1792-1820 - Early Life and Education

As an example of the erroneous recycling of historical information, many of the available biographies of Thomas Braidwood Wilson record him as being born on 30 April 1792 in Uphall when Thomas Wilson was baptised in Kirknewtown, West Lothian, Scotland on 29 April 1792. His parents according to that baptism record were James Wilson and Catherine Boak. James was noted to be a plowman in Crosstown.1 For some reason there is a second baptism record with the same date and place, but this time his parents are James Wilson of Crosstown (no occupation stated) and Catherine Boog.2

Baptism Record for Thomas Wilson

Baptism Record for Thomas Wilson
Image Reproduced Courtesy of Scotlands People

Neither baptism record refers to a middle name, and the occupation stated by his father on one of them gives no indication of the child's apparent future. On both occasions his mother is Catherine, not Katherine. These are small differences from other published records but they all significantly add up. The difference in spelling in Catherine's surname has already been discussed in the Introduction section.

Thomas' father, while noted as a plowman, was in fact a class above a typical farm worker as his family were tenant farmers. The reference to Crosstown was in fact an erroneous transcription of Corston, a tenanted farm on the Dalmahoy estate owned by the Earl of Morton. The Wilson family had been associated with Corston farm for at least two generations prior to Thomas birth. No doubt as a boy Thomas showed an aptitude for learning that would have identified him as suitable for a scholarship, or the family managed to put aside the funds required to give him a formal education.

According to Patricia Clarke in her book about Thomas' daughter Mary Braidwood Wilson, Thomas was at the University of Edinburgh between 1810 and 1813. 3 From his later University records it can be deduced that alongside his medical studies, Thomas received what was called a classical education, a study of the writings and philosophy of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Thomas' thesis, and at least one of his later surgeon's reports, were written entirely in Latin. Thomas Braidwood Wilson is recorded as attending the Edinburgh Medical School for the following semesters:

  • 1810-11: Thos. B. Wilson marked as studying Anat[omy]. 4
  • 1811-12: Thomas B. Wilson marked as studying Chem[istry], Prac[tical]. Med[icine]. 5
  • 1812-13: Thomas B. Wilson of Edinburgh on a list of students for M. Medica. 6

Originally from the College’s inception in 1505 the only examination available was that for the full 'Mastership' [Fellowship]. This was essentially a process of master and apprentice. However, in 1757 at the request of the War Office, a John McLean was admitted with the new “Diploma” of the College - a separate examination that licensed the successful candidate as competent to practice surgery although it was not until the 1770's that this Diploma was introduced fully and developed. From 1815 the Diploma was standardised and renamed 'Licentiateship'. It was a highly respected and officially recognised medical qualification, often used as an alternative as much as an addition to a university medical degree. Thomas received his College Diploma on 18 March 1813.

18th March 1813 1st Year of Mr James Law Deacon
In presence of the Examinators appeared Mefsr. James Stevenson, Thomas Gilfillan, Francis Sievright, John Cleland, Peter Boyd, William Dawson, and Thomas Braidwood Wilson, and being severally examined upon their skill in Anatomy, Surgery and Pharmacy were found fully qualified to practise these arts, received diplomas and paid the usual fees to the Treasurer. Ja Law. 7

According to the a number of published sources, Thomas' career in the Admiralty started when he was assigned to HMS Concorde as Assistant Surgeon on 13 March 1805 until 5 November 1806. That same individual was re-assigned a couple of weeks later on 17 November 1806 to the HM San Josef, again as Assistant Surgeon. The assignment to HMS San Josef concluded on 9 April 1807 and on 14 April 1807 he was assigned to the HMS Sapphire in his first posting as Surgeon. The assignment to HMS Sapphire concluded on 2 February 1813. The next day he was assigned to HMS Sappho. 8

It is now apparent however that those assignments appear to concern a different Thomas Wilson than the son of James Wilson and Catherine Boak. Thomas Braidwood Wilson's naval career began when, on 20 April 1813 he was listed as a Hospital Mate in the Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar.9 Thomas Braidwood Wilson was probably too young to be same individual with those earlier assignments, the progression through the ranks between the two records is contradictory, and in fact the two records overlap in dates.

