Wharton, Thomas

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(b.Winston-on Tees, Durham, England, 31 August 1614; d. London, England, 15 November 1673), anatomy. endocrinology.

The son of John Wharton and Elizabeth Hodson, Wharton studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge, from 1637 to 1642. He subsequently moved to Trinity College, Oxford; spent three years in further study at Bolton, Lancashire; and graduated M.D. at Oxford on 7 May 1647. Thereafter he had a medical practice in London, where he was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians on 23 December 1650. Wharton served as one of its censors six times between 1658 and 1673 and gave the Goulstonian lectures in January 1654. In 1656 he published, at his own expense, his Latin treatise Adenographia, “a description of the glands of the entire body,” which he dedicated of the College of Physicians. Wharton was appointed physician to St. Thomas’s Hospital on 20 November 1657 and practiced in the City through the epidemic of bubonic plagure in 1665.

Adenographia gave the first thorough account of the glands of the human body, which Wharton classified as excretory, reductive, and nutrient. He differentiated the viscera from th glands and explained their relationship, describing the spleen and pancreas . He discussed in turn the abdominal and thoracic glands, those of the head, and the reproductive glands, concluding with a section on pathology. His approach was physiological, like Harvey’s; but his explanations were often teleological—he suggested, for instance, that one function of the thyroid was “to fill neck and make it shapely.”

Wharton discovered the duct of the submaxillary sailvary galnds and the jelly of the umbilical cord, both of which are named for him; he also provided the first adequate account of the thyroid and gave it that name. He explained the role of saliva in mastication and digestion but considered that the function of certain glands, such as the adrenals and the thyroid, was to restore to the veins certain humors that were not useful to the nerves. It discussing the reproductive glands Wharton corroborated Harvey’s account of the placenta and gave a clear description of the mucoid jelly of the umbilical cord, which keeps it supple and conveys and cushions the fetal vessels. He noted that this jelly does not extend beyond the umbilicus.

Much of Wharton’s research was performed on animals; he mentions dissection of calves, and Izaak Walton published his description of an anglerfish (Lophyus). He also acknowledged the opportunities for human dissection afforded him by the physicians in charge of the hospitals. Most of the glands had been mentioned in general treatises on anatomy, and the lacteals were much discussed at the time when Wharton wrote; but Adenographia was the first comprehensive survey. The widely acclaimed book was reprinted six times in Europe. Boerhaave wrote that Wharton “was not a great thinker, but uniquely trustworthy with his scalpel.” Although special aspects of glandular anatomy were further explored by some of Whartion’s younger contemporaries, the glands were little studied for nearly 200 years.

Wharton’s sympathies in the Civil War were republican. In the preface to Adenographia he thanked Cromwell’s physician, John French, and his surgeon, Thomas Trapham, for their help in his research. He also named Francis Glisson “for shared experiments.” George Ent “for advice and help,” and his senior hospital colleagues Francis Prujean and Edward Emily. Wharton was also friendly with the mathematician William Oughtred, and he helped Elias Ashmole to compile the catalog of John Tradescant’ museum. He was not connected with Gresham College, disliking its “new brood of virtuosi” who founded the Royal Society.

On 25 June 1653 Wharton married Jane Asbridge, who died in 1669. Their son, Thomas II, became a clergyman; but their grandson George and great-grandson Thomas III, George’s nephew, were prominent London physicians.


I. Original Works. Adenographia: Sive glandularum totius corporis descriptio (London, 1656; repr. Amsterdam. 1659; Nijmegen, 1664; Wesel. 1671; Leiden, 1679; Geneva, 1685; Düsseldorf, 1730) contains descriptions of “Wharton’s duct” on 128–137 and of “Wharton’s jelly” on 243–244. The Royal College of Physicians, London, owns Wharton’s “letter book.” which contains autograph copies of letters written in English in the last months of his life (Mar.-Oct. 1673). It also has almanacs for 1663-1666, in which Wharton had written miscellaneous notes, including a few prescriptions, case histories, and copies of letters.

II. Secondary Literature. Izaak Walton. The Compleat Angler(1653), ch. 19, describes Wharton as “a man of great learning and experience and of equal freedom to communicate it.” Thomas Bartholin, Spicilegia bina ex vasis lymphaticis (Amsterdam, 1661), pt. 2, ch. 5, prasises Wharton’s discoveries and “incomparable accuracy.” Girolamo Barbato, discoverer of blood serum, mentions Wharton’s work several times in his Disseratio …de sanguine et eius sero (Paris, 1667). Hermann Boerhaave praises Adenographia in his Method of studing Physick (London, 1719), 228. Elias Ashmole, Autobiographical and Historical Notes. C.H. Josten, ed., 5 vols. (Oxford, 1966), contains numerous personal references from Ashmole’s MSS in the Bodleian Library.

H.D. Rolleston, The Endocrine Glands With an Historical Review (Oxford, 1936), discusses Wharton’s accounts of the thyroid (p. 142), and the adrenals (p. 317); H. Speert, “The Jelly of the Umbilical Cord,” in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 8 , no. 3 (1956). 380–382, translates and comments on Wharton’ description; K.F. Russell, British Anatomy (Melbourne, 1963), nos. 854–859, records the editions of Adenographia. Biographies are J.F. Payne, “On Some Old Physicians of St. Thomas’s Hospital,” in St. Thomas’s Hospital Reports. n.s. 26 (1897), 8–15, with portrait; and Bertha Porter, in Dictionary of National Biography, with references to sources and earlier studies.

William LeFanu

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