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James John Garth Wilkinson
Author, Physician, Translator

by Richard Lines MA

The name James John Garth Wilkinson may not be one which, even among members of the Swedenborg Society, rings immediate bells. Yet, not only was he a most distinguished member of this Society for over sixty years and certainly the best known Swedenborgian in Victorian England, but he was also famous as a homoeopathic physician at a time when that branch of medicine was treated with far more suspicion than it is today, was known as a pamphleteer and social reformer in a number of fields and was a friend or acquaintance of very many literary people. He was a translator of Swedenborg’s scientific works and of some of his religious writings, but also wrote many books of his own on medical, social and religious topics. Although a staunch Swedenborgian, he never joined the New Church but remained a member of the Church of England.

Early Days

He was born in London, in Acton Street off Gray’s Inn Lane, on 3 June 1812 and died in London on 18 October 1899 aged eighty seven, just a few weeks after the publication of his last book. His father was a barrister who became the Judge of the Court of the County Palatine of Durham. His mother Harriet, née Robinson, came from Sunderland, while the Wilkinsons were natives of Durham city. Garth was the eldest of eight children. He spent his early years in London, but his mother died when he was thirteen and he was sent to Sunderland to be cared for by his grandmother and an aunt. Coming south again, he completed his education at schools in Mill Hill and Totteridge, before being apprenticed by his father at the age of sixteen to the senior surgeon at the Royal Infirmary at Newcastle upon Tyne. This was against the boy’s own wishes. He wanted to follow his father into the law, but James senior had other ideas. Garth Wilkinson left Totteridge with an excellent report. His master’s parting words (prophetic for the future translator of Swedenborg) were: "Now mind you, you keep up your Latin, you’ll want it".

At the Newcastle Infirmary he acted as "dresser" for his master, also helping with the compounding of drugs and the bleeding of patients. Surgery, in the days before anaesthetics and antiseptics, was a crude and rather horrible business. Garth Wilkinson hated it. It was only when he discovered homoeopathy many years later that he came to love his profession. In 1832 he returned to London and spent two years "walking" the wards of Guy’s Hospital before becoming a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons and a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries in 1834. By November 1835, with the help of relatives, he was able to establish himself as an independent medical practitioner at 13 Store Street, Bedford Square. The position of a general practitioner in those days was more that of a pharmacist than that of a physician. The bulk of his income was derived from dispensing his own prescriptions and selling drugs over the counter of his "front shop". Garth Wilkinson, as he was to tell his great friend Henry James years later, "never believed in the good or truth of promiscuous drugging", and his early practice did not prosper, but his lack of patients did give him time to pursue his scholarly interests and he was able to spend many hours in the British Museum Reading Room.

Introduction to Swedenborg

Wilkinson first came into contact with Swedenborg’s writings through a maternal uncle, George Robinson, who was one of the trustees of the Swedenborg Society’s property and himself a devoted reader of the Writings. The young man soon became an enthusiastic reader too and he joined the Society, becoming an active member and a member of the Committee. At his uncle’s house in Woodford, Essex he met his future wife, Emma Marsh, who was the family governess. They became engaged in December 1835, but did not marry until January 1840. The marriage was a long and happy one and Emma bore him three daughters and a son. It was Emma who, above all, encouraged him in the practice of homoeopathy. Wilkinson later wrote movingly of an incident early in their marriage when their eldest daughter, still an infant, had an attack of bronchitis during the night. Garth fetched some ipecacuanha wine as an emetic and husband and wife sat anxiously at the end of the bed arguing about who was to administer the medicine. At last Emma gave the child a piece of ipecacuanha, "such as would pass through the eye of a needle,…and a good and homoeopathic remedy it was;....". After that the child recovered rapidly. This incident left a huge impression on Wilkinson and was one of the factors that persuaded him in the direction of homoeopathy.

Early Publisher of William Blake

Wilkinson’s arrival at the Swedenborg Society in the late 1830’s was to lead to his undertaking many translations of Swedenborg, but his first published work was the first ever letter-press edition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, published in 1839. He had become friendly with that doyen of the Swedenborg Society, Charles Augustus Tulk, who had been a patron of Blake and owned one of the rare prints of the Songs struck off by Blake from the copper upon which he had engraved it. Alexander Gilchrist, in his biography of Blake published in 1863, wrote of this edition that Dr Wilkinson had printed the poems in an order of his own, "and too often with words of his own; alterations which were by no means improvements always". Nevertheless, it is important to note the part played by Wilkinson in keeping Blake before the public eye in the thirty odd years between his death and the revival of his reputation at the hands of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (himself an admirer of Wilkinson’s own poetry and prose) and Algernon Charles Swinburne following the publication of Gilchrist’s biography.

Friends and acquaintances of his early manhood were Robert Browning (an exact contemporary), Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens, all of whom he encouraged to read Swedenborg. It was through Carlyle, as well as through his own published articles, that Wilkinson began to attract the attention of Ralph Waldo Emerson in the early 1840’s. In his famous essay Swedenborg, or the Mystic, in Representative Men Emerson praised Wilkinson as a translator of Swedenborg’s scientific works. He described him as a philosophic critic with a vigour of understanding and imagination equal to that of Lord Bacon. "This startling reappearance of Swedenborg, after a hundred years, in his pupil, is not the least remarkable fact in his history". In his later work, English Traits, he gave him further praise and gave him almost as much space as he gave to Coleridge and Carlyle. Wilkinson’s translations included The Doctrine of Charity and The Last Judgment in 1839, The Animal Kingdom in 1843 and The Economy of the Animal Kingdom in the following year. His translation of Divine Love and Wisdom published in 1885 he considered the most important work of any kind he had ever done.

