Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from John Coakley Lettsom, 28 January 1784

From John Coakley Lettsom

ALS: American Philosophical Society

London Jan. 28. 1784.

Honoured Friend

I write this at the request of my friend & Countryman Thornton, a Student of medicine, & a young gentleman of fortune from Tortola;3 who has, like every other person of sentiment & ambition, a fond desire to know Dr. Franklin, & I have taken the liberty to request his delivery of this letter— I think he will make a distinguished character; he has at present too much sail, but age will give him ballast: I shall recommend him to lodge, if convenient, with our friend Mr. Le Sue le chirurgien,4 to perfect himself in the language & in his Art.

I purpose soon to make an elegant edition, if paper & type can do it, of Dr. Fothergill’s life, in which I mean to add some Anecdotes of the Doctors more particular & honourable acquaintance, with portraits elegantly engraved. I hope Dr. Franklin will forgive me for placing him in this situation, in the company of Dr. Cleghorn, Dr. Cuming, Dr. Russell & Peter Collinson—5 I have in my possession a striking medallion of Dr. Franklin, which I mean to have engraved, under which will be placed the four lines, which are inscribed under the head prefixed to our late amiable friend Dr. Dubourg’s edition of Les Œuvres de Franklin.6 I have not any authentic early anecdotes, but recent ones will furnish many great and striking outlines.

Whatever freedoms I may have taken with the most distinguished character in Europe, I hope Dr. Franklin will attribute my conduct to that sincere respect with which I ever Subscribe myself his Admirer & obliged friend

J. C. Lettsom

Addressed: Benjn. Franklin

Notation: Lettsom 28 Jan. 84.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

3The future architect and inventor William Thornton (1759–1828) studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh before going in the fall of 1783 to London, where he studied art as well as medicine and came under the guardianship of Lettsom, a distant relative. He went to Paris to continue his studies and stayed until early August. In Paris he cultivated an interest in natural history and geology, and got to know Faujas de Saint-Fond and his associates. Faujas enlisted Thornton to join his expedition to Scotland in the fall of 1784: ANB; C. M. Harris et al., eds., Papers of William Thornton (1 vol. to date, Charlottesville and London, 1995–), 1, xxxiv–xli, 14; Thornton to TJ, Jan. 9, 1821 (Library of Congress); Paolo Andreani, Diario di viaggio di un gentiluomo milanese, Parigi-Londra 1784 (Milan, 1975), p. 79.

Thornton recorded two occasions on which he and BF discussed science at Passy. One conversation had to do with the survival of toads in unlikely conditions: XXXVII, 100n. Another time, the young man brought to Passy a bottle made of lava glass, which he believed to be one of the first ever made. BF tested its “electric power, & he concluded it to be about thirty times more electric than common Glass. These bottles tho’ much lighter were also much stronger than common green glass”: “Some Account of Lettsom’s Island,” undated, William Thornton Papers, Library of Congress, fol. 2827. Thornton doubtless obtained his bottle from Faujas, who had recently announced in the press that he had been the first to make such vessels. That claim was disputed by Balthazar-Georges Sage, who insisted that his former student Chaptal had been the first. The dispute, aired at length in the pages of the Jour. de Paris, continued through the spring of 1784: issues of Jan. 2, Feb. 19 sup., Feb. 21, Feb. 27 sup., Feb. 29, April 8, 1784.

4Jean-Joseph Sue père: XL, 55–6n.

5Lettsom’s Memoirs of John Fothergill, M.D. &c., which was not published until 1786, expanded his earlier Some Account of the Late John Fothergill (1783): XXXV, 479n. The additional material included biographical sketches of the physicians George Cleghorn, William Cuming, and Alexander Russell, as well as the naturalist Peter Collinson. BF’s sketch did not appear, as BF never revised the preliminary draft that Lettsom sent him, for his review, on March 1, 1785 (APS).

6This engraving was published in Memoirs of John Fothergill, M.D. &c. following p. 164. It was made by James Heath (ODNB, under Heath family) after a fur-cap Nini medallion. For the quatrain composed by Barbeu-Dubourg for the engraving in his Œuvres de M. Franklin see XX, frontispiece, xvii; XXI, 100–1, 193–4.

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