Haslar Hospital is at Alverstoke, soutward of Gosport - or rather it is at a point of land a little eastward of Alverstoke, nearer to the harbour.
This hospital is one of the many examples of the improved care taken for the health and comfort of the sick and disabled in the national service. Formerly, the disabled seamen and marines of Portsmouth had to be put on board hospital ships, where, from being crowded together too closely, the skill of the medical men was often unable to save the poor fellows from the ill effects of impure air. To serve as a hospital for seamen and marines, Haslar Hospital was built. It was constructed about a century ago, and presents a fine appearance from the the opposite side of the harbour. A deep creek intervenes between Haslar and Gosport, insomuch that a carriage had to make a detour of about three miles to get from one to the other; but a bridge has been built over the creek within the last few years, so as to bring Haslar within a few minutes' walk of Gosport.

View of Haslar Hospital in Gosport, with boat moored in the water in foreground at right, and others seen closer to the shore c1847.

View of Haslar Hospital in Gosport, with boat moored in the water in foreground at right, and others seen closer to the shore c1847.
© Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

On entering the gates of the Hospital, the principal front first meets the view, to which we gain access across a grassy open court. This front is four stories in height, and not far short of six hundred feet in length. No particular architectural effect is aimed at, for the building is a plain brick. An archway in the centre of this front gives entrance to the central court or triangle; and I either side of this archway are doors leading up to the sick wards in upper ranges, together with the steward's room, the butler's room, and so forth. The buildings extend on three sides round the open quadrangle. There is open arcade round all the sides, where the seamen and marines may walk and sit and talk and smoke, when their returning health permits him to do so. On one side of this quadrangle, a range of apartments is devoted to a Museum of Natural History: not very closely connected, perhaps, with naval affairs or hospital affairs; but still, as the contents have resulted from various donations, and as they relate in part to the professional knowledge of the medical officers of the establishment, they ought to be welcomed. The fourth side of the quadrangle is occupied by the Chapel, around which is a pleasant garden or rather lawn, on which the invalids love to walk. This lawn extends to the boundary wall close to the harbour; and in it is erected a little observatory, the stage of which is just high enough to allow a peep over the wall at the busy harbour. Here the hardy, but somewhat battered veterans resort, when well enough, and, if a stranger joins them, he need have no lack of information as to the ships lying in the harbour. This is the 'Howe;' that is the 'St. Vincent;' up the harbour is the Royal Yacht, the 'Victoria and Albert;' beyond it is Nelson's 'Victory.' Very probably they fight their battles over again; although not so often as at Greenwich; for Greenwich is really a home for superannuated seaman; whereas Haslar is more a temporary hospital for their recovery.

The marines and seamen, who are here alike placed under the care of skilful physician and surgeon, are two classes of men as much unlike as any in the Queen's service. Both serve on ship-board, (the marines are the soldiers of a ship of war,) but their habits and duties are widely different. Captain Basil Hall once gave a capital sketch of the contrast between these two classes.

