09 August 2022

What a doctor! What a famous author! Tobias Smollett.

Years ago I was surprised to meet three Melbourne doctors (my husband's colleagues) who wanted to work, at least part time, in the arts eg theatre, pain­t­­ing or no­v­els. Each of these arts-focused doctors used Smollett as a role mod­el, a man who loved medicine but also wanted a creative career

Portrait of Tobias Smollet, c1770
by whom?
National Portrait Gallery

Tobias Smollett (1721-71) was born in Renton Scot­land, and educated at Glasgow Uni as a surgeon. He obtained a commis­s­ion as a naval sur­­g­eon on the HMS Chichester and travelled to Jam­aica for some years. Then in 1742 Tobias served as a surgeon during a dis­as­trous campaign in Columbia. On his return home, Tobias set up med­ic­al practice in Downing St and married Anne Lascelles (1721-91).

After the 1745 Battle of Culloden, Smollett’s first work was pub­lish­ed the very next year, a poem The Tears of Scotland. Then fame arrived with Adventures of Roderick Random 1748. Based on Smol­l­ett's experience as a British naval-surgeon’s mate, it told the life story of Rod­erick Random who was born to a nobleman and a lower-class wo­m­an. Shunned by his father's fam­ily, Rod­erick ended up finding his maternal uncle, a sailor who tried to support Roderick between voy­ages. This novel was full of adventure action, displaying farce rat­her than comedy. Through much of the novel Roderick posed as a nob­leman, alongside his close mate, a barber's apprentice Hugh Strap.

In 1750 Smollett got his final med­ic­al degree from Aber­deen Uni. His last­ing impact on medicine was improv­ing the delivery of midwif­ery.

Now examine Smollett’s friend, Irishman Oliver Golds­m­ith (1728-74), who studied medic­ine at Edinburgh Uni in 1750s. After further med­ic­al training at Leiden Uni, Goldsmith worked as a doctor, and only ret­urn­ed to Britain in 1756 to establish himself as a drama­tist. So Goldsm­ith and Smollett, friends and fellow physic­ians, both ear­n­ed their livings prim­arily from writ­ing.

Even at his young age, Dr Smollett must have planned to combine med­icine with writing. He travelled to France, where he found mat­er­ial for his se­cond, successful novel, The Adven­t­ures of Peregrine Pickle 1751. Peregrine was a young country lad, rejected by his dis­in­t­er­ested family, and raised by a loving Commodore. Pereg­r­ine's upbring­ing, Oxford educat­ion, French travel, debauchery, bank­ruptcy, gaol, inherit­ance of dad’s fortune and marriage all provided scope for Smoll­ett's satire on human cruelty and greed.

Adven­t­ures of Peregrine Pickle 1751
The doctor was now recognised as a leading literary figure and as­s­oc­iat­e of Samuel John­son. Smollett also caric­atured many of his riv­als in his novels eg Henry Fielding and actor David Garrick.

Smollett's 3rd novel, Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom 1753 was less popular than his first novels. The cent­ral charact­er was a villain who swindled and philandered his way across Europe with lit­tle con­cern for the law or for others’ welfare; human depravity.

In 1755 Tobias published a translation of Miguel de Cerv­ant­es' Don Quixote, complete with beautiful engravings. Smoll­ett's translation of Don Quixote captured the spirit of the Spanish original for English readers. But where did Smollett learn classical Spanish?

In 1756, he became editor of The Critical Review.

In the late 1750s-1760s, Smollett took up residence in Bath which was already a fashionable city. Profess­ion­al dandy Beau Nash had long been Bath’s Master of Ceremonies i.e he created a set of rules governing social activities, and enforced them. Bath people met in the Pump Room each day to hear music, drink and soc­ialise. It was a world obsessed with social class, money and gainful marriage, all providing grist for Smollett’s literary mill.

Smollett apparently libelled Admiral Charles Knowles in The Critical Review, May 1758. So Knowles sued both Smollett & Archibald Hamil­ton of the Critical Review. This prolonged tr­ial resulted in heavy fines and short sentences. Smollett’s hor­r­id experiences damaged his attitude towards the law and courts. Af­ter the Bath final trial, Smollett definitively left med­ic­ine for literature and settled down at Monmouth House Chel­sea.

