, in reform and philanthropy, especially concerning the lower classes, had already been a cause that Beddoes supported and addressed in his popular works like “The History of Isaac Jenkins: and Sarah his wife, and their three childrenand “A Letter on Early Instruction, Especially that of the Poor.

The Pneumatic Institute truly exhibited its philanthropic mission through the types of diseases it aimed to cure and the type of revolutionary
treatment it offered, which was especially directed towards the curing of consumption. Consumption though, was a very widespread disease during the period, affecting not just the lower classes but rather all levels of the social ladder. Beddoes aimed to cure consumption with the use of preventative medicine and the revolutionary new discovery of pneumatic science. Trevor Levere writes, “Beddoes saw his responsibility as a physician as primarily one of preventing disease, which meant understanding and tackling its social, material, and physiological causes” (17). He was a pioneer in the medical field with his vision that prevention would be much cheaper than curing a disease. Beddoes foresaw that his patients go free of charge, so that the poorer classes could receive medical equality and to begin the transition of curing consumption by prevention instead of treatment.

The Pneumatic Institute acted as a spring-board for the career of Humphry Davy; however, it also succeeded in being one of the first established free research facilities in Brittan and truly served as a philanthropic icon to the medical world. Yet this philanthropy would come with the price of skepticism as many saw using the patients as research subjects in a new science was in some way wrong or cynical. This this would not be the only reason skepticism would plague the Pneumatic Institution; Beddoes political beliefs would serve as a much more volatile detraction to its health.

Politics & Reform

The Pneumatic Institute, Bristol

At the time Thomas Beddoes began conjuring up the idea for his Pneumatic Institute, there was much controversy to his fledgling concept as well as his well known political beliefs. Beddoes’ goal was to “offer free treatment to patients suffering from consumption, or from other diseases” (Levere VI) Since the Institute was to philanthropically donate its medical services to patients freely, Beddoes needed to acquire significant financial backing and support. Normally this would have been a task for an institution like the Royal Society, led by Sir Joseph Banks, but this was not to happen. Although many of Beddoes’ friends wrote to and plead for the support from the Society, Banks would not commit. The lack of commitment stemmed not only from Banks’ hesitancy at the usefulness and reality of Pneumatic medicine or an institute that would grant free care so as to have the subjects for trials, but the true negative driving source also stemmed from Beddoes’ liberal, democratic, Jacobin political views. These views lead him to become a known supporter for the French revolution and its ideologies. In Trevor Levere’s review of Beddoes’ work, he states that “Beddoes made public his detestation of the ‘Church and King’ riots, his sympathies with France, his admiration for French scientists and social scientists, and his opposition of the war” (Levere VI). In turn, Beddoes was investigated by the Home Office, but, instead of fleeing like Joseph Priestlyafter the riots, Beddoes continued to speak out through his writings. This had great impact on the Pneumatic Institution as Beddoes never would receive financial support from the Royal society.
Since Beddoes was unable to win the support of the Royal Society, he turned to the only other means to acquire the funds for operation: subscriptions that much like those for patrons of the arts, except they would donate their money to scientific endeavours. Many of these subscribers were friends and members of The Lunar Society—a group of which Beddoes was an influential part— that met regularly in Romantic England and contained members of similar political standing as well as strong educational background. With this in mind, the vitality of the institute rested in the arms of private donations. Additionally, an unexpected form of assistance came in the form of a letter that Beddoes sent to James Watt, the foremost engineer of his day. Beddoes wrote to Watt for assistance with engineering the devices that would produce the airs, and at the time Watt’s daughter was in the latter stages of consumption. Watt showed interest in any form of a cure that might save his daughter. Beddoes treated her with his pneumatic therapies, but she died soon after. This, however, did not deter watt; rather, it strengthened his resolve since he thought he had seen her relief in her suffering while on the pneumatics. Watt became a major contributor of the designs and layout of the apparatuses used in the Institute. It was support from prominent members of the Bristol and Middle England area and others who had ties to consumption that lead to the massing of enough subscriptions to make the Institute a reality.

The experiments and popularity of Sir Humphry Davy played a huge part in the Institution’s popularity, especially historically. It has been noted by such historians as Richard Holmes that, once Davy left the institute, its popularity dropped, and Beddoes was forced to change the Pneumatic Institute into a more traditional hospital.

The Pneumatic Institute After Davy

Although Beddoes’ brainchild that was the pneumatic institute ultimately failed its original task, the work that was done there was certainly not fruitless. While Beddoes did not receive the fame and respect of his protégé, it is important to recognize that Beddoes’ work was significant and did continue even after Davy left to take his position at the Royal Institute.

