Charles Thackrah Lecture Series

The Thackrah Lecture was endowed in 1981 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the School of Medicine and named after Charles Turner Thackrah (1795-1833) one of the founders of the Leeds School of Medicine and author of 'The Effects of Arts, Trades and Professions on Health and Longevity' which was first published in 1831 with a second edition in 1832. Significant contributions to the endowment were received from Marks and Spencer plc and from the Society of Occupational Medicine. The endowment was originally for a lecture dealing with the effect of occupation on health and longevity, but the scope has since been extended to include all significant and topical issues related to social and environmental influences on health and healthcare.

Since the endowment the lecture has been hosted at the University of Leeds on the following occasions:

  • 1983 Dr Keith P Duncan - The Necessary Skills of the Occupational Physician
  • 1985 Professor Ian Kennedy - The Gillick Case and its Repercussions
  • 1987 Mr David H Wilson - Seven and a Half Million Fingers: The Care of Hand Injuries in Leeds
  • 1989 Lady Masham - Able to Work
  • 1991 Professor Martin Gardner - Childhood Cancer near Nuclear Installations
  • 1995 Sir Richard Doll - Extremely Low Frequency Electromagnetic Fields: Do they constitute an occupational hazard
  • 1999 Dr Andy Slovak - The Quality of Inference
  • 2006 Professor Anne Chamberlain - Work, Disability and Rehabilitation: Making the Best Job of it
  • 2009 Professor Simon Wessely - Occupational exposures and health among combat forces
  • 2010 Professor Richard Wilkinson - 'The Spirit Level' - why more equal societies do better.
  • 2011 Professor Martin McKee - Health in an age of economic turmoil:what have we learned?
  • 2012 Professor Dame Sally Davies - Public Health now
  • 2013 Niall Dickson - Care Compassion and Treatment after Francis
  • 2014 Professor Anne Mills - The Challenges of Health Systems across the World: Shared Diagnoses, Differing Prescriptions?
  • 2015 Professor John Appleby - Spending on Healthcare; the next 50 years
  • 2016 Professor Jon Nicholl - The Value of Public Health Research
  • 2017 Prof David Gunnell - Are suicide rates a reliable indicator of population mental health?

 - Charles Turner Thackrah, LSA, MRCS Eng. (1795 - 1833)

Charles Turner Thackrah is known for two achievements, his pioneering work in the field of occupational medicine and as a founder member of the School, which opened on Tuesday 25 October 1831 in rooms at the Leeds Public Dispensary in North Street. 

In the UK in 1800 clinical training was limited to four hospital medical schools in London, in Dublin and at three Scottish universities. Thackrah, born in Leeds in 1795, was apprenticed at the General Infirmary, studied at Guys, and passed the examinations of the Royal College of Surgeons and of the Society of Apothecaries. He returned to Leeds and in 1817 was appointed the town’s surgeon.  This was less prestigious an appointment than at the Infirmary, where he had insufficient influence.  He was a distinguished investigator, publishing on the properties of blood in 1819 and contributing papers to scientific meetings. He became interested in teaching, taught the apprentices at the Infirmary and gave popular lectures on physiology and then set up a private School of Anatomy in his own home at 9, South Parade in 1826.

This led to conflict with the surgeons at the Infirmary and in 1827 he and Samuel Smith MRCS conducted an acrimonious debate in the pages of the Leeds newspapers. Eventually they became reconciled, probably over their joint concerns about child labour and injuries arising from the employment conditions of industries in and around Leeds.

New schools of medicine were being established in the growing industrial cities and by 1831 there were schools in Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield.  On 6 June that year a group of six surgeons and physicians of the Infirmary and the Dispensary, including Smith, resolved on the establishment of the School in Leeds. A deputation was sent to Thackrah inviting his cooperation, which he accepted.

There was civic support for the establishment of a school of medicine in Leeds and it opened four months later. Thackrah closed his School of Anatomy and during the next two years he delivered lectures on anatomy, physiology, pathology and surgery.

Thackrah is regarded as one of the founders of provincial medical education in England, but his reputation as the father of Occupational Medicine in the English speaking world is greater.  His whole career had been spent in Leeds and his work had brought him into contact with a wealth of clinical material arising from the working conditions of the different trades in Leeds, particularly the textile mills. Despite being dogged with ill-health throughout his life he brought forth the first edition of his work on industrial diseases in 1831. His book was a triumph and reprinted in America almost immediately. A larger and definitive edition entitled "The Effects of Arts, Trades and Professions and of civic states and habits of living on Health and Longevity with suggestions for removal of many of the agents which produce disease and shorten the duration of life" followed in 1832.

Its strength was its breadth of coverage of over 100 trades in Leeds at the time. He addressed, for example, postural deformities in child mill workers and dust diseases in miners. He made important recommendations for prevention and considered that ‘Thoughtlessness or apathy is the only obstacle to success (in the removal of injurious agents).’  Occupational Medicine as a discipline was established and his work contributed to the passing of the Factory Act 1833 which prohibited the employment of children under nine years old in the textile mills.

Thackrah died of tuberculosis in 1833, at the age of 38.  The first chief medical officer, Sir John Simon, in 1855 considered Thackrah’s contribution to preventive medicine as comparable to the work of Jenner on smallpox.

Thanks to Bill Mathie, Editor of Medicine Matters and author of the School of Medicine's 175th Anniversary brochure for the above text.

Additional sources

A. Meiklejohn, "Charles Turner Thackrah, The Effects of Arts, Trades and Professions on Health and Longevity, with an introductory essay on his life, work and times", E and S Livingstone, Edinburgh and London, 1957.

Hunter's Diseases of Occupations, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 9th Edition, 1999.