With a co-author he finished his major work, Complete His­tory of Eng­land, which he began in 1755-8. Then Smollett brought out the first number of a new 6d publication, The British Magazine. His major contribution was a serial work of fiction, Mediocre Adven­tures of Sir Launcelot Greaves.

After suffering the loss of their only child in 1763, Smollett and Anne left England. They sailed across to Nice, Genoa, Rome and Flor­ence, and returned to London by June 1765. Travels through France and Italy 1766 was his account of this jour­n­ey. Smollett detailed the natural phenomena, history, social life, economics, diet and morals of the places he visited. But he was ir­ritated. Smollett quarrelled with innkeepers and fellow travel­lers; he scorned Cathol­icism, duelling and petty nobility. Worse still, he had rheumatism and suffered pain arising from a neglected ulcer.

Once Travels were pub­lished, Smol­l­ett planned a sum­mer journey to Scotland. Edinburgh society, then at its brilliant best, saluted the famous Dr Smollett; he was visited by Hume, Adam Smith, Carlyle etc. But he was still in a precar­ious state of health when he moved back to Bath. Smollett also wrote History and Advent­ur­es of an Atom 1769, a clever and rugged satire of English politics during the horrid 7 Years' War 1756-63. This book examined public aff­airs, Pitt the Younger, politicians, monarchs and the American colonies, lightly disguised.

Smollett's last book, 
Expedition of Humphry Clinker 1771

Bath inspired his last and best no­v­el, Expedition of Humphry Cl­inker 1771. Much of the comedy arose from diff­erences in the des­crip­­­­t­ions of the same ev­ents by the 6 different par­ticip­ants. The setting, amid high-society C18th spa towns and re­s­orts, provided his char­act­ers with satir­ic­al observ­at­ions on Eng­lish life and luxury. It was a feast of late C18th coffeehouse cul­t­ure, art, fashion and morals. But Dr Smollett found Bath pretentious, rarely went back to Scotland or London. In his last years, Smollett per­manently left for Italy, dying in Livorno at 50.


Joe said...

Doctors, dentists and vets were always clever students, but they may have wanted to be able to investigate the arts or express their creativity. Only a few people were brave enough to branch out, in my experience.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - fascinating post and those links to their literary/creative abilities over and above the doctoring ... I must see if I can get one at the library to read ... or at least initially look at Project Gutenberg ... lovely post - thank you - Hilary

Hels said...


I think the entry into university for Medicine, Dentistry etc was so high and the years of studies so intense that there was little choice. But by the time a practitioner has done 42394752374 cases of broken toes in a week, the need to play beautiful piano music or write an exciting short story might be growing. I agree with the brave part, by the way; reliable income is important in a person's young career years.

Hels said...


in the final four years of high school, we were given a lot of 19th century novels to choose from: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope etc.. but never an 18th century author. I also had no idea about Smollett or Goldsmith until years later.

isingmag said...

Jeremy Sassoon of Manchester wrote:
After music college I was faced with a choice: study medicine or music at university. Almost on the toss of a coin I chose medicine and I trained and practised for 12 years.

Medicine itself is one of the most rewarding jobs one can do. The issues are ones of politics, NHS funding, low morale and long hours. I was specialising in psychiatry where many of these issues were even more pronounced. But there were few outlets for true creativity and I felt a whole side of me was being suffocated. I didn’t know at the time that music would turn out to be the right decision, but it was all I knew how to do, other than medicine.

No, I never did think I’d made a mistake. The feeling of freedom I experienced once I’d left full time employment in the system was something I couldn’t, and still can’t, put a price on. I still love medicine and psychiatry, but I belong professionally in the world of music.

Hels said...

Singer, trumpeter and pianist of jazz, blues and soul classics, and band leader.. I am well impressed! It must have been a big decision to leave medicine, but a good one.

The upcoming concerts sound great.

Barry Shamplin said...

I've never read Smollet but I want to now! Many medical practitioners break into the Arts. In the UK it's often via comedy; Harry Hill, Graham Chapman, Graham Garden & Jo Brand come to mind. I suppose it could be seen as a safety valve.
By the way, I wonder if the first painting could be by Henry Raeburn?

