Family history: Was your ancestor a doctor?

The medical profession has changed out of all recognition since the 18th century and if you are searching for a relative who was once a doctor or medical professional, there are a number of useful sources to check which may lead you in an intriguing direction.

In the 18th century, only physicians were called MD, doctor, with the status of being a gentleman. They charged for their advice and remedies but did not dispense medicines. They were university educated in contrast to surgeons and apothecaries who were trained via apprenticeships. Surgeons did not give medicines to patients, instead they specialised in pulling teeth, lancing boils, blood-letting, and amputations. Apothecaries dispensed and sold medicines from a shop, charging for their medicines not their advice. There was ample opportunity for quacks. The turning point came with the passing of the Medical Act in 1858. This meant that in able to practise medicine, all qualified medical professions had to be listed in the new Medical Register, and also licensed by one of 19 licensing bodies.

If you are tracing a relative in the 19th century who you suspect worked in the medical professions in the UK, the two places to check are the Medical Register, from 1859, and the Medical Directory, from 1846. Both list full name, address and date qualifications attained, but include different additional information. It is worth checking both. The Medical Register was published by the General Medical Council and all practising medical professionals had to be registered in it. It states where each individual was registered. The Medical Directory was a non-compulsory commercial enterprise that is a useful source as it provides different information from the Medical Register, including additional posts held, lists of previous posts, and papers written for medical journals. However it was up to the individual to keep the entries on both directories updated, so be wary of misleading information. The Medical Register and the Medical Directory can be viewed in large city libraries and specialist archives such as the Wellcome Library. Selected records are also available online at Ancestry, The Genealogist and Family Relatives. Some editions can be viewed free on the Internet Archive.

If your ancestor was an army surgeon, check the Army List [from 1754] and Hart’s Army List [1839-1915] at the Internet Archive or Google Books. Read more about your medical ancestor’s service record at The National Archives. For naval surgeons, check the Navy List [from 1782] and the New Navy List [1841-1856], available at large reference libraries. Some editions are free online at the Internet Archive or Google Books.

If your ancestor worked in a hospital, check the staff records at the Hospital Records Database at The National Archives, and for Scotland look at Clinical Notes.

If your ancestor was a GP, try your local newspapers or at the British Newspaper Archive for mentions in obituaries, letters to the editor, inquests. Specialist medical journals are also worth checking for articles or letters written by your relative, obituaries or appointments. Search the British Medical Journal archive, back copies of The Lancet are held at the Wellcome Library.

If you know where your relative trained, trace the location of the medical college records by searching Discovery at The National Archives, or for Scotland check the Scottish Archive Network.

For information about apothecaries, check The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson [above], for example, was the first woman to gain a medical qualification in Britain. She created a medical school for women, having herself studied privately with physicians, finally obtaining her medical credentials via a loophole with the Society of Apothecaries.

This post is inspired by an article in the February 2018 issue of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ magazine. More details here.

If you want to read more about family history research, try these articles:-
The paternity question
Finding missing birth records
Was your relative a nurse?

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
Was your ancestor a doctor? #familyhistory https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3fq via SandraDanby