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Leonard Gillespie (1758 - 1842):
Physician and scientist

Leonard Gillespie was the youngest of the three children (Jane, Elizabeth and Leonard) of Leonard Gillespie Snr and Elizabeth Blakely.  Born at Armagh on 20 May 1758 he was apprenticed aged 14 to a local doctor before going in 1776 to Dublin where he studied anatomy and surgery under Drs George Cleghorn (Lecturer in Anatomy, 1761-1785, then University Professor of Anatomy and Chirurgery, 1785-9, Trinity College Dublin), John Purcell and a Mr Blackhall.   On 4 June 1777 he was examined by the London Company of Surgeons and passed as a Second Mate of a First-Rate and was warranted in late June as second assistant surgeon to HMS Royal Oak, a guardship in the Channel service. He was transferred in February 1778 to the sloop HMS Weasel assigned to the West African coast and on 11 September was promoted to Acting Surgeon after the ship reached Antigua.  On 16 March 1779 he was again transferred, to HMS Supply, a store ship of 32 guns attached to a squadron in the West Indies.  Supply was destroyed by fire at harbour but Gillespie narrowly escaped and was appointed to HMS Yarmouth and then to the Naval Hospital at New York where he developed his growing interest in scorbutic ulcers then prevalent in seamen, and which he was later (in 1785) to describe.  In early 1781 he served briefly on HMS Sandwich (flag-ship of the Commander-in-Chief, Sir George Rodney), was promoted to Surgeon in June and appointed to the newly-opened Naval Hospital at Pigeon Island, St Lucia and, on 15 July, also as Surgeon to the St Lucia guardship on which he mainly resided.  On 7 May 1783 he accompanied some patients from St Lucia to Antigua from where, with 32 patients, he embarked on the Holmpton of Hull reaching Plymouth on 9 August without serious mishap.

The ending of the War of American Independence was imminent - the peace of Versailles was signed within the month - and Gillespie was apparently paid off.  For the next six months his exact whereabouts are unknown though he is plausibly believed to have been studying at St Andrews and Edinburgh and so did not return home to Armagh; but in June 1784 he sailed from Leith to London and thence to Paris arriving on the 27th.where he attended the Hôtel Dieu and was impressed by much French surgery though he thought  that as regards some of it “the French [are] half a century behind their neighbours”; he was more taken by the “urbanity and politeness of many of my colleagues”.  He returned to London in September 1785 where he wrote his article on treatment of leg ulcers in seamen based on his earlier experiences in America and the West Indies. With this done he returned to his home town, Armagh.

Despite the enthusiasm of his friends and family and the wide reading programme he set himself, he was soon bored and sought a naval medical appointment.  However, with the end of the American war and the European one not yet started, he was unsuccessful and he returned to London in August 1786 where he attended medical meetings, dispensaries and other medical occasions; but the best position that he could obtain was a succession of short-tem temporary appointments starting on 1st May 1787 on HMS Vanguard (74 guns) followed by HMS Monarch, HMS Swiftsure (74 guns) and HMS Weasel.  He didn’t have long to wait and on 13 August he was appointed to Racehorse, only a sloop but one fitting out at Woolwich which allowed him to attend the Aldersgate Dispensary, and he stayed with it while it was on constant anti-smuggling patrol along the east coast between the Forth and Thames since it allowed him to attend medical classes at Edinburgh. On 14 January 1791 he sailed for Paris on the brig Nautilus and again attended the Hôtel Dieu and La Charité despite the developing civil turmoil. He took temporary lodgings in Le Havre in August 1792 as the situation in Paris deteriorated, but he returned by year’s end though only for a short time before finally leaving for England before the declaration of war on 1st February 1793. 

Naval recruitment now restarted and he was appointed on 6 March to HMS Majestic,   saw action on 29 May and took part in Lord Howe’s victory on the so-called “Glorious First of June”,1794, and dealt effectively with the “infectious fever epidemic” among the ship’s crew and “upwards of two hundred French prisoners”.  With Majestic, now flagship of Vice-Admiral Caldwell, he again sailed for the West Indies where infectious  diseases were prevalent among crews and prisoners.  He was also sensitive to the injustices of conquerors and on grounds of colour and status, of slavery, and of avarice and ignorance among the crews; but he also had to deal with an outbreak of yellow fever on Majestic, which he did before being appointed “surgeon and agent” to the Naval Hospital at Fort Royal, Martinique which had been established in April 1796, which carried heavy duties but allowed him opportunity to publish his Advice on the Preservation of the Health of Seamen in the West Indies’ which was to benefit his career as well as seamen.  Also, in February 1795 he qualified as Doctor of Medicine (MD) at St Andrews University “on testimonials” led by Dr James Sims, his friend, compatriot and colleague in the Naval Medical Service.

