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Sydenham, Thomas

1. Dates
Born: Wynford Eagle, near Dorchester, Dorset, early Sept. 1624. He was baptized on 10 Sept.
Died: London, 29 Dec. 1689
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 65
2. Father
Occupation: Gentry
William Sydenham, descended from an ancient family of prominence, was a Dorset squire.
Clearly prosperous at the least. Thomas Sydenham went to Oxford as a fellow commoner.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Oxford
Entered Magdalen Hall, Oxford, 1 July 1642. Two months later he left to fight on the Parliamentary side in the Civil War.
He returned to Magdalen Hall in 1647, soon transferring to Wadham. M.B. 1648, by command of the Puritan Chancellor of the university. This was clearly by mandate, arranged by his connections with the then ruling party; I do not list it.
In all, Sydenham was in Oxford about eight years (until 1655). All the evidence indicates that he put almost no store by academic medical learning. He did not take the M.D. The M.B. was by mandate. He never failed to disparage academic medical learning. It appears to me that I should not list even the equivalent of a B.A.
M.D. from Cambridge, 1676. While the details are not known, this degree was clearly also by mandate; I do not list it.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Calvinist, Anglican
A Puritan from a family of Independents, all of whom served in the Parliamentary armies. Two brothers died for the cause. Sydenham conformed at the Restoration, however, and was buried in St. James, Westminster.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Medicine
Though he was not the dominant voice in English medicine while alive, Sydenham is now seen as the most important English physician of the second half of the century. He was a great advocate of close clinical observations as the foundation of therapeutic reform. He is called the English Hippocrates for his insistence on clinical observation. He was skeptical about the utility an anatomy, postmortem examinations, et al.
Methodus curandi febres, 1666. Observationes medicae circa morborum acutorum et curationem, 1676, an expansion and recasting of the Methodus. Observationes is seen as Sydenham's masterpiece.
He also produced Epistolae duae, 1680, Disseratio epistolaris circa curationem variolarum, 1682, and a classic description of gout, Tractatus de podagra et de hudrope, 1683. Schedula monitoria, 1685.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Medicine
Secondary: Military, Academia, Government
Military service in parliamentary forces, 1642-5, and again in 1651. He was definitely paid. For the service in 1651 (and for the service of his brother who was killed at that time) he received 600 plus the promise of employment (which he finally received in 1659).
Fellow of All Souls College, 1648-55.
Medical practice in Westminster, 1655-89. He was considered the leading physician in London during the 60s and 70s. Many of the wealthy and powerful used his services. His will indicates that he earned a handsome income, although he did not become fabulously wealthy as some physicians did.
Comptroller of the Pipe (a sinecure in the Exchequer), 1659. This paid off the earlier promise, but the sinecure ended with the Restoration.
8. Patronage
Types: Government Official, Aristrocrat
One of the Parliamentary Visitors' delegates to Wadham College in 1647. Created M.B. in 1648 by the command of the Earl of Pembroke, the Parliamentary Chancellor of the Oxford. Later that year the Parliamentary Visitors made him a fellow of All Souls College in 1648. He was nominated to Parliament in 1659. Sydenham's older brother was a powerful figure in the inner circle around Cromwell, and patronage through that connection dominated Sydenham's young manhood.
When he was seriously ill in 1677, Sydenham convalesced for several months at Hatfield, the seat of the Earl of Salisbury. After some hesitation, I am listing this. With the exception of the brief sinecure noted above, it is the only item of patronage I have found from the period after he began practice.
Sydenham dedicated books, but all to scientific and medical peers. Thus Methodus curandi febres to Boyle, who had set him the problem of studying fevers; Observationes to Dr. Mapletoft who is said to have translated it into Latin; Tractatus de podagra to Dr. Thomas Short; Schedula monitoria, 1685, to Dr. Charles Goodall, the historian of the Royal College of Physicians. Incidentally, I think these dedications, because not to patrons and not filled then with artificial language, might yield some insight into the rationale behind the support of learning.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Medical Practice, Pharmacology
Pharmacology was not Sydenham's passion. He often dispensed with drugs, and prescribed fresh air, exercise, and moderation. He is said to have rid the Pharmacopoeia of several dangerous remedies. Nevertheless he invented a liquid laudanum, made from opium, which continued long in use, and he helped to introduce the use of quinine in England as a remedy for fevers in general.
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Medical College
Informal Connections: Intimate friendship with Boyle and Locke. Sydendham dedicated his work of 1666 to Boyle, and Locke wrote a commendary poem to him in his second edition of 1668. He was particularly close to Locke during the period of 1667-71, and correspended with him through the rest of his life. Quite a few of his manuscripts are in Locke's hand.
Intimate friendship with Dr. Mapletoft, and Dr.Goodall.
Friendship with Henry Paman, Robert Brady, Walter Harris, Walter Needham, David Thomas, Dr. William Gould, William Hale, Robert Hooke, and others.
Pupils: Sloane, Thomas Dover, Richard Blackmore.
Licentiate of the College of Physicians, 1663; he was never a fellow.
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 19, 246-53. Biographia Britannica, 1st ed. (London, 1747-66), 6.1, 3879-81.
  2. Kenneth Dewhurst, Dr. Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689), His Life and Original Writings, (London, 1966).
  3. Joseph F. Payne, Thomas Sydenham, (London, 1900).
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Thomas Sydenham, Methodus curandi febres, propriis observationibus superstructura: The Latin text of the 1666 and 1668 Editions with English Translation from R.G. Latham (1848), intro. by G.G. Meynell, (Folkestone, 1987).
  2. L.M.F. Picard, Thomas Sydenham: sa vie et ses oeuvres, (Dijon, 1889). D.G. Bates, Thomas Sydenham: the Development of His Thought, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 1975.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

1995 Al Van Helden
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