James Yonge doctor and surgeon and man of letters

JAMES YONGE - man of letter, doctor and surgeon

 JAMES YONGE. 1647-1721 was the son of John, a surgeon of  Plymouth, Devon and Joanna Blackaller, the daughter of Nicholas Blackaller merchant of Dartmouth, Devon.

 The origins of the family before this are unknown. His fathers parents may have been English settled in Cork. Various family accounts of the 18th and 19th centuries are silent,  which would either suggest there was no information or the family or they were embarrassed by the family's lowly forbears.

 He was born at Plymouth, during the Civil War, on the 27th February 1747 and was baptised to his indignation"under the Presbyterian discipline which at that time was rampant".

 At that time Devon was the second most populated county in the country and Plymouth was a thriving and growing seaport.

 Yonge was or became a Royalist while his brother seems to have been of the Puritan persuasion. Family legend is that the two brothers are said too have so fallen out that Nathaniel changed the spelling of his name to YOUNG to avoid being associated with his brother. However in looking at written evidence at the time, while the split may have been the cause for the change it seems that it was James who changed the spelling of his name to the older form. Whatever the reason, all his descendants use the spelling YONGE while all Nathaniel's use YOUNG.

 He was sent to PlymouthGrammar School in the year 1664, then run by a Mr Horsemann.  After two years, his father suffering from a lingering disease and believing he was dying and feeling a need to provide for his son's future, had him articled at the age of ten to Silvester Richmond of Liverpool, the surgeon on the Navy vessel the Constant Warwick.

 It was a thirty one gun ship, under Captain Robert Voysey and whilst on it he saw some action. He recounted in his journal: "She was a ship that sailed well and had good luck in taking prizes. We had at this time war with the Spaniard, who infested our coast with small pickeroons from four to thirty guns ".

 In May 1662 by his masters retirement he was first for four months an assistant at Wapping, to a surgeon apothecary named Clarke. At that time physicians received an academic education and went to university. Surgeons however were very much the inferior branch of the medical profession.  and the best were seen as little more than skilled artisans and the worst as little better than butchers..

 He was back in Plymouth by September 1662 and was then unwillingly bound to his own father for another seven years. This action by his father rankled with him all his life and they were only reconciled at the end of his fathers life. He wrote of this time “I lived more unhappy than ever I had done, he had noe buisnes for me, but to write letters. My elder brother was maintained like a prince, I clad with old turned cloaths."

 However he in fact only worked with his father for a few months before being  shipped off to sea again. During this period he undertook several voyages, mostly with the fishing fleet to Newfoundland but also to the west coast of Africa and the Mediterranean.

In  early 1666, during the Second Dutch War, his ship the Bonaventure was captured by the Dutch and he was shackled together with other prisoners, for fifty one days. The biography of his namesake and writer Charlotte Yonge refer to James being a galley slave of the Moors. There is no reference to this in his Journal and it is probably based on his time as a Dutch prisoner, muddled with the fact that he did serve off the north African coast while in the Navy.

 In due course he and the rest of the crew were landed at Amsterdam. Whilst held prisoner, he continued when he could to study medicine when he could. In September 1666 he was exchanged for a Dutch official held by the English. his release. he first went to a London which had just been devastated by the Great Fire. He wrote.

 "What sorrow possessed my heart when I saw that once glorious city lye in ruins of ashes. Divers heaps of ruble still smoking, its not to be exprest how dismal it all ookt, nor how unconcerned most people that passed by were at it".

 After a period in Plymouth which he "spent in Studdy, Practice and sometimes riding in ye country" he went to sea once more. He recounts that his father "gave me an empty chest, and five pounds and ye residue of my tyme". In  February 1668, he made what was to be his final voyage, to Newfoundland in the Marigold of Plymouth.

 He finally returned to Plymouth on September 29th 1670, to establish himself in practice, after fourteen years at sea, he was still only twenty five. He wrote "looking over all that I remember hereof I have cause to wonder at God's goodnes and to Prayse him for it. I beseech him to give me as good succes in my designes a shore: I hope it will be more quiet and less dangerous".

 He married on March 28th 1671 Jane, daughter of Thomas Crampporne of Buckland Monachorum Devon. Her mother had a close relative married to Sir Thomas Clifford. By her he had two sons, the eldest of whom predeceased him or and six daughters but only one married and had  a family of her own.

