The Bi-Centenary of the Abolition of Slavery: A TRIBUTE TO Dr. THOMAS MASTERMAN WINTERBOTTOM (1765?-1859), physician to the Sierra Leone Company

Nigel Pocock, Director, Vision Training & Research

A forgotten hero

In 1859, Thomas Masterman Winterbottom died. He was 94 years old – the oldest doctor in Europe. Shops shut. The local Corporation and thousands of citizens turned out to mourn him. The Newcastle Journal, in its obituary, noted that Winterbottom was ‘as good a man as ever was born in the town of South Shields’.1 What had he done to deserve so much love, respect, and affection? Yet today few have ever heard of him. His magnum opus, two volumes published in 1803, were not republished until 1969 – nearly 170 years later. And who, even amongst specialists in tropical medicine, who are familiar with Winterbottom’s Sign (of Sleeping Sickness) know anything about the man himself?

This article is a tribute to a great man, a warm hearted and people-centred Christian, an excellent physician, a fine scientist, and a committed abolitionist who had a respect for women and people of all races.

Sierra Leone, 1792

In 1792, having graduated with his MD from Edinburgh, Thomas Winterbottom sailed for Sierra Leone. The Sierra Leone Company had been established by a body of abolitionists, with the aim of facilitating trade and ‘civilisation’ and providing a home for Africans who had been imprisoned under the slave trade (Habeus Corpus did not apply to slaves).2 This was a man unusually at this time, who successfully pulled together the Anglican Revival, Enlightenment empiricism, and a burning desire to see the evils of slavery abolished forever.

Winterbottom laboured for four years in the fledgling colony, fighting against malaria (which he contracted several times himself), sleeping sickness, yaws, leprosy, filariasis, tuberculosis, scrofula, scurvy, dysentery, and many other diseases, often occurring together, making diagnosis almost impossible by eighteenth-century standards. Yet improvements happened very quickly, for Winterbottom notes drops in the high death rate. It is unlikely that the cures of the day achieved very much. But Winterbottom was not just interested in pathologies, but in what makes for health. He quickly realised that dirty water contained agents of disease and infection.

He observed that good morale was as important to health, as the reverse, noting that ‘health and [social] harmony’ were closely related. He was totally committed to his patients. Even Anna Maria Falconbridge, the caustic and headstrong antiabolitionist wife of a colleague, is grateful to him.3 He was also a peacemaker, as his attempts to resolve an emerging quarrel between two of the leading forces in the colony showed. Zachary Macaulay, one of the parties to this disagreement, wrote

There is so much warmth of affection in him [Winterbottom], and the expression of it so often bursts from him involuntarily …4

This was quite a confession, as Macaulay was not known for his spontaneous affection.

Women and polygyny

Winterbottom is notable for his extremely positive view of African women, his rejection of polygyny as belittling women in favour of male status, and his complete rejection of any idea that Africans are of a different race to Europeans. He writes that

… particularly the females, are said to be the handsomest people … The manners of [African women] are [graceful] … estimation of female beauty among the natives… is the same as in most [other countries] … [they] are remarkable for the beautiful contour of their limbs, and for an ingenuous open countenance …5

Regrettably, African women are regarded as beings of an inferior nature, and as born to be the slaves of man … Polygamy … tends still more to debase the female sex … [men rise] in the esteem of [their] neighbours in proportion to the numbers of [their] women …6

Evidence-based research

Winterbottom notes how alleged racial differences based on skin colour are absurd, especially when one notes how different skin colour can be within one alleged racial group. Jewish people, for example, vary from white to black. There are huge variations within African populations.

In Africa he had been aware of what we would now call ‘hermeneutical suspicion’, and would not accept evidence on the basis of hearsay. On one occasion, he walked 44 miles into the interior to see a specific African chief. His interests embraced medicine in the widest sense. He saw medicine within its social and geographical context. The insects and other fauna interested him. He lists carefully all the local remedies and cures, as well as such things as aversion therapy for dirteating. He pioneered vocabularies of regional West African languages.

Return to England

When he died, Winterbottom had little money. He had given much of it away. He had never lost his concern for the poor, for coal miners, and for sailors. He continued to support charities which looked after these people. The school for mariners that he helped to establish, was still operating 150 years after it had been set up. Conversely, the people of Sierra Leone still remembered him, nearly 60 years later. Now, nearly 90 years old, he is to be found sending out Bibles to the colony. When he had left all those years before, the colonists had begged him to stay.

This was a much-loved man, ahead of his time, whose work can still be read with value by field workers today.


1    th  16 July, 1859.

Much of the biographical information is contained within the excellent introduction to the 2nd edition of T. M. Winterbottom (1803, 1969), An Account of the Native Africans in the Neighbourhood of Sierra Leone to Which is Added an Account of the Present State of Medicine Among Them, vols. I & II, (Hargreaves, J. D., & Backett, E. M., eds),
London, Frank Cass.

Anna Maria Falconbridge (1794, 2000), Narrative of Two Voyages to the River Sierra Leone, (C. Fyfe, ed), Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 85.

  1. Winterbottom, Vol. I, ix.
  2. Winterbottom, Vol. I, 180-1.

    Vol. I, 144-5.