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CHARLES BAGGE PLOWRIGHT M.D.: A VICTORIAN POLYMATH

The ON HER MAJESTY’S SERVICES cover was sent with a duplex MELBOURNE/ 10 S/ FE 16/ 92 and the VICTORIA obliterator was partially obscuring the DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE/ FRANK STAMP/ VICTORIA. It was sent to Dr. C.B. Plowright, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England. The sender was identified by the printed Department of Agriculture, Melbourne 16/ 2/92. The reverse was not seen (Figure 1).

Charles Bagge Plowright was born at King’s Lynn on 3 April 1849, and was apprenticed to Dr. John Lowe, Surgeon-Apothecary to the Prince of Wales and Surgeon to the West Norfolk and Lynn Hospital. Plowright became a pupil of that institution in 1868 and afterwards he studied at Anderson’s College in Glagow, and was a dresser under Professor Lister, who then was introducing the antiseptic system of treatment at the Royal Infirmary. Plowright took the diplomas of M.R.C.S. of England, and the L.R.C.P. of Edinburgh in 1870. After serving as house surgeon to the West Norfolk and Lynn Hospital, he settled in practice at King’s Lynn. He was appointed Medical Officer of Health for the Freebridge Lynn Rural District over 30 years ago, and in this capacity he did much excellent work: his reports were admirable, complete and suggestive. He was Surgeon to the West Norfolk and Lynn Hospital for many years, and was appointed Consulting Surgeon on ceasing to serve on the active staff. He was a magistrate for the borough of Lynn, and took a keen interest in education, being at one time a member of the Lynn Technical Education Committee, and a director, afterwards vice-chairman, of the Girls’ High School, as well as governor of the Lynn Grammar School. He had a high reputation as a skilful and careful surgeon, and had an extensive practice throughout West Norfolk, from which he only retired a few weeks ago.

It was however as an authority on fungi that he was best known; his reputation on this subject was, indeed, European. He was a corresponding member of tje Italian Cryptological and of the French Mycological Societies, as well as the Scottish Cryptological Society. He began the study of the subject as a boy of 14 or 15 years, and whilst still house surgeon published a treatise on Sphaericacei Britannici. At various times he contributed numerous papers on his favorite subject in the botanical and the medical press. From 1890 to 1894 he was Professor of Comparative Anatomy in the Royal College of Surgeons, and a report of his courses of lectures on the action of fungi on the human body was published in the British Medical Journal in 1893.

Plowright began by working on British field fungi, and in 1872 contributed to a list of 500 Norfolk fungi to the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society, of which he was subsequently President. Later on he studied the parasitic fungi producing disease in plants, a subject upon which he became an acknowledged authority. In 1891 he was the first to advocate the use in this country of Bordeaux Mixture against potato, then used extensively in France of mildew on vines and tomatoes. He was also much interested in archeology, and wrote papers on neolithic man in West Norfolk, on native dye plants used by our ancestors, on the archeology of woad and the process by which its blue colour was extracted, and the origin of the apothecaries’ symbols for the scruple, drachm and ounce. He made an interesting collection of neolithic and paleolithic implements, which he presented to the Lynn Museum.

A thoroughly competent and skilful practitioner of medicine, he brought to the study of his favourite department of science, a department that touches animal pathology at many points, the all important qualities of perseverance, exactness and insight. Dr. Plowright leaves a widow, a son who is now surgeon to the Weat Norfolk and Lynn Hospital, and a daughter who is the wife of Mr. T. Petch, mycologist to the Government of Ceylon. The funeral took place on April 27, 1910 at North Wooton Parish Churchyard.

This obituary was extracted from the British Medical Journal 7 May 1910 on pages 1149-1150, and a different and warm approach to Dr. Plowright was found written by his great grandson Dr. M C. Petch, a cardiologist at Cambridge, U.K. who described him as a Victorian Polymath (a person learned in many fields). I have directly extracted the following from his paper in the BMJ 18 April 1998 page 1221:

"His absorption in natural history provided a perfect counterbalance for his busy professional life, as when his diaries record the finding of new botanical species at the height of the outbreak of enteric fever. Most of his publications were concerned with the study of fungi. His lectures to the Royal College of Surgeons on ergot (BMJ 1892;i:500-1) and the action of fungi on the human body (BMJ 1893;i:304) were delivered when he was president of the British Mycological Society. His wide ranging interests also included Neolithic man in West Norfolk, and woad as a blue dye, both subjects of presentations to the Norfolk Naturalists Society and reprinted in their transactions (April 1881 and April 1900)."

"He was primarily a general practitioner, with additional roles as medical officer, physician, surgeon, and naturalist. In each role his diagnostic skills depended on a "seeing eye" and an inquiring mind; his writings demanded a descriptive and analytical talent; he recognised that the discipline of communicating his observations and thoughts to others enhanced his own pleasure and understanding. His life shows that a multiplicity of interests with cross fertilisation of ideas is a recipe for long lasting intellectual vigour."

"Like other Victorian polymaths, his personal life does not emerge in his writings, but he was both purchaser and provider of health care services, and I wonder how he managed. He was never rich, but when he decided to retire he doubled his fees, which he sent out at the end of each year. This had no effect on his practice so the following year he doubled them again, following which he was able to devote more time to his hobbies."

A truly remarkable man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
        
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