 While his practise was in Plymouth his Journal records many visits to London where he enjoyed showing his wife the buildings of the new London and chatting with scientists and intellectuals in the taverns and coffee shops. One of his first business visits to London was to see John Evelyn, who was one of the Commissioners for the Sick and Wounded, who could doubtless help advance his medical career. Later in 1674, Thomas Pearse, the Surgeon -General of the Navy, made him his deputy, which brought a considerable increase in his income. To do this it seems he forsook his Puritan principles.

 His brother Samuel wrote in A Censure of Three Scandalous Pamphlets:

 “I am sorry to say my Prefacer [Yonge] a great friend to all dissenters, went to all their meetings, contributions etc till he was forced to go to sacrament to get the hospital at Plymouth and then he baulked at complying and was dragged to the Lords table and then became one of the greatest enemies they had.”

 In 1678 he wrote his most important work the "Currus Triumphalis de Terebintho". This still important work describes the flap operation in amputation, which was not to universally adopted for a couple of hundred years.

 He was probably the first person to perform a successful brain operation in England and to evidence this he published in 1682 an account entitled "Wounds of the Braine Proved Curable", based on several of his own operations.

 He also left details of an early trepanning operation that he performed on a man who "by a prodigious wound in the forehead lost as much brain as the shell of a pullets egg can contain."

 He could in an age of no libel laws be scathing about his colleagues. In Observations in Chyrurgery and Anatomy he wrote of  a fellow medical practitioner:

 "He delivers “that a woman having the disease called tinda by lotions recovered her health but in the interim she endured continual pain and fever from which she died. “Recovered of the disease” and in the interim died of its effects!

 "In every point of your art carry yourself wisely, unadvisedly to err therein you will as readily be accounted amongst the number of fools of which sort of people I am afraid we have too many at this day in our Nation. Chyrurgery is crept into acquaintance with such strange creatures and owned in its profession by such mean spirits among whom the name with the art is but small and little.

 The truth is such ignorant practioners cures may more properly be called corruptions and their judgements ignorance plumed out and set forth with the best advantage of impudence.

 His works are twice sodden cabbages, nothing new, nothing his own

 I am moved to indignation to find that while ingenious and inquisitive men are labouring to improve and advance it and its esteem in the World by their excellent writings, labours experiments and useful discourses, so many meddling sops so busily interpose and not only amuse disturb and discourage them by the gaggling of their loose quills but disparage the growing credit of the faculty by their follies and falsehoods; to see so many ignoramuses trust themselves through the prods with swollen titles under their nefarious fanatical pictures  which like ballads they front and lead their empty books which no more answer to the pretence of their title pages than the excretions of a few bad (ditto) the marrow of many good authors."

  His most famous work however is his Journal which gives a detailed record  the minutae of his private and public life from childhood to the age of sixty one. It is the most important diary of the 17th an dearly 18th centuries after those of John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys. It formed the basis of an account of his life which appeared in Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal of 1849 and the article on him in the - Dictionary of National Biography 1900. The Journal is now kept in the library of the Plymouth Institute. Though not a medical casebook, the journal  records his successes with depressed fractures and amputations, for which new techniques he was accepted as something of a pioneer. His Journal is an invaluable source of information about his life his family and times.

 He also wrote a chronological account of the city of Plymouth, complete with a catalogue of mayors containing " ye memorable occurences in their respective yeares" and details of the charter granted by King Charles 11 etc. It was edited by J Beckerlegge in 1951 and published by the Plymouth Institution.

 By the 1670's he had become a person of some importance and was called to fill a succession of civic and professional offices in Plymouth. In 1679 he was elected a member for life of the Common Council of the Borough of Plymouth. In 1682 he was appointed a churchwarden at St Andrew's. In 1694 he became alderman and mayor of Plymouth.

 In 1685 he became surgeon to Lord Bath's regiment of Militia, a post he had to give up in 1689 because of other commitments or perhaps a desire to be on the winning side in the Glorious Revolution.