Both the marines and the seamen pull and haul at certain ropes, leading along the quarter-deck; both assist in scrubbing and washing the decks; both eat salt-junk and drink grog, sleep in hammocks, and keep watch at night; but in almost every other thing they differ. As far as the marines are concerned, the sails would never be let fall, or reefed or rolled up. There is even a positive Admiralty order against their being made to go aloft; and, accordingly, a marine in the rigging is almost as ridiculous and helpless an object as a sailor would prove it thrust into a tight, well pipe-clayed pair of pantaloons, and barred round the throat with a stiff stock..... If the safety of the ship depended on it, no marine could ever swing round the hand-lead, without the risk of breaking his sconce: no sailors were ever yet taught to march even moderately really well in line. In short, without going farther, it may be said, that the colour of their clothing, and the manner in which it is put on, do not differ more from one another than the duties and habits of the marines and sailors. Jack wears a blue jacket, and the Jolly wears a red one. Jack would sooner take a round dozen than be seen with a pair of braces across his shoulders; while the marines, if deprived of his suspensors, would speedily be left sansculotte. A thorough-going, barrack-bred, regular-built marine, in a ship of which the sergeant-major truly loves his art, has, without any very exaggerated metaphor, been compared to a man who has swallowed a set of fire-irons; the tongs representing the legs; the poker the back-bone, and the shovel the neck and head. While, on the other hand, your sailor-man is to be likened to nothing except one of those delicious figures in the fantocinni show-boxes, where the legs, arms, and head are flung loosely about to the right and left, no one bone apparently having a slightest organic connection with any other; the whole being an affair of strings, springs, and universal joints !" 10

Thomas was 21 when he started in the Royal Naval Hospital. The assignment is probably the equivalent of what is called an internship now. The facility, located in Gosport, Hampshire, opened in 1753 and is now a heritage listed building. 11 It is possible that whilst Thomas was working here, he gained an interest in nature and natural history.

On 18 April 1814, Thomas was reported to be working in Halifax, Nova Scotia as an assistant surgeon, a significant step in his ongoing medical education. 12 Halifax is the capital of Nova Scotia (the literal translation of which means New Scotland) in Canada and had been a British settlement since the 1750's. In the early 1800's during the Napoleonic Wars Halifax was an important naval and military base. While Thomas was there he would have been pleased to hear in May 1814 about the fall of Napolean and the entry of allied troops into Paris. Even so, hostilities between the British and the Americans continued until December of that year so Thomas would have had his hands full treating the wounded from the various incursions that occurred around the Nova Scotia area.13

On 13 September 1814 Thomas was assigned to HMS Trident as an acting surgeon, a further elevation of rank.14 and on 17 August 1815, also on HMS Trident, Thomas Braidwood Wilson was provided with the seniority of a Surgeon with the Admiralty.15

Thomas completed another year of studies at the University of Edinburgh in 1817, studying Botany.16 As previously stated, he completed his thesis, titled ‘De Hepatitide’, written entirely in Latin, which appears to have qualified him for the position of licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (LRCS). Thomas was also a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of London (FRCS).17

Front Page of Thomas Braidwood Wilsons Thesis

Front Page of Thomas Braidwood Wilson's Thesis
Thesis in the University of Edinburgh Library

On 23 January 1818 Thomas was assigned as surgeon on the HMS Drake18, an appointment that was reported in the Caledonian Mercury:

Dr. Thomas Braidwood Wilson is appointed surgeon of his Majesty's ship Drake, fitting out at Portsmouth for Channel service.19

Another appointment followed when Thomas was assigned to the HMS Liffey on 19 February 1819 as Surgeon.20 The HMS Liffey was a 50-gun ship and continued to be used largely during the Seven Years' War, and during the time of the American Revolution a whole new group of 50-gun ships was constructed, not for the battlefleet, but to meet the needs of combat in the shallow waters off North America where the larger ships found it difficult to sail.21 The fifth rates at the start of the 18th century were small two-deckers, and served as fast scouts or independent cruisers and included a variety of gun arrangements.22

It was during this assignment, that Dr. Wilson would meet Captain (later Sir) Henry Duncan, master of the HMS Liffey which he commanded on anti-pirate operations in the West Indies and later escorted the Prince Regent on his fleet inspection in 1819, during which he praised Duncan and his ship. He subsequently conveyed Sir Charles Bagot, Ambassador to Russia, to Saint Petersburg and took despatches to Naples, remaining in the Mediterranean until 1821.23 24 Thomas would later dedicate his 1832 published book - Narrative of a Voyage Around the World - to his mentor, Sir Henry Duncan.