He battled disease during much of his distinguished career at St Thomas’s Hospital and was one of the driving forces behind the drive to clean up London’s sewers. But Sir John Simon also fought a battle with another famous medic of St Thomas’ Hospital, Florence Nightingale. And he was the chief medical officer for the governments of Palmerston, Disraeli and Gladstone. Here Mike Guilfoyle, vice-chairman of the Friends of Brockley & Ladywell cemeteries, describes finding his last resting place and the search to hear his story.
While undertaking cemetery research in Ladywell cemetery a chance ray of sunlight disclosed a faded inscription on a headstone.
It revealed the final resting place of one this country’s most eminent 19th century health reformers and surgeons, Sir John Simon, who died in 1904.
With the current controversies on how to best deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, his story is instructive.
Sir John, who was knighted in 1887, was the Chris Whitty of his day – he became the first Chief Medical Officer of HM Government from 1858 to 1876, serving under Palmerston, Lord Russell, Lord Derby and through the stormy years of Disraeli and Gladstone.
Born in London in 1816, John Simon completed his medical education at King’s College and later at St Thomas’ Hospitals and he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1838.
He was the first Medical Officer of Health for the City of London in 1848 and wrote cogent reports on preventive medicine and public health and sanitation reforms.
He married Jane O’Meara in the same year and the couple lived firstly in Blackheath.
A man of great erudition, the couple enjoyed a wide circle of literary friends including many of the most famous artists and writers of the day, like Ruskin, Thackeray and Tennyson.
His active crusading helped overcome many of the deadly diseases of the day.
He drove remedial measures to tackle River Thames pollution due to untreated sewage – best known from the Great Stink of 1858 – impure water supplies and overcrowded urban dwellings.
That earned him many accolades as the man who drained the City and rendered it healthy. His campaigns also led to the landmark Public Health Act of 1875 which remained in force for 100 years.
But he was however at the centre of a well publicised controversy with the famous nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale.
She was fresh from her heroic achievements in improving the mortality rates of her majesty’s soldiers through better sanitation methods during the Crimean War ( 1854- 1856).
The row has a remarkably topical resonance in today’s debates on more effective responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The debate was about whether deaths from the epidemics of the 19th century like cholera and scarlet fever were avoidable, and if so, which methods of intervention worked best?
She favoured improved sanitation and Simon pushed for more medical research – at a time when funding for health improvements was in short supply.
It appears Sir John conceded the argument to the Lady of the Lamp following his retirement in 1876.
Lady Simon died in 1901, with the couple living in Kensington, now the site of an English Heritage blue plaque.
When Sir John Simon died aged 88 in 1904, he was buried in Ladywell cemetery – his parents are buried nearby – with a modest headstone.
Until now, it had been lost to history. But his lasting contribution to the nation’s health as one of the leading public health reformers of Victorian England remains undiminished.
His grave can now perhaps feature as a regular stop on any future guided cemetery walks.
That could be done by the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries – at a time deemed safe in light of today’s urgent need for a health cure for the coronavirus.
It is a cure which I am sure Sir John Simon would have devoted his utmost energies to solving.
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