Gillespie thrived in his new appointment now extending his activities to meteorology, geology, statistics, and socio-economic observations which led to another publication  which he dedicated to Lord Howe.  It also led to his friendship with a manumitted slave of Dutch and African blood, Caroline Heiliger, which produced a “quadroon boy” on 2nd February 1799, baptised as Leonard, and on 2nd January 1801 a girl, later (7 May 1802) baptised as Jane after Gillespie’s sister.   Throughout all this trying period Gillespie remained respected by patients, colleagues, seamen and, importantly, superiors.  Negotiations for peace with France soon followed, though the Treaty of Amiens was not concluded until March 1802, and Gillespie prepared for return to England.  With his son he reached Cork on 24 November and Armagh on 15 December; but in early February, restless as ever he was off to London and had applied to the Admiralty either for half-pay or a new naval appointment.  Eventually, and with the Peace of Amiens broken-down, Gillespie on 18 August 1804 was promoted to Physician in the Naval Service, a position entirely administrative and advisory, and was to succeed the ailing Dr Snipe as Physician to the Fleet in the Mediterranean and adviser to Lord Nelson.  His long but successful years in the West Indies and his writings on matters of the health of seamen, had not gone unnoticed at the Admiralty. 

Though relieved in this office of dangerous and routine clinical work at naval hospital or on ship, Gillespie’s duties included those of Inspector to the Naval Hospitals in the Mediterranean theatre, which were those in Malta, Sicily and Gibraltar but also any to be temporarily established.  They also included examining the medical reports on the health of each ship, visiting ships when the reports so indicated, advising the ships’ surgeons on medical affairs, arranging for any deficiencies in medical stores, and cognate matters.  Nelson also would require him to examine, in the presence of the ships’ surgeons and captains, any officers seeking leave of absence on the grounds of ill-health.  Already a man of means with £20,000 carefully invested and £1,000 “in the funds”, his annual salary would be £465 and as a member of Lord Nelson’s ‘suite’ he would live “in princely style free from expense, messing at the expense of the Admiral”.  

Gillespie joined HMS Victory on 2nd January 1805 and struck up an immediate rapport with Nelson.  However, on 18 August when Victory was anchored at Spithead, Gillespie resigned his commission reputedly giving as reasons “indifferent health and having served a sufficiently long period on foreign stations”.  He was therefore not present at the battle of Trafalgar in October.  He was then just fifty-two, the same age as Nelson. He was replaced by another Ulsterman, William Beatty.

For much of the rest of his long life (he was 83 when he died on 13 January 1842) he wintered in Paris at 50, rue de Rivoli, or at 341, rue de St. Honoré, and spent most of the summers in London giving his address as the Senior United Services Club, and with short sight-seeing trips in Europe.  He was buried at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris; his son, Leonard, who died in 1860, was buried beside him.  Caroline, his partner, had died years previously in Martinique, while his daughter, Jane, married at age 63 and as Mrs Lawton went to live with her husband in a Moravian settlement at Ockbrook near Manchester; then when widowed she returned to live in Dublin in 1869 until her death.

Gillespie suggested and where possible implemented improvements in the conditions and diet of seamen along the lines outlined in his books and articles (see references below).  On this score he deserves mention with James Lind (1716-1794) whose views especially on the effect of citrus fruits in the prevention of scurvy (which he had demonstrated in one of the world’s first controlled clinical trials on board HMS Salisbury in 1754) were later to be generally implemented, though Gillespie’s emphasis on general health, cleanliness and morale, though more general, should not be overlooked.

Born: 20 May 1758
Died: 13 January 1842
Peter Froggatt

Sources and further reading.   Gillespie, L   Advice to the Commanders and Officers of His Majesty’s Fleets serving in the West Indies, on the Preservation of the Health of Seamen.  London, 1798;  Ibid.,  Observations on the Diseases which prevailed on Board a Part of His Majesty’s Squadron in the Leeward Island Station between November 1794 and April 1796.  London, 1800;   Ibid., ‘Observations on the Putrid Ulcer’, London Med. J., 6, 373-400 (1785);  Ibid,  ‘An account of the means employed on board His Majesty’s Sloop Weasel to preserve the health of the crew during a voyage to Africa and the West Indies, etc’. London Med. J., 8(ii), 113-119; Draper, J. N., ‘With Nelson in the Mediterranean’, Chamber’s Journal, May-June, 229-233; 317-319 (1945); Clarke, R.S.J,  A Directory of Ulster Doctors (who qualified before 1901), Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2013; Gillespie, L., Private Journals, 1785-1803,  Public Records Office, London, A/101/102;  Keevil, J. J., ‘Leonard Gillespie, MD, 1758-1842’,  Bull. Hist. Med., 28 (No.4),301-332 (1954); Brockliss, L, Cardwell, J,  Moss, M.   Nelson’s Surgeon: William Beatty, Naval Medicine, and the Battle of Trafalgar.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, pps. 11, 52, 54, 97, 99-101, 105, 107.