 In 1692 he was appointed surgeon to the new dock at Hamoaze, Plymouth. In consequence of that appointment he had to go to London. Whilst there he attended Dr. Tyson's anatomical lectures at Surgeons Hall. He also dined at the Hall and without charge and without examination was made a member, an honour which he states "had never before been thus conferred on anyone".

 Towards the end of his tenure, at the end of the 17th Century a new residential terrace was constructed at the dockyard for the senior officers. Most of the terrace was destroyed in World war 11 but James house survives. It is doubtful to what extent he lived in the property. He had extensive properties in Plymouth and throughout his life seemed to be moving up the property ladder.

 Although a Plymouth man all his life he did follow the new trend among the gentry and rising merchant classes of sending two of his daughters to boarding schools near to London. This would have been another sign that he had "made it".

 In 1702, being in London, he sat the examination of the College of Physicians, as an Extra-Licentiate. The examination took place at the house of the president Sir Thomas Milington in Lincolns Inn. James left and a full account of the exam which was published in the 1889 edition of St Bartholmews Journal. This account of his examination shows that he was more interested in the practice than theory of medicine. His answers show that he was a man of originality, of deep thought and well versed in his chosen profession.

 In 1700  he was involved in the newly established (1688) Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge a Christian ending library/publishing society. There is a reference  in the papers at the Plymouth Record Office that "Mr James Yonge was recomended by Gilbert as lay correspondent for Plymouth but he declined the office ". Later there is a letter from Mr John Gilbert of Plymouth to a Mr Chamberlaine,  on April 30th 1700 that he is soliciting James Yonge for a lay correspondent. "A further letter between the same parties dated June 20th 1700 says "that my chamberlaine ought to have directed to Mr James Yonge and not to John Young Esq. " On the 6th June the Society directed that John Young be lay correspondent for Plymouth instead of Mr James Yonge, recomended by Canon Gilbert on the 30th April. However on 23rd September Gilbert is still writing to Chamberlaine "that Mr Young declines to correspondence." Clearly a muddled and dilatory affair.

 In 1702 he was elected a Fellow of the newly formed and select Royal Society. The Royal Society, which still exists, reflected and encouraged the new age of empirical science and all the leading people in  mathematics, physics and other branches of natural science, were members. During his membership he made many important contributions to the Philosophical Transactions. There appears to have been however  a delay of some years before he was formally enrolled. The reasons for this are not clear.

 Not only did he achieve professional recognition but he was very successful in building up a good practice . He was paid up to  100 pounds for a  operation. A statement of his assets and income in the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office records that in 1718,  after he had paid nearly £900 to build his sons new house and paid of the debts of his daughter in laws family, that he was worth over  £20,000.

 In 1703, in his 67th year, having established his reputation he retired.  However in Treasury Books for 27th January 1704 to a long report and accounts from the Commissioners of Sick and Wounded War Prisoners. It refers to charges upon sub accounting in different localities, that monies be imprest to them for the sick and that any remaining unpaid or unaccounted for should be discharged. Of the details given there is a reference to £467 3s 8d (£467.18p) being paid to James Yonge of Plymouth for the sick.

 Also he did perform one other professional act, the embalming of Sir Cloudsley Shovel (he had previously embalmed the King of Portugal) who had died in 1707 when his and other ships founded off the Scilly Isles. The Admiral's body was carried to Plymouth where James on the request of Queen Anne temporarily embalmed the corpse for a lying in state London. For this he received £50.

 However he had not totally withdrawn from public life. In 1708 following an act of Parliament, a new work house was established in Plymouth. Dr. James was elected its first Governor.

 He amassed a considerable fortune during his life though hard work and one suspects  hard nosed commercial brain. It was this money which set up his son and the family for subsequent generations. 

 It was his eldest son James Yonge born 1679, who in 1718 married Mary Upton, daughter and with her sister sole heiress  of John Upton who had the present Puslinch house erected.. The Upton's had the land and it was land which was the measure of wealth and status and it was the Yonge's, through James who had the money. James made that marriage possible by the payment off of the Upton debts and mortgages and in the building of  a new Puslinch House which  reputedly cost upwards of £9000. A lot of money but James was  socially a climber from fairly humble beginnings and the Upton marriage and building of the new Puslinch marked and reinforced that rise.

