Thomas Hodgkin

British physician Thomas Hodgkin (1798–1866) gave his name to Hodgkin's disease, also known as Hodgkin's lymphoma. A brilliant pathologist, Hodgkin was an idealist and tireless public servant, whether in medicine or in the many social causes he espoused. His views regarding health, social justice, and social equality were well ahead of his time.

Thomas Hodgkin

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Showed Early Aptitude for Sciences

Hodgkin's Quaker upbringing emphasized honesty, simplicity, discipline, and concern for the less fortunate. Quakers, who were also known as the Society of Friends, held that each person could experience God within themselves through a direct relationship with Jesus Christ and that this relationship could be outwardly reflected in clean living and nonviolence. During his lifetime, the darkhaired, wiry, and quick-tempered Hodgkin adopted the plain dress and formal speech pattern common among the Quakers of his day.

By his late teens, Hodgkin had chosen medicine as his future profession. He started his medical education as an apprentice to an apothecary (one who prepares medicines) affiliated with Guy's Hospital, a major teaching institution in London. From 1817 to 1820, Hodgkin followed his preceptor on rounds and attended lectures at the hospital, and at this point he enrolled in medical school in Edinburgh, Scotland. (While such brilliant students would typically have attended Oxford or Cambridge, Quakers were not allowed, due to religious discrimination.) An inheritance from a great uncle received when Hodgkin turned 21 allowed him a measure of financial independence during these years.

While pursuing his medical training in Edinburgh, Hodgkin visited medical centers around Europe and started multilingual correspondences with colleagues in various countries. In Paris, France, he met Renée Laennec, the inventor of the stethoscope, who taught him how to use this instrument to hear a patient's heartbeat. He also became acquainted with Moses Montefiore, an orthodox Jew as well as a wealthy financier and philanthropist who would become a lifelong friend and patient. Hodgkin graduated from medical school in 1823, submitting his dissertation (in Latin) on the functional relationship between the “absorbent glands” (later known as lymph nodes) and the spleen.

Contributed Greatly to Medical Practice

After being licensed by the Royal College of Physicians in 1825, Hodgkin joined the staff of Guy's Hospital as curator of the hospital museum, which was a resource for medical personnel and students rather than a museum in the modern sense. He was also appointed Inspector of the Dead (a physician in charge of postmortem exams) and professor of morbid anatomy (internal medicine). Hodgkin's appointments reflected the hospital's esteem for his extraordinary abilities and his level of medical knowledge.

During his 12-year tenure at Guy's Hospital, Hodgkin made several improvements to medical education and practice that would far outlast his career, and it is through his work that the medical museum remains one of the world's finest. As the curator, he thoroughly revamped the museum's catalog system of pathologies (medical descriptions), creating the Classified Catalogue of the Museum of Guy's Hospital. In addition to earning Hodgkin international attention, this catalog became an invaluable tool for research.

As Inspector of the Dead, Hodgkin's job was to gather and clarify the causes of death established by attending physicians and surgeons, greatly improving everybody's diagnostic skills in the process. As professor of morbid anatomy, he studied diseases of the organs and tissues and his work helped establish the field of morbid anatomy, a precursor of today's internal medicine. He advocated for more extensive preclinical training for medical students, suggesting that they walk the wards and become familiar with the day-to-day practice of medicine before undertaking a formal study of it.

Along with his many duties, Hodgkin authored numerous papers and books on pathology as well as a generalinterest book on healthy lifestyle. His most famous paper, published in 1832 and focused on the “… Morbid Appearances of the Absorbent Glands and Spleen,” provided the first modern description of lymphoma, or cancer of the lymph glands. This paper would be referenced in an 1865 article in which the author named the condition “Hodgkin's Disease.” The name stuck, and a later-identified form of lymphoma is still referred to as “non-Hodgkin's.”

Social Reformer to His Own Detriment

A tireless researcher and practitioner of medicine, Hodgkin also developed many friendships as well as a romance. Unfortunately, his first love, Sara Godlee, was also his first cousin, and such a marriage was forbidden by Quakerism. Although Hodgkin twice petitioned that this rule be changed, he was unsuccessful, and at age 49 he married a non-Quaker widow named Sara Scaife. Years later, but too late for Hodgkin and Godlee, the Quaker rule regarding marriage between first cousins did change.

