The Pretensions of Dr. Turnbull

I wrote about Dr. Alexander Turnbull (c. 1794-1881) in a previous post discussing his advertisements for deafness, particularly the use of veratria as a catch-all cure. Even though nearly all medical practitioners of the nineteenth century advertised in one form or another, Turnbull was especially prolific in advertising his cures and remedies, and often supplemented his advertisements with glowing testimonials from his patients. In fact, he even published a short book, Report of Facts Narrating Recoveries of the Deaf and Dumb in 1840, 1841, and 1848 (2nd edition, London: Printed by William Cathrall, 1840), which was printed for private distribution only, and contains pages and pages of testimonials and reviews of his cures as printed/advertised in a variety of periodicals!

Turnbull has also—perhaps notoriously—been the subject of a few highly publicized medical cases. One of my dissertation chapters chronicles Turnbull’s role in the death of two of his patients: during the week of June 23, 1839, sixty-eight year old William Whitbread and eighteen-year old Joseph Hall died within a few days of each other, supposedly due to negligence by misapplication of Eustachian tube catheterization, a procedure involving the insertion of a probe through the nostrils. The cases were spread throughout London’s newspapers, addressing the charges made against Turnbull through the coroner’s inquires, with plenty of citizens and medical practitioners expressing interest and voicing their varied opinions. I’ll write a more detailed post about these inquiries because they’re a fascinating case study not only into the state of medical coronership in nineteenth century London, but because they showcase the evolving nature of aural surgery as a specialized surgical field.

Tracing the background of a historical figure is often difficult when sources are scarce. This is why I’m grateful to a generous reader of this blog for sharing some verified information about Turnbull. He was born in Scotland in 1796 and received his medical diploma in 1821, married in 1820 to Jane Graham and eventually had six children. He also practiced in various places: Carlisle, Hull, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, and even Charleston, touring the states in the 1850s.

There are numerous newspaper articles highlighting Turnbull’s miraculous cures for restoring not only hearing, but also sight; at the same time, they also drew attention to some of the scandals surrounding his practice. In 1854, a pamphlet was published in Charleston titled The Pretensions of Dr. Alexander Turnbull, to Cure Deaf-Dumbness and All Diseases of the Eye and Ear, by simple and painless processes.


The short publication was intended to

answer to numerous inquiries which have been made concerning the scientific attainments of Dr. Turnbull; and, also, to correct the erroneous impressions which have gone abroad through the medium of the public prints, we undertake an exposition of his career; in doing which, we are deviating from our accustomed course, and giving undeserved importance to one who would not otherwise have occupied our attention. The unblushing assumption of this person to perform impossibilities, and the rumours of his pretended cures, have so impressed the minds of the credulous, that it becomes our duty to warn our readers, who may have friends or patients laboring under diseases of the eye or ear, from crediting the recommendatory advertisements which have been in circulation, respecting his “simple and painless processes,” by which diseases hitherto beyond the resources of art are speedily and permanently cured.

This publication was in part directed to parents of deaf-mutes, who hoped their children “would be resorted to their healthful use of their dormant faculties,” but it also served to debunk the “miracles” that were credited to the aurist. It’s remarkable how much of Turnbull’s practice has been narrated in these short pages, but it does reveal the extent to which Turnbull used newspapers and other periodicals in various cities to highlight his own skills and services for the public. As the writer of this periodical puts it,

But it is only to the public, and not to the profession, that Dr. Turnbull makes these pretensions—implying that he can do what no other mere man can do. If the power of giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the dumb, was imparted to only ONE, who was more than man, then such power was miraculous, and cannot be arrogated by any erring mortal.

Latest Comments

  1. Iain Hutchison says:

    Another interesting post, Jaipreet. Do you have any information on him while he was practising in Glasgow? In the first quote, line 3, you might wish to change ‘pubic prints’ to ‘public prints’!

    Best wishes and a happy new year to you,



    • Jai Virdi says:

      Happy new year Iain! I caught the error as soon right before I read your comment–thanks!

      As for Turnbull’s practice in Glasgow, I’m still researching. I know he was the subject of some scandal/investigation over aspects of his recommended treatment at the Glasgow Institute of the Deaf and Dumb sometime in the 1840s (he fled to Glasgow after a scandal in London in 1839). That’s as far as I’ve gotten!


  2. John Theakstone says:

    Turnbull’s daughters Jane and Marion visited America between December 1852 and July 1857, going to join their father. Their book ‘American Photographs: Travels” was published in 1859. See ‘Victorian & Edwardian Women Travellers. A biographical bibliography of books published in English’ second edition (Martino Publishing) 2010


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