William Frederick Chambers

William Frederick Chambers (1786–1855)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 11, 327–328.

This distinguished physician was born in India to William and Charity (née Fraser) Chambers. The elder William was a civil servant in the East India Company, as well as a respected oriental scholar. Young William was sent to England in 1793 to be educated, first at Bath, later at Westminster School, and finally at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received his M.D. in 1818. Elected physician to St. George’s Hospital in 1816, he went on to become the most prominent physician in London from the mid-1830’s until his retirement in 1848. In 1836 he was appointed physician-in-ordinary to Queen Adelaide and afterward to William IV, then to Queen Victoria upon her succession in 1837. That same year Ernest Augustus, the new King of Hanover, conferred a knighthood upon Chambers, but at his own request, he was excused from using the title. Meanwhile, he was in less than perfect health. He had never fully recovered from the effects of a poisoned wound which he had suffered while conducting a post-mortem examination in 1834. Poor health forced his retirement from practice, and he died at his estate near Lymington, Hampshire, on 16 December 1855. Writing to her sister Arabel on 16–18 December [1848], EBB mentioned that she had heard “of the death of persons known to me”—Chambers was one of those she named—no doubt the result of a notice of his death which appeared shortly after his retirement, and which was subsequently refuted by himself.

The first reference to Chambers in connection with the Moulton-Barretts occurred in a letter from EBB’s sister Henrietta to their brother Sam (14–15 November [1837], SD835), in which she reported that their brother George “has had he Small-pox” and “Dr. Chambers was called in.” EBB’s first reference to Chambers appeared in a letter on 28 November 1837 to Miss Mitford (no. 596), in which she referred to him as “Dr. Chambers whom I was kindly persecuted into seeing yesterday.” Despite her “abhorrence” of medical advice and her “fancy, that as soon as ever one consults a medical man, one ought to grow perfectly well immediately in order to make the less equivalent amends for the disagreeableness of it” (letter 599), EBB always had a high regard for Chambers. In a letter to Miss Mitford in June 1838 (no. 636), EBB wrote that he “is at once a kind & a skilful man—& my confidence in him is the greater that he has not tried to deceive me by calling things by cowardly names. Indeed he does me good.” About the same time, in a letter to Hugh Stuart Boyd, EBB wrote: “Dr. Chambers deserves my confidence—& besides the skill with which he has met the different modifications of the complaint, I am grateful to him for a feeling & a sympathy which are certainly rare in such of his profession as have their attention diverted” (letter 645). The decision that sent EBB to Torquay in August 1838 was largely based upon Chambers’s advice. EBB wrote to several correspondents that it was his opinion that her “lungs were without desease—but so weak, that they struggle against the cold air—which occasions the cough” (letter 609; see also letter 611). She was pleased that her attending physician in Torquay, Robert Fitzwilliam de Barry Barry, took “Dr. Chambers’s view of the case exactly—which is satisfactory to me who trust so very much in Dr. Chambers” (letter 664).

Although she was still not completely well on her return to London from Torquay, EBB resisted seeing Chambers. In a letter to Miss Mitford on 1 December 1841, EBB argued against calling him in, saying that he could not give her the one thing she really needed: “a chronic stage of summer” (letter 875). Two years later she was still insisting upon “the incompetency of the medical profession to treat successfully these affections of the chest, I will mention to you [Miss Mitford] confidentially that even Dr. Chambers (of whose science & acuteness there can be only one opinion)—on failing to stop the bleeding in my case with the common specific of lead, recommended me to a quack medecine which had been successful, he said!,—‘Do not mention my name, or it will be in all the newspapers,—but get the styptic at such a place!’” (letter 1476).

Chambers’s sympathy and flexibility extended to EBB’s fear of storms. In a letter to Miss Mitford in August 1843 (letter 1347), EBB remarked: “Dr. Chambers used to explain me benignantly to myself, & talk of the ‘electric fluid’s subtle influences’.” EBB’s first reference to Chambers in her letters to RB mentions this same fear and adds: “Dr. Chambers, a part of whose office it is, Papa says, ‘to reconcile foolish women to their follies,’ used to take the side of my vanity,—& discourse at length on the passive obedience of some nervous systems to electrical influences” (letter 1971). RB replied: “your father must pardon me for holding most firmly with Dr. Chambers—his theory is quite borne out by my own experience” (letter 1973).

When, in the summer of 1845, the subject arose of EBB’s going to Italy for the sake of her health, Chambers was called in to give his opinion. EBB wrote to Miss Mitford in September 1845 that “he desires me to go by sea to Leghorn .. & to spend the winter in Pisa .. & promises all manner of good from it” (letter 2023). In a letter to RB at the same time, EBB noted that “the Pisa-case is strengthened all round by his opinion & injunction” (letter 2020).

Few references to Chambers occurred in the correspondence after the Brownings left England. One of the last appeared in a letter from RB to Sarianna Browning written on 30 June 1861, in which he quoted EBB on her lack of concern for the final illness that caused her death. “It is the old story—they don’t know my case—I have been tapped & sounded so, and condemned so, repeatedly: this time it is said the right is the affected lung while the left is free– Dr. Chambers said just the contrary.”

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