Among his friends, Hodgkin was known for his concern for poor and oppressed people; he sometimes refused to charge for his services, viewing his work as literally a service. When he was offered a coveted membership in the Royal College of Physicians, he refused on the grounds that they had, until recently, excluded fellow Quakers. He also helped the University of London medical school revamp its staff and curriculum even though this school was a competitor to his employer, Guy's Hospital. A vocal critic of the Hudson's Bay Company, a trading company known to exploit and oppress indigenous people, Hodgkin also associated with non-whites despite the social norms of the times.

Although he was admired for living according to his principles, Hodgkin's strong social conscience ultimately contributed to his professional undoing; he was passed over for a clinical appointment in 1837, and he resigned from his post at Guy's Hospital. Five years later, he briefly returned to hospital medicine when he was invited to supervise teaching at St. Thomas's Hospital. He scheduled new lecturers, including himself, and oversaw improvements to the hospital's recordkeeping and clinic management. When other lecturers proved more popular with students and staff than Hodgkin, he was let go after a year.

A Humanitarian to the End

With his hospital career at an end, Hodgkin went into private practice and now devoted his full energy to public service. He had always been a leading advocate for public health, giving lectures to advise the public regarding hygiene, fresh air, and the proper disposal of garbage. During the cholera epidemic of 1832, he had written to civil authorities explaining the connection between poor sanitation and the spread of disease and suggesting ways that public health—particularly among the poor—could be improved. Hodgkin was also an early critic of tobacco and alcohol and warned against occupational hazards such as industrial pollutants. Hoping to educate others about preventive medicine and healthy habits, he published On the Means of Promoting and Preserving Health in 1841.

One of Hodgkin's greatest battles was against the prevailing notions of racial superiority by which colonial governments justified the subjugation of darker-skinned native inhabitants, and he advocated for the preservation of native languages. An ardent abolitionist, he founded the Aborigines's Protection Society as a way of influencing colonial governments to allow native subjects equality within society. Rather than following biblical and other records tracing recorded ancestry from the earliest records to the present, he advocated a more anthropological method: the study of contemporary people with reference to their present circumstances rather than ancestral history. Regarding the thenpopular pseudo-science of phrenology—the study of skull shape and size as a measure of intelligence and therefore inferior or superior characteristics—Hodgkin was one of the first to refute it in scientific terms.

As an active member of numerous medical, anthropological, and abolitionist societies around the world, Hodgkin traveled the world to attend conferences, and he also traveled to give humanitarian aid to underprivileged peoples. He undertook several trips with longtime good friend Montefiore, who had been knighted by England's Queen Victoria for his good works. Hodgkin and Montefiore advocated for fair treatment of the poor, and they sometimes succeeded in changing local policy in their favor.

While accompanying Montefiore on a trip to Ottoman Palestine (contemporary Israel), Hodgkin fell fatally ill with a dysentery-like illness. He had been feeling poorly since their stopover in Alexandria, Egypt, and by the time they reached Jaffa, Palestine, he was in agony. He wrote to his wife of his predicament, asking her to convey his love to his friends and ending with the words, “I lament the little service that I have done.” Hodgkin died three days later, on April 5, 1866, and was buried the following morning.


Kass, Amalie M., and Edward H. Kass, Perfecting the World: The Life and Times of Dr. Thomas Hodgkin 1798–1866, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Rosenfeld, Louis, Thomas Hodgkin: Morbid Anatomist and Social Activist, Madison Books, 1992.


Baylor University Medical Proceedings, October 2005, Marvin J. Stone, “Thomas Hodgkin: Medical Immortal and Uncompromising Idealist,” pp. 18–22.

HemOnc Today, April 1, 2007, Max J. Coppes, “Thomas Hodgkin: 1798–1866.”

Journal of the American Medical Association, December 14, 1963, “Thomas Hodgkin, Quaker Physician,” pp. 1016–1017.

Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, Volume 5, 1867, Richard King, “Obituary of Thomas Hodgkin,” pp. 341–345.□

(MLA 8th Edition)