Davy’s work began to get recognized in the early 1800’s as he worked in galvanism in addition to pneumatics. In a letter to Davies Giddy in 1800, Davy states, "Galvanism I have found, by numerous experiments, to be a process purely chemical, and to depend wholly on the oxidation of metallic surfaces, having different degrees of electric conducting power.” Because of the respect he was gaining in the scientific community in addition to his correspondence with contacts within the Royal Institute in the 1800’s, Davy was offered the positions of Director of the Chemical Laboratory and Assistant Chemical Lecturer at the Royal Society (Paris 81).

When Davy left the Pneumatic Institute in 1801, some would argue that he took the Institute with him, a logical presumption considering that only a year would pass before it closed. Dorothy Stansfield argues, however, that Beddoes simply came to the realization that pneumatics was not the best way to treat various diseases and became interested in other medical methodologies. In his 1799 publication entitled “Essay on the Causes, Early Signs, and Prevention of Pulmonary Consumption”, Beddoes makes the statement, “…it becomes me to acknowledge that the very imperfect trials hitherto made of gasses and vapours, are far from having established any thing like a successful mode of treating consumption. (Beddoes 290)” Although Beddoes continued his work with pneumatics for a few years after the publication of “Essay on…Consumption”, the excerpt reveals that Beddoes had begun to question the legitimacy of pneumatics in curing diseases.
“An address of thanks from the faculty to the Right Hon. Mr Influenzy for his kind visit to the country”, Dr. Beddoes is among the physicians addressing Influenza

Ultimately Beddoes began to transition away from pneumatics and into preventive medicine and instructions for the poor. His book Hygeia, published in 1802, provides instructions for basic sanitation and disease prevention; Beddoes felt that the best way he could prevent disease was by educating the common people on the subject. This desire for educating the public on disease prevention led him to later publish “The Rules of the Medical Institution for the Sick and Drooping Poor” in 1804.

In 1802 Beddoes officially closed down the Pneumatic Institute and converted it into the Medical Preventive Institute. He continued to advocate the practice of preventive medicine by practicing at the Medical Preventive Institute and publishing works such as “The Rules…Drooping Poor” and “The Manual of Health”. Beddoes died in 1808, and, although his dreams of the Pneumatic Institute were never completely fulfilled, he still left his mark on the evolution of public health and disease prevention in England (Stansflield 175-197).


At the end of Beddoes’ life the Pneumatic Institute had not succeeded in the ways he had foreseen. He had not found a cure for consumption through the use of gases, he did not discover a practical application of nitrous oxide, and he never managed to achieve the respect or backing for the Institute from the Royal Society. Instead, Beddoes watched his own creation die; he wrote to Davy in a letter, “Like one who has scattered abroad the avena fatua of knowledge from which neither branch, nor blossom, nor fruit has resulted, I require the consolation of a friend.”beddoesportrait.jpg

Beddoes, like some scholars, perceived himself as a failure, as merely the stepping stone for young Humphry Davy, but Beddoes was a very accomplished man of his time. In politics, he withstood persecution for his beliefs and, instead of fleeing, defended himself and his beliefs through his prolific writings. In the field of medicine, Beddoes founded one of the first true medical research institutions for treating patients and managed to acquire the funding to offer the services at no cost to those who needed it in turn for their participation; he additionally advocated for medical reform in both the style of preventative medicine as well as a better system for maintaining the health of the poor through his writing and the foundation of the Preventive Medical Institute. Thomas Beddoes was much more than the discoverer of a single scientific man, but rather, a man whose wide range of medical, philosophical, reformational, and written accomplishments spanned his entire life.

Timeline of Beddoes' Publications



Thomas Beddoes

Memoirs of the life of Thomas Beddoes, with an analytical account of his writings- John Edmonds Stock
Published a few years after Thomas Beddoes’ death, this book is an attempt at conveying the character and opinions of Beddoes. The author provides extensive detailing about Beddoes’ life and includes a great deal of Beddoes’ own work within the biography. Much is dedicated to Beddoes’ scientific and medical career.

Hygeia or essays moral and medical on the causes affecting the personal state of our middling and affluent classes- Thomas Beddoes
This compilation of essays by Thomas Beddoes illustrates many of Beddoes’ ideas concerning people and medicine, chiefly the preventive stance he took in regards to the practice of medicine. This volume contains essays five through eight, which discuss topics such as principles for advanced age, indigestion, and a preventive regimen.

“The Many Worlds of Thomas Beddoes.”- Robert Fox
This is a short article published by the Royal Society that discusses celebrity of Thomas Beddoes and his impact on the scientific community during his lifetime and long after. The article focuses on Beddoes’ extensive influence in many different subjects and circles, from politics to experimental science and medicine. Robert Fox describes Beddoes as complex and paradoxical.

“Thomas Beddoes, M.D., 1760-1808.”- W. H. G. Armytage
Quick and to the point, this entry in the British Medical Journal provides a summary of Thomas Beddoes’ life and work, with a particular focus on his interest in education. The author also pays particular attention to Beddoes’ influences as a chemist and physician as well as referencing many of his publications.

