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John Forbes (physician)

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Sir John Forbes FRCP FRS 17 December 1787 – 13 November 1861 was a distinguished Scottish physician, famous for his translation of the classic French medical text De L'Auscultation Mediate[1] by René Laennec, the inventor of the stethoscope He was physician to Queen Victoria 1841–61


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Publications
  • 3 Further reading
  • 4 References
  • 5 External links


Forbes was born on 17 December 1787 at Cuttlebrae, near Cullen, in the parish of Rathven, Banffshire, on the Moray Firth in North-East Scotland His elder brother Alexander is noted for having emigrated to Tepic, Mexico, and for writing the first English-language book on California history

To enlist as a surgeon in the Royal Navy, he proceeded to Edinburgh to obtain the Diploma of the College of Surgeons, passing the examination in February 1806 In 1807 he entered medical service as a temporary assistant surgeon Apart from a short period of retraining in naval medicine and surgery at Haslar Hospital in 1811, he spent his time at sea He was confirmed in the rank of full surgeon on 27 January 1809 After his career as a naval surgeon , Forbes then enrolled in the medical school at Edinburgh in 1816, aged 29 years Dedicated to his work, his Latin dissertation was accepted within a year, proceeding to MD Edin in August 1817

Dr Forbes moved to Penzance in September 1817 Between 1817 and 1822 he laid the foundations for his knowledge of the newly invented stethoscope of René Laennec 1781–1826, about the French physician's teaching on stethoscopy: De L'Auscultation Médiate 1819 Forbes translated this into English in four editions between 1821 and 1834 On 19 May 1820 Forbes married Eliza Mary Burgh 1787–1851 at Great Torrington, Devon He contributed papers to the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, of which he was secretary, and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1829 Dr Forbes and his wife moved to Chichester in 1822, where their only child, Alexander Clark Forbes, was born in 1824

In 1836, Forbes and Dr John Conolly started a new publication: the British and Foreign Medical Review, or, A Quarterly Journal of Practical Medicine,[2] for which they shared the editorship from 1836 to 1839 The Review was read widely in Europe and America, and helped to promote modern methods of treatment and enhancing the reputation of British medicine

On 15 October 1840, John Forbes resigned as senior physician at Chichester Infirmary and moved to London, taking up practice at 12 Old Burlington Street, Westminster This proved to be a turning point in his career He was assisted by schooldays friend, James Clark Clark had been created a baronet for his services to the young Queen Victoria 1819–1901, who had been enthroned in 1837 Forbes was appointed court physician to Prince Albert 1819–1861 and the royal household on 15 February 1841 The Scottish physician had now reached the peak of his career, and further honours followed: Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians was conferred on him in 1844 and honorary Fellowship of the Imperial Society of Physicians in Vienna in 1845

In 1852 he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law by the University of Oxford, and he was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1853 As Editor of the British & Foreign Medical Review, Forbes had written an article in his journal 1846, which was thought to be in favour of Homeopathy This clashed with the London medical establishment and contributed to the failure of his 'Review' in 1847

A final publication 'Of Nature and Art on the Cure of Disease' based on his favourite theme of the 'vis medicatrix naturae' appeared in 1857, second edition 1858 This emphasised that the practice of medicine should combine science with Art and set out his case for the healing powers of Nature Sir John's book was well received both at home and abroad After May 1860, when he resigned from the Comitia of the RCP Lond, his health declined to the point that he used a wheelchair He retired to live at the home of his son, Alexander Clark Forbes 1824–1901 in Whitchurch-on-Thames, where he died on 13 November 1861

In his Memorandums made in Ireland in the autumn of 1852, 1853 Forbes supported religious tolerance in Ireland


  • Forbes J 1821 A treatise on diseases of the chest in which they are described according to their anatomical characters, and there diagnosis established on a new principle by means of acoustic instruments London: T & G Underwood
  • Forbes J 1824 Original Cases with dissections and observations illustrating the use of the stethoscope and percussion in the diagnosis of diseases of the chest London: T & G Underwood
  • Forbes J 1835 A manual of select medical bibliography London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper
  • Forbes J 1834–1836 Sketch of the Medical Topography of the Hundred of Penwith, comprising the district of Landsend in Transactions of the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association, volume 2, pp 32–139 and volume 4, pp 152–261
  • Forbes J 1846 Ueber Sonnambulissmus, Hellsehen und thierschen Magnetismus, bearbeitet von A Hummel, Wien
  • Forbes J 1846 Homoeopathy, allopathy and “young physic” British and Foreign Medical Review, 225–265
  • Forbes J 1857 Of nature and art in the cure of disease London: John Churchill
  • Forbes J, Conolly J, Tweedie A 1832–35 Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper

Further reading

  • Laënnec RTH 1819 De L'Auscultation Médiate; ou, Traité du diagnostic des maladies des poumons et du Coeur, fondé sur ce moyen d’exploration 2 vols, Paris: Brosson et Chaudé
  • R A L Agnew, The Life of Sir John Forbes 2009 ISBN 978-0-9535670-7-2
  • R A L Agnew, Lightfoot Winds 2009 ISBN 978-1-904470-05-2


  1. ^  William Alexander Greenhill 1885–1900 "Forbes, John 1787-1861" Dictionary of National Biography London: Smith, Elder & Co 
  2. ^ Holdings: British and foreign medical review, National Library of Ireland Catalogue

External links

  • A detailed biography of Forbes at the James Lind Library

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