The Death of William Whitbread

Despite the emerging popularity of Eustachian tube catheterization in France—particularly supported with Deleau’s air douche—British aurists remained ambivalent about applying the procedure for deaf patients. In addition to his herbal remedies, Alexander Turnbull performed surgical procedures on his patients, including syringing, removal of obstructions with forceps, and Eustachian tube catheterization. According to aurist William Wright, part of Turnbull’s shift from herbal remedies to surgical procedures was nothing more than self-advertisement: “Dr. Turnbull appears tacitly to have abandoned his remedies of such wondrous power, which produced the “extraordinary exhibition” mentioned in the newspapers, or to have added it to the old system newly revived and modified, of passing an instrument through the nostrils into the eustachian tube.”

The summer of 1839, however, was particularly transformative not only for Turnbull’s practice, but for aural surgery as a specialist profession. On Thursday June 20, sixty-eight year old William Whitbread visited Turnbull’s practice for an operation to treat “excessive deafness” which he had been “for some time labouring.” Little is known about Whitbread other than that he had visited Turnbull on several occasions for a series of Eustachian tube catheterization. Newspapers reported that immediately following Turnbull’s operation, Whitbread “was attacked with a violet swelling in the throat, and though the utmost attention had been paid to him, he expired.” A coroner’s inquest was called, for any sudden or violent death required an investigation held by the coroner’s court, consisting of the elected coroner, jury of between twelve and twenty-three “good and lawful” men, and a team of medical experts. These inquests were usually held in public houses depending on the vicinity of the death, largely due to convenience.[1]

The investigation into Whitbread’s death proceeded on Monday June 24, at Carpenter Arms Public House in Hoxton, where Turnbull appeared before the coroner Mr. Baxter, a relative of Whitbread’s. Mr. Winkman, “a medical gentleman in the neighborhood,” conducted the postmortem examination and found that inflammation of the throat was not the direct cause of death. Death, Winkman reported, was produced by “an extensive inflammation of the brain, which, in his opinion, was occasioned by natural causes, and that neither the operation, nor the inflamation [sic] of the throat, had anything to do with it.” Based on eyewitness reports and Winkman’s conclusions, the jury returned a verdict of “Natural death by the visitation of God.”[2]

Since very little of coroner’s inquests prior to 1875 have survived, or have tremendous gaps in their records (e.g. do not contain witness depositions, or names), I’ve looked at various newspaper articles reporting on the case. This approach provides historical insight for my examination of the inquests against Turnbull. First, the frequency of reports in London’s daily newspapers reveals the amount of attention the case received and thus reveals into the public interplay between popular medical knowledge and understanding. Secondly, the type of details about Eustachian tube catheterization outlined in the newspapers shed light into how the procedure was understood by medical practitioners as well as laypersons, as well as the extent to which it was used as a surgical remedy for deafness.

The inquiry into Whitbread’s death created “considerable interest in the neighborhood,” but the brief newspaper clippings covering the case reveals few answers about how the public perceived catheterization or what their general perceptions of aural surgery or Turnbull were. Newspapers are an essential reference point into the daily lives of people, the expression of public opinion, and a force in itself that reacts to the lives it represents. Public encounters with medical and surgical procedures are thus revealed from the information absorbed through newspapers. The Whitbread inquest was reported in various newspapers, including The Morning Chronicle, The Charter, The Era, and The Times. For the most part, these papers merely reported details from the coroner’s inquest, quoting from witness depositions and information from the autopsy findings. But by no means were these newspapers simply mirroring debates that were taking place in the inquest room; as historians have argued, newspapers were part of the broader cultural process in which the social utility of news was being thought and re-evaluated. The investigation in particular, merited a small paragraph in the daily news section, with provocative headlines such as “Charge against a Physician,”[3] “Alleged death from Improper Surgical Treatment,”[4] “Death of a Patient whilst under Operation for Deafness,”[5] clearly designed to draw eyes towards the article.


To be continued…

[1] Ruth Richardson, “Coroner Wakley: Two Remarkable Eyewitness Accounts,” The Lancet 358 (2001): 2150-2154; 2150.

[2] As T. Forbes remarks, this explanation was used for 80% of accidental or sudden deaths during the first half of the nineteenth century in Middlesex, a “discouraging proof of the popularity of this all-encompassing and labor-saving formula.” See T. Forbes, “Coroners’ Inquests into the County of Middlesex, England, 1819-1842,” Journal of the History of Medicine 32 (1977): 375-394; 386.

[3] The Era, Sunday June 30, 1839, issue 40; The Charter, Sunday June 30, 1839, issue 23

[4] The Morning Chronicle Thursday June 27, 1839, issue 21713.

[5] The Chartist, Sunday June 30, 1839, issue 22.

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