Mark Akenside

1721 –

Mark Akenside, a poet and physician, was born on November 9, 1721, in Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, in northeastern England. He was the second son of Mary (née Lumsden) and a Newcastle butcher, for whom Akenside was named, who owned a successful shop on Butcher Bank. The Akensides were Northumbrian Presbyterians. When Akenside was seven, one of his father’s cleavers fell onto his foot. According to fellow physician and former pupil John Coakley Lettsom, as a result of the injury one of Akenside’s legs was noticeably shorter than the other, “which was in some measure remedied by the aid of a false heel.” Akenside first attended Newcastle Grammar School. His parents later placed him in an academy in town led by a religious dissenter. In 1738, Akenside attended the University of Edinburgh with the intention of becoming a Presbyterian minister. He changed the focus of his studies after his first year, choosing instead to study medicine. In December 1740, he became a member of Edinburgh’s medical society. Four years later, he earned his degree of medicine from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, where he wrote a dissertation on embryology and befriended the future British politician and civil servant Jeremiah Dyson, who was then a law student. Dyson would also later edit Akenside’s posthumous collection of poems. 

Akenside’s poetic works are the “Hymn to the Naiads” and “To the Evening Star,” both published in 1746; Odes on Several Subjects (1745); “An Epistle to Curio” (1744); “The Pleasures of Imagination” (1744), an epic in blank verse, which appeared in the posthumous collection The Poems of Mark Akenside, M.D. (1772) with a fourth book; and “The Virtuoso” (1737).

Akenside first tried to establish a medical practice in Northampton, England, then in Hampstead, north of London, but experienced difficulty. In 1747,  Dyson helped Akenside set up a practice in Bloomsbury Square in London. While working to develop his practice and reputation, Akenside also focused on his literary career. On February 8, 1753, a month after earning his medical degree by mandamus from Cambridge, a requirement to practice medicine in London, Akenside was elected to the Royal Society. The following year, he became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London, where he gave numerous lectures during the 1750s. In 1759, he was appointed a physician at both St. Thomas’s Hospital and Christ’s Hospital, both in London. Two years later, he became one of three physicians assigned to care for Queen Charlotte. 

After building a successful medical career, Akenside focused more on writing about discoveries in medicine. In 1764, he published De dysenteria commentarius, a text on the subject of dysentery printed in Latin by Robert Dodsley, who also printed Akenside’s works of poetry. In 1768, Akenside contributed three essays, including “Observations on cancers,” to the first volume of Medical Transactions, a publication by the Royal College of Physicians. 

At the age of forty-nine, Mark Akenside contracted a putrid fever, now known as typhus, and died on June 23, 1770. He is buried in the parish church of St. James, Westminster.