West Sussex History of Medicine Society


The Chichester Clinical Society

The last Chichester Clinical Society meeting was held on Tuesday 12th May 1998 after that meeting the Society became dormant.  However it was the inspiration for the formation of the West Sussex History of Medicine Society (WSHOMS).

Dr Brian Owen-Smith addressed the society on Benjamin Franklin and the bones of 36 Craven Street.

Benjamin Franklin lived at 36 Craven Street in London for 18 years between 1757 and 1775.  The house was under restoration when Brian spoke to us and had been headline news in January 1998 when the bones of 10 bodies were discovered in the basement.  These were surgical bones including a skull with 3 trephine holes.

Brian recounted that two years previously in 1996, on a sunny Sunday, he had set off from home for a walk with his dog, Penny, who had led him to a car boot sale.  There he happened upon a paperback edition of an autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.  The following day he was called in to St Richard’s Hospital to see a patient with a head injury.  It transpired that the patient was a 40 year old American, the Chief Executive of the Benjamin Franklin House Foundation.  He passed through the rehabilitation unit at Donald Wilson House making a good recovery but tragically suffered a complete loss of speech.  Some time later, Brian received a telephone call from the Countess of Bessborough, a member of the Benjamin Franklin House Foundation, telling him that she was having problems sleeping due to the fact that she had been notified that bones had been found in the basement of 36 Craven Street.

Brian had become very interested in Benjamin Franklin  who was one of the fathers of the American constitution who became an agent for the American Colonies and a fellow of the Royal Society.  Brian found 36 Craven Street was the last remaining residence occupied by  Benjamin Franklin.  He came to England in 1757 and lodged at 36 Craven Street where his landlady was a Margaret Stephenson who had a daughter Mary known as Polly.  She was 18 and Franklin felt that she would  make a good match for his illegitimate son, William, but unfortunately Polly had other ideas and married a Dr Hewson, a partner of the anatomist, William Hunter.  Hewson founded an anatomy school at 36 Craven Street but, unfortunately, died 3 years later from a dissecting injury.  During that time Polly had borne him 3 children.  The school was passed on to a Dr Magnus Faulkner who died from TB 4 years after taking over the tenancy of the school.

To return to Brian’s involvement with Craven Street.  On receiving the telephone call from The Countess Bessborough, he contacted the Southwark coroner regarding access to 36 Craven Street and its bones.  He went up to London without delay and became involved in excavating the contents of the cellar at 36 Craven Street.  Brian showed us a very enthralling video and slides demonstrating particularly his unique archeological technique.  Apparently most professionals use nothing larger than a nail file but Brian quite naturally fell into a two handed technique which is quick, efficient and reveals instant rewards.

In the 1750’s Hungerford market was very close to Craven Street which was situated in the vicinity of Charing Cross and Villiers Street near to The Royal Society.

Brian embarked on a wonderfully colourful sketch of the many medical celebrities who were associated with Benjamin Franklin during his residence at Craven Street.  William Hewson was the son of a surgeon and a student of John and William Hunter. In fact he showed such promise that William Hunter advised him to go up to Edinburgh to study under Munroe.  John Hunter left his brother William at his anatomy school and went off to study abroad.  Hewson returned from Edinburgh to take his place and carried out pioneering work on the lymphatic system in monkfish by the injection  of mercury.  He also become interested in haematology and eventually became a fellow of The Royal Society.

As well as famous medical men such as William Heberden and Sir John Pringle, Surgeon General to the Army, Franklin also attracted the company of politicians such as William Pitt.

Brian embellished his account of Franklin with a quick romp around the medical personalities  of the mid to late 18th century and gave a very colourful account of the study of anatomy at that time.

The outcome of Franklin’s involvement with medicine thoughout his years at Craven Street was that with his friend, the quaker Dr John Fothergill, he monitored American medical students who went on to found the famous medical schools in Philadelphia, New York and Harvard.

Brian Owen-Smith was still the Immediate Past-Chairman of WSHOMS in 2013 when it was decided to incorporate the dormant Chichester Clinical Society into the West Sussex  History of Medicine Society.