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Sir John Forbes, MD (1787 - 1861)

The next time your physician places a cold stethoscope to your chest, you can thank Sir John Forbes (1787 – 1861). While he did not invent this device, he was “instrumental” in promoting its use throughout the English-speaking world. 


John Forbes was born on 17 December 1787 at Cuttlebrae, near Cullen, in the parish of Rathven, Banffshire. He was the fourth son of local tenant farmer Alexander Forbes and Cicilia Wilkie. After attending the Rector’s class at Aberdeen Grammar School, he next entered the Arts course of Marischal College, Aberdeen. He attended classes between 1803 and 1805 but there is no record that he ever graduated from the University.  He was apprenticed to two general practitioners in Banff and obtained his diploma of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh in February 1806. He served in the Royal Navy as a surgeon between 1807 and 1816, during the latter part of the Napoleonic Wars. After his discharge, Forbes went back to school and secured his MD from the University of Edinburgh in August 1817.

Forbes acquired an early model of the newly invented stethoscope of René Laënnec (1781-1826) in 1718. He translated into English the French physician’s teaching in his classical work De L’Auscultation Médiate (1819). His translation of A treatise on diseases of the chest (1821) was a great success and was instrumental in spreading Laënnec’s teachings to the English-speaking world. Forbes conducted his own innovative medical work which he reported in his own Original cases with dissections and observations illustrating the use of the stethoscope and percussion in the diagnosis of diseases of the chest (1824). Forbes described thirty-nine of his patients, in whom the vital physical signs were verified by autopsy in fatal cases. Forbes was recognized for these and other writings when he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1829.


In 1820, Forbes married Eliza Mary Burgh (1787-1851) at Great Torrington, Devon, and moved to Chichester in 1822. Primarily due to Forbes’ fund-raising, the old Chichester Public Dispensary was replaced by a modern infirmary building, which opened for patients in 1826. This became the Royal West Sussex Hospital in 1913. Forbes combined private medical practice with his hospital work at the new Chichester Infirmary over fourteen years. In collaboration with Dr John Conolly  (1794-1866) and Alexander Tweedie (1794-1884), Forbes launched a Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine in four volumes (Forbes et al. 1832-35). The Cyclopaedia was a popular forum for the best medical writers in the British Isles and made a handsome profit when it was sold in 1835. In 1836, Forbes and Conolly started a new publication in 1836: the British and Foreign Medical Review, or, A Quarterly Journal of Practical Medicine. They shared the editorship from 1836 to 1839, when Conolly resigned to work full-time in psychiatry. 

In 1840, John Forbes resigned as senior physician at Chichester Infirmary in order to take up residence at 12 Old Burlington Street, Westminster.  On 15 February 1841, Forbes was appointed court physician to Prince Albert (1819-1861) and the royal household – post that he held until his death in 1861. He was honored with a Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians in 1844 and an honorary fellowship of the Imperial Society of Physicians in Vienna in 1845. In 1852, the University of Oxford conferred on Forbes an honorary degree of Doctor in Civil Law and, in 1853, he was knighted by Queen Victoria. His success in these years was marred by the chronic ill-health of his wife Eliza, who died in 1851. 


He was a prolific letter-writer, corresponding among others with Sir Robert Peel, Sir Walter Scott and, towards the end of his life, with Florence Nightingale. In 1859, after suffering several minor strokes, Forbes retired with his brother, Alexander, to live at the home of his son, Swanston House, in Whitchurch-on-Thames. Sir John Forbes died in 1861 and was buried in St. Mary’s churchyard, Whitchurch.  His obituary in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (1862-63) noted that: “Although Sir John Forbes cannot be ranked among those who have advanced the science of medicine by the discovery of new facts or the promulgation of new principles, he must be regarded as having done most essential service to the cause of progress… by the determined onslaught which he made upon prevalent errors, and the vigorous earnestness with which he pleaded for generally-neglected truths.”


For more information, see The Life of Sir John Forbes (1787 – 1861), by Dr. Robin A. L. Agnew, 2002.