Hels said...


Hello stranger :) Are you well?

Henry Raeburn (b1756) was born just a decade before Tobias Smollett died (d1771). I suppose he could have painted a portrait of the dead man, copying an earlier work.

I don't know the hospital workers you mentioned, but I did read "This is Going to Hurt" by A Kay. His book was both very sad and very funny, in a way that only hospital staff could truly appreciate. I am going to give Kay's next book, Undoctored, to my beloved once it is published. Kay was full of pain and loss, but Smollett was full of satire.

DUTA said...

I believe that losing his only child affected Smollett's mood and health, and he found complete refuge in writing. As he was good at it, he made it his true vocation.
Nowadays, both medicine and writing have lost their appeal.

Hels said...


Smollett published his first writing, while he was still in medicine, in the middle 1740s. He was still practising medicine and writing medical literature in the early 1750s, including opening a medical practice in Downing St. He was writing more and more literature in 1755 and 56, and then was keen to give up medicine altogether.

The poor man was becoming really sick, at a relatively early age, and even worse was when their only (teenage) child died in the mid 1760s. Nobody recovers from that sort of pain :( But it came years and years after the writing career was successful.

Barry said...

I am well thank you Hels; just been very busy on other things. I hope that you and your family are well too. My cousin from Vancouver, who has Parkinson's, has been staying with us for a few weeks for a big family occasion.
Adam Kay's book was made into a TV series but it disappointed possibly due to having Ben Wilshaw miscast.

Hels said...


never read a great book first and then see the cinematic or tv version of that same book afterwards. Reading a book is a personal negotiation between you and the author. If you and the book author already came to a mutual understanding, you will be very annoyed by the film directors, producers, actors, set designers and costume people who have their own individual ideas. I once yelled out in the middle of a cinema from frustration :(

Simon Brodkin, Adam Kay, Oliver Sacks etc knew what they were writing.

Pipistrello said...

Hels, I do love a book title like "The Mediocre Adventures of ..."! You know that much merriment should lie within. Smollett's work hasn't been on my radar before but I shall look out from now on.

And speaking of talented medicos, I was impressed to read the artist's bio next to an Archibald finalist a few years ago which stressed that his day job was plastic surgeon. So nice to know that the gentleman hobbyist is alive and well.

hels said...

Dr Andrew Greensmith is a terrific portraitist :) But that only adds another issue for us to consider. Does the exhausted medico change to the arts to live a new and refreshing life? Or can he be refreshed, as Greensmith seems to be, by using the same visual skills with a paint brush rather than a knife?

mem said...

I can see how Medicine and writing interact . To be a successful doctor you need to love people and be interested in the human condition .That combined with intelligence an a good sense of humor will always lead to creativity of one sort or another in my opinion.

Hels said...


I agree that very intelligent, very educated young graduates are excellent candidates for wanting to express their creativity. After 6 years of intense undergraduate study and a few years of hospital house jobs and residencies, most young doctors really look forward to having a social life again... and perhaps playing some sport.

Dr Smollett had one clear advantage over other young doctors - he married a wealthy Jamaican heiress. Spending some time writing poetry instead of working all day and night in a hospital was financially risky, even if Smollett was a skilled poet. But Anne Lascelles' income made all the difference.

Jenny Woolf said...

I always think that there are some pretty amazing people who become doctors. Not only are they clever and tough enough to do that job, they are often very creative too. The one I like the best was Dr Jonathan Miller, who died a couple of years ago. His productions of certain operas are still my favourites, and his film of "ALice in Wonderland" for the BBC in 1966 is a classic. In fact I just bought a dvd of it (with some difficulty) and am looking forward to watching it once more.

Hels said...


Dr Jonathan Miller was a great example of the issues we are discussing, yes!!

Miller studied medicine Cambridge, then fulfilled his house year and residency years at London's University College Hospital. But here is the interesting bit. Having worked at a hospital for a few years Miller's medical career didn't disappear forever. He became a successful actor, director, writer and television presenter, but every so often he went back to medicine and academe. What a very well balanced and intellectual cultural man he was.