Carlisle, Anthony

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Carlisle, Anthony

(b. Stillington, Durham, England, 15 February 1768; d. London, England, 2 November 1840),

medicine, galvanism.

The third son of Thomas Carlisle and Elizabeth Hubback, who died in childbirth, Anthony was brought up by his stepmother, Susannah Skottowe. Little is known of his early circumstances, and nothing of his schooling, but family connections were sufficient to place him in York under Dr. Anthony Hubback, his maternal uncle. After Hubback’s death (ca. 1783), Carlisle went to study under William Green, founder of the Durham Dispensary. Transferring to London to complete his medical education, he attended the lectures of George Fordyce and William Cruikshank, and worked under John Hunter at the Windmill Street School of Anatomy. Carlisle was an apt pupil who quickly won Hunter’s admiration and support. After spending some time under Henry Watson, the resident surgeon at the Westminster Hospital, Carlisle succeeded to his position in 1792. Thus began a fruitful and lifelong association with the hospital.

Carlisle had great skill as a surgeon. He devised effective modifications to several instruments, such as the amputating knife. The great bulk of his almost fifty published papers deal with anatomical and surgical questions, but contain no fundamental insights. His extraordinary success was due, rather, to his great ability to win and keep friends. Elected to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1800 (the year he married Martha Symmons), his social connections ensured his election to the professorship of anatomy at the Royal Academy in 1808. These same connections led to his appointment as surgeon to the duke of Gloucester, and later as surgeon extraordinary to the Prince Regent, on whose accession to the throne Carlisle was knighted. Carlisle served on the Court of Assistance (Council) of the Royal College of Surgeons from 1815 until his death. He twice gave the Hunterian Oration (1820, 1826), was vice-president of the College four times, and president in 1828 and 1837. He was also a member of the Linnean Society (1793), the Royal Society (1804; Croonian Lecturer, 1805, 1806), the Horticultural Society (1812), and the Geological Society (1820).

Carlisle’s medical work was competent but pedestrian; and he owes his enduring scientific reputation not to this, but to a famous experiment in the then new and sensationally developing science of galvanism. Volta’s discovery of the chemical means of generating a steady electric current was communicated to the Royal Society in 1800, in a two-part letter. Publication of the whole was delayed until the second part arrived. Meanwhile, Sir Joseph Banks showed the first part to scientific friends, including Carlisle. A flurry of experiments resulted. The first to be reported, and the most startling, was that in which Carlisle and William Nicholson together electrolyzed water into its constituents. Using “a pile consisting of 17 half crowns [of silver], with a like number of pieces of zinc, and of pasteboard, soaked in salt water… [the whole being] arranged in the order of silver, zinc, card, & c.”… “Mr. Carlisle observed a disengagement of gas” where “a drop of water upon the upper plate” was used to complete the circuit. Rearrangement of the apparatus led to Nicholson’s collection of hydrogen and oxygen in roughly the proportions that combine to give water. An early triumph of electrochemistry, the experiment was seized on and dramatically improved by Humphry Davy.


The classic paper is Nicholson’s “Account of the New Electrical or Galvanic Apparatus of Sig. Alex. Volta, and Experiments Performed with the Same,” in his Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts (quarto ser.), 4 (1800), 179–187. An informative obituary is in Gentle-man’s Magazine, n.s. 14 (1840), 660. A contemporary notice of Carlisle is in T. J. Pettigrew, Biographical Memoirs of the Most Celebrated Physicians, I (London. 1838): andJ. F. Clarke, Autobiographical Recollections of the Medical Profession (London. 1874), pp. 283–294, contains a lively insight into his declining years. R. J. Cole, “Sir Anthony Carlisle, F. R. S.,” in Annals of Science, 8 (1952), 255– 270, contains much detail and a comprehensive bibliography of Carlisle’s publications.

Arnold Thackray