Friendship with Henry James Senior

It was in London in the early 1840’s that Wilkinson met the man who was to be his life-long friend, Henry James the elder, father of William James the philosopher and Henry James the novelist. James, only a year older and also a married man with two young children, was in England seeking a cure for a disease that was probably psychosomatic. He had been recommended to read Swedenborg and became an instant convert and life-long devotee, writing many books of which the most famous is The Secret of Swedenborg. The two men seemed to be friends made for each other. Wilkinson was to recall later the early days of their friendship:

"They were sunny evenings on which your faces graced our humble abode, and there was something of delicious youth in them from many circumstances. For you were new to us in country, in time of acquaintance, in sentiment, & in your acquaintance with our valued Truths".

While Wilkinson acted as something of a spiritual counsellor to James, the latter assisted his new friend financially and helped to get him published in North American periodicals. He also encouraged him in the practice of homoeopathy and it should be noted that the honorary degree of M.D. awarded to him later was from the University of Pennsylvania. Henry James’ third son was named Garth Wilkinson (usually abbreviated to "Wilky" in the family), while the Wilkinsons named their youngest daughter Mary James in honour of Henry’s wife.

Homoeopathic Practice

It was after he adopted the practice of homoeopathy that Wilkinson’s medical practice began to take off. In 1852 he told his father that he now really loved his profession. "It brings down not only riches, but, what is far more, blessings upon him that exercises it aright;…". What convinced Wilkinson was, above all, the similarity he saw between the homoeopathy and the doctrine of correspondences.

"The doctrine of a correspondence is the working key of the New Church attitude towards God and conduct. In medical matters the correspondence of drug effects and disease effects is the whole of homoeopathic practice".

What he found in Hahnemann’s system was a scientific statement of the doctrine of correspondences, expressed in terms of medicine. His lectures up and down the country led to his important book, The Human Body and its Relation to Man, which was very widely read.

Early Exponent of Nature Conservation

Like many Victorians (the poet Robert Browning among them) Wilkinson was very strongly opposed to the practice of vivisection. More surprisingly for a medical man, but perhaps not for a homoeopath, he was also passionately opposed to the practice of vaccination. A major portion of an important work, Human Science and Divine Revelation, published in 1876, is devoted to his arguments against vivisection, which he saw as an unnecessary cruelty inflicted on animals. In the same book he goes on to condemn the hunting of animals purely for sport. Recognising that the killing of animals for food or to protect from danger may be necessary ("the guarding of the sheepfold involves the killing of the wolf"), he continues:

"But destruction for the pleasure of it would not stand its ground. And especially the raid of travellers upon the great lives of the hippopotamus, the giraffe, the ostrich, the elephant, and other such creatures, would be forbidden, unless real reasons, and not wantonness, prompted it; forbidden as a brigandage of man upon the domains of nature; as an extermination of the generous joys of lake and plain and forest; as a desolation of the world of forms, and an extinction of most pregnant symbolic organism which exists not without a divine reason in the balance of things".

These are eloquent and prophetic words. How astonishing that Garth Wilkinson should have been about a hundred years ahead of his time in his advocacy of the conservationist cause.

Women’s Rights

In human affairs he opposed the oppressive laws of his own day that kept women in an inferior position to men. A woman should be free to vote, to propose marriage, administer property and the like. Only then would her quality assert itself. Did Wilkinson foresee the academic superiority of girls over boys which is such a notable feature of our secondary schools today? In 1852 he had translated Swedenborg’s work on The Generative Organs. This work, he told Henry James, he regarded as one small step on the way to a greater liberty of thought and knowledge on sexual subjects.

He pointed out that "there is no God like that which the Atheists deny; that there is no Lord like Him whom the current Christian beliefs affirm". That is something that remains true today. Wilkinson believed strongly in the continuation of life after the death of the physical body. He saw the brain as an instrument that incarnates the mind. Even when "the ruined cerebrum is either cured or discarded" the mind is still there and, "…being still itself the essential brain on which the other [i.e. the physical brain] was but the mortal plating, its capacities are unaffected and will recur in a second life in higher forms".

That is an upbeat note on which to take our leave of James John Garth Wilkinson. His final years were lonely ones. Emma had died in 1886 and for some time his eldest daughter Emma, who was now a widow, kept house for him. But she died in 1893 and in his last years he enjoyed the company of his two adult granddaughters and he continued to write. When he died an obituarist wrote of him that personally he was a man of the sweetest and most winning nature and the gentlest disposition. Like Swedenborg, he saw in every external fact only an inner spiritual significance. He was a man born to believe.

(NOTE: The full text of the lecture is being published in the Journal of the New Church Historical Society, copies of which are sent to members of that Society. Membership of the Historical Society at £10 is available from its Secretary: Pauline Grimshaw, The Manse, Church Street, Kearsley, Bolton, Lancs BL4 9DD.)

Published in Things Heard and Seen, the Newsletter of the Swedenborg Society, London, No. 6 (Winter 2001) pp. 30-32.


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