Contributions to physical and medical knowledge, principally from the West of England- Thomas Beddoes
This book, compiled and edited by Thomas Beddoes, consists of essays and letters on significant medical discoveries and experiments of the time period. Beddoes begins the book with an introduction in which he emphasizes the need for an understanding of human nature in the practice of medicine as well as additional opinions about the improvement of medical care.


“The Disease of the Self: Representing Consumption, 1700-1830.”- Clark Lawlor and Akihito Suzuki
This article examines the disease of consumption in the light of its cultural influence and the metaphors, myths, and subjective experiences associated with it. The authors focus on consumption in 18th century Britain, particularly on the development of society’s perception of the disease. According to the authors, consumption was often romanticized during the time period.

A letter to Erasmus Darwin, M.D. on a new method of treating pulmonary consumption- Thomas Beddoes
This is a letter written by Thomas Beddoes to Dr. Erasmus Darwin in response to inquiries into Beddoes’ medical observations, experiments, and theories. Beddoes discusses his observation of two types of consumption, detailing the symptoms and theories about the causes. His suggestion for a new method of treatment includes the inhalation of a mixture of airs.

Observations on the medical and domestic management of the consumptive- Thomas Beddoes
In this book concerning the care of consumptive patients, Thomas Beddoes sets out to educate readers on the nature of the disease and best manner in which to care for those afflicted. Beddoes, a strong proponent for education, believes that proper knowledge about the disease is necessary for its eradication. He provides personal observations from dealing with cases of consumption.

Remarks on the frequency and fatality of different diseases, particularly on the progressive increase of consumption- William Woollcombe
This work contains statistical evaluation of common diseases of the time period, with a particular focus on consumption. The author wishes to precisely examine the prevalence of consumption and emphasizes the importance of the subject. In addition, the author studies the influence of the seasons on diseases and deaths. The book provides a great deal of data from a public dispensary.

“Diseases of the respiratory system.”- Anthony Seaton
This article published in the British Medical Journal provides a description of tuberculosis, previously termed consumption, in a more current context. Descriptions of tuberculosis as well as modern treatments for the disease are provided. This article brings to light the serious nature of the disease and the difficulty of modern treatment.

Political dissonance late 18th C. Britain

The Example of France a Warning to Britain- Arthur Young
This book, the work of A British farmer, is a compilation of essays on the subject of the French Revolution, particularly in its relation to Britain as a warning example. The author provides a factual explanation of the state of affairs in France at the time, an explication of the country’s wrongs, and an application of this example to the interests of Britain.

The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine or, Monthly Political and Literary Censor
An entirely editorial publication, this magazine consists of direct and open criticism of Jacobinism. The magazine relates a Jacobin faction in Britain to French revolutionaries and Irish traitors, referring to Jacobinism as poison. It provides reviews of Jacobin publications and claims to promote truth and social order by controlling Jacobin press.

“Political gout: dissolute patients, deceitful physicians, and other blue devils”- George Rousseau
This article published by The Royal Society concerns Thomas Beddoes’ radical nature. Examining Beddoes biographically, politically, philosophically, and in regards to his medical and scientific practices, the author emphasizes the opposition and controversy surrounding him, particularly concerning Sir Joseph Banks. The article also highlights Beddoes’ intense drive for social and medical reform.

Radicalism and Reform in Britain- J.R. Dinwiddy
A relatively recent examination of radicalism and reform in Britain during the time period of 1780 to 1850, this book dedicates a chapter to the idea of revolution in the 1790s. This chapter focuses a great deal on the Jacobins or patriots and their ideas of commonwealth, natural rights, republicanism, etc. The book provides a comprehensive detailing of political dissonance in Britain during the 18th century.

View of the causes and progress of the French Revolution-John Moore
Intended to be an impartial relation of the French Revolution, this book provides an extensive analysis of the causes, happenings, ideas, and people of the Revolution. The author intends for the work to be a cautionary tale for Britain, referring to the revolution as a terrible historical occurrence that must be understood in order to avoid a similar event for Britain.



Beddoes, Thomas. A letter to Erasmus Darwin, M.D. on a new method of treating pulmonary
spaceconsumption, and some other diseases hitherto found incurable. Bristol: Bulgin and Rosser, 1793. Web.

Beddoes, Thomas. Contributions to physical and medical knowledge, principally from the West of
spaceEngland. Bristol: Biggs and Cottle, 1799. Web.

Beddoes, Thomas. Hygeia or essays moral and medical on the causes affecting the personal state of our
spacemiddling and affluent classes. Bristol: J. Mills, 1802. Web.

Beddoes, Thomas. Observations on the medical and domestic management of the consumptive on the
spacepowers of digitalis purpurea and on the cure of schrophula. London: Biggs and Cottle, 1801. Web.