 On the 27th September 1718 James, his son James and his intended second wife Mary Upton, entered into an agreement whereby Dr. James covenanted to pay an annuity of £200 to his son during the lives of him and Mary Upton and to pay the sum of £600 to Pollexen Bastard of Kitley and Richard Yeo of Huish upon the widowhood of Mary Upton for her use; and to assign to his son a messuage and garden in St Andrews Street Plymouth, occupied by Mary Upton, Elizabeth her sister and Thomasine, her mother. He also settled on his son his other messuages and lands. He also covenanted to acquire a mortgage of capital messuages of Combe, Puslinch etc and quitclaim half of the debt of Mary Upton. In turn Mary Upton conveyed her estates to trustees to the use of her husband for life, then for herself and then for their children.

 Apart from Hans Sloane, he corresponded with and was a friend of many public figures of the day such, Walter Charleton, Charles Atterbury, Edward Browne, Edward Tyson and Charles Barnard, the surgeon.  He was one suspects a bit of a snob and at the start of his Journal lists all the famous public figures he met over the years. However he was not averse to pulling his punches when describing them.

  He called the Duchess of Portsmouth, at Windsor, "ushered by a French abbot, a tall young woman genteely clad, she seems an elegant body, round face but no great beauty", on Catherine of  Braganza, the wife to be of Charles the Second, " waddling like a duck, plainly clad”,  and Cromwell's old porter in Bedlam "a big old man bald but of a strong voice, grown distracted by too intent reading the scripture, his bed covered with bibles, his breaches filled with them, and pieces of old ones starched all about y chamber".

 However his description of James  Pearse's wife shows clearly the type of man he was and how very different he was from the worldly Pepys. In his diary Pepys calls her "la belle Pearce" while James calls her "this very healthy and cheerful mothere of nineteen children".

 Reading his Journal, he was probably not the most attractive character but he could look back on a rounded life of professional achievement where he had established his son James as landed gentry.

 He died on the 25th July 1721 and was buried in the parish church of St Andrew Plymouth, where he had been christened. The memorial inscription was destroyed during the Second World War. The words however were recorded before the War,  

"Here underneath Iyeth buried the body of James Yonge physitian. Fellow of the Royal Society. He was once mayor of his native town and dyeth the 25th day of July 1721 in the 76th year of his age."

 His will was dated the 11th July 1721 and was proved on the 25th October 1721. He left £200 to his only surviving daughter Johanna, widow of Samuel Harris a draper, and released of various debts. To his granddaughter Elizabeth Harris he left sums varying between £200 and £300 to his granddaughter's. He left £1000 to his daughter Catharine. His gold watch and other possessions he left to his daughter in law Mary. He left his new house in New Quay in Plymouth to Johanna Harris during her life and then to his granddaughter Joanna. His mourning rings he left to his sister in law Joane, the wife of his brother Nathaniel and her children, William and James.. The major part of his estate including all his other lands, he left to his son James (M7).

 All present day "Puslinch Yonge's" are descended from him though his son James - married Mary Upton. He had nine children altogether of whom only four reached adulthood.

 © R.I. Yonge 2001



 RoyalCollege of Surgeons

Diary of James Yonge

Plymouth Memoirs

Dictionary of National Biography

Plymouth Record Office

British Library

National Archives

R.N.Museum Devonport

  The text of this page  is available for modification and reuse under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License and the GNU Free Documentation License (unversioned, with no invariant sections, front-cover texts, or back-cover texts)

A view of The Barbican, Plymouth where Dr James lived
Dr James signature

Henry Yonge 13.07.2019 05:22

My grandfather came to Australia in in 1863. His Name was Walter Francis Duke Yonge

| Reply

Latest comments

27.10 | 10:41

Hi Ian....Has taken me a while but finally found your website. Brilliant. Will be in touch. Julian Hastings

20.06 | 13:06


Thanks. Praise always appreciated! I presume you are a descendant of Peter Herbert. You can email me on iyonge@legalisp.net for fuller reply


19.06 | 23:35

I am the Great-Great Grandson of Walter Francis Duke Young. This is such a great website and so interesting to read about the Yonge family history!!

27.05 | 17:13

Thank you for this account of Charlotte M Yonge. I wouldn't say she was a recluse, however, judging by her letters. https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/yonge/