Beddoes, Thomas. Observations on the nature and cure of calculus, sea scurvy, consumption, catarrh, and fever, together with spaceconjectures upon several other subjects of physiology and pathology. London: J. Murray, 1793. Web.

Beddoes, Thomas. The history of Isaac Jenkins: and Sarah his wife, and their three children. Bristol:
spaceBulgin and Rosser, 1793. Web.

Beddoes, Thomas and Watt, James. Considerations on the medicinal use of factitious airs. Bristol: Bulgin
spaceand Rosser, 1794. Web.

Davy, Humphry. Researches, Chemical and Philosophical; Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, or
spaceDephlosticated Nitrous Air, and its Respiration. London: J. Johnson, 1800. Web.

Moore, John. View of the causes and progress of the French revolution. London: G. G. and J. Robinson,
space1795. Web.

Stock, John Edmonds. Memoirs of the life of Thomas Beddoes, with an analytical account of his writings.
spaceBristol: E. Bryan, 1811. Web.

Woollcombe, William. Remarks on the frequency and fatality of different diseases, particularly on the progressive increase of spaceconsumption. London: Longman, Hurst, Bees, and Orme, 1808. Web.

Young, Arthur. The Example of France a Warning to Britain .London: J. Rackham, 1793. Web.

”Letter to the Right Honourable Sir Joseph Banks, Bart. F. R. S. on the Causes of the prevailing
spaceDiscontent, Imperfections, and Abuses in Medicine From Thomas Beddoes M.D.” Edinburgh
spaceMedical and Surgical Journal 4.15 (1808): 378-385. Web.

The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine or, Monthly Political and Literary Censor July 1798. Web.


Armytage, W. H. G. “Thomas Beddoes, M.D., 1760-1808.” The British Medical Journal 1.5182 (1960):
_1358-1359. Web.

Dinwiddy, J.R. Radicalism and Reform in Britain. London: Hambledon Press, 1992. Web.

Fox, Robert. “The Many Worlds of Thomas Beddoes.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London
space63.3 (2009): 211-213. Web.

Gottlieb, Leon S. “Thomas Beddoes, M.D., and the Pneumatic Insitution at Clifton, 1798-1801.” Annals of
spaceInternal Medicine 63.3 (1965): 530. Web.

Lawlor, Clark and Suzuki, Akihito. “The Disease of the Self: Representing Consumption, 1700-1830.”
spaceBulletin of the History of Medicine 74.3 (2000): 458-494. Web.

Levere, Trevor H. “Dr. Thomas Beddoes and the Establishment of His Pneumatic Institution: A Tale of
spaceThree Presidents.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 32.1 (1977): 41-49. Web.

Levere, Trevor H. “Dr. Thomas Beddoes: Chemistry, Medicine, and the Perils of Democracy.” Notes and
spaceRecords of the Royal Society of London 63.3 (2009): 215-229. Web.

Levere, Trevor H. “Dr. Thomas Beddoes(1750-1808): Science and Medicine in Politics and Society.” The
spaceBritish Journal for the History of Science 17.2 (1984):187-204. Web.

Levere, Trevor H. and Miller, David Philip. “’Inhale it and See?’ The Collaboration between Thomas
spaceBeddoes and James Watt in Pneumatic Medicine.” AMBIX 55.1 (2008): 5-28. Web.

Paris, John Ayrton. The Life of Humphry Davy: Late President of the Royal Society and Foreign Associate
spaceof the Royal Institute of France. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831. 72-79. Print.

Rousseau, George. “Political gout: dissolute patients, deceitful physicians, and other blue devils.” Notes
spaceand Records of the Royal Society of London 63.3 (2009): 277-296. Web.

Seaton, Anthony. “Diseases of the respiratory system.” British Medical Journal 1.6114 (1978): 701-703.

Stansfield, Dorothy A. “Preventive Medicine.” Thomas Beddoes, M.D., 1760-1808: Chemist, Physician,
spaceDemocrat. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Pub., 1984. 175-197. Print.

Stansfield, Dorothy A. Rev. of Thomas Beddoes MD, 1760-1808, by Roy Porter. The British Journal for theHistory of Science Mar. space1986: 121-122. Web.

Stansfield, Dorothy A. and Stansfield, Ronald G. “Dr. Thomas Beddoes and James Watt: Preparatory
spaceWork 1794-96 for the Bristol Pneumatic Institute.” Medical History 30 (1986): 276-302. Web.

Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of national biography Volume 4. London: Smith, Elder, & Co, 1885. Web.


Beddoes, Thomas. “Illustration for equipment.” 1794. Web.

West, Temple. “Physicians expressing their thanks to influenza.” 1803. Web.

Roche, Sampson Towgood. "Thomas Beddoes." 1794. Web.