Hewson family papers, 1761-1844


Date: 1761-1844 | Size: 1 microfilm_reel(s)


These are letters of Mary Stevenson Hewson to her mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and children, and their letters to her. Of special note are the letters from Thomas Tickell Hewson in London and Edinburgh. There are also letters and papers of William Hewson, including letters from Anthony Fothergill, John Morgan, and Williams Smibert, and letters about Mary Stevenson Hewson's estate. There are many references to Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin Bache, Jonathan Williams, John Hawkesworth, and others.

Background note

The patriarch of this family was William Hewson (1739–1774, APS 1769). He was a London based surgeon and anatomist, chiefly known for his contributions to hematology. He was married to Mary (Polly) Stevenson (1739-1795), who had been a close friend of Benjamin Franklin ever since her mother had been his landlady during his stay in London in the 1750s. After her husband's death the widow and her three children relocated from London to Philadelphia. One of their sons was Thomas Tickell (1773-1848, APS 1801), a physician, professor of Comparative Anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania, and president of the College of Physicians.

William Hewson was apprenticed to his father, who was also a surgeon. He then studied under Richard Lambert at the Newcastle Infirmary. In 1759 he went to London to attend the lectures and classes of the physicist Hugh Smith as well as the anatomists and obstetricians William Hunter and Colin Mackenzie. In addition, Hewson studied at St. Thomas's and Guy's hospitals.

In 1760 Hunter left Hewson in charge of his students in the dissecting room when he went abroad. Soon afterwards he suggested that Hewson enter with him into a partnership. A condition for this arrangement was that Hewson would study for one year in Edinburgh. Hewson accepted the offer, and in 1762, after his return from Scotland, became a partner in Hunter's anatomical school. He lectured on anatomy and also, in 1765, traveled to the continent to visit hospitals in France, Flanders and the Netherlands.

Hewson's first important scientific contributions involved the lymphatic system in fishes. Indeed, he was one of the first to describe the lymphatic system accurately in several animals. This research earned him the Copley medal in 1769 and membership in the Royal Society in 1770. However, it also triggered a controversy with the Scottish physician Alexander Monro, secundus, who, in a letter to the Royal Society and in a pamphlet, claimed that he had made these discoveries before Hewson. Hewson defended himself by arguing that while Monro had anticipated him in minor points, he could not claim priority in the more important matters. Hewson remained in partnership with Hunter until 1771, when he decided to open his own school. By then, he had built up a substantial practice in surgery and midwifery. His anatomical school was a success from the start. By the time he commenced with lectures, in 1772, he already enjoyed a reputation as an excellent anatomist and surgeon. His two-part study, titled An Experimental Inquiry into the Properties of the Blood, published in 1771 and 1774, solidified his status as a foremost expert on hematology. In his research, Hewson was able to demonstrate that fibrin was responsible for the final act of clotting. He also showed that the "red particles" in human blood were flat rather then spherical, as had been argued previously.

Hewson's decision to leave the partnership with Hunter led to serious tensions between the two over the terms of their agreement. The bitter controversy centered on priorities for their discoveries which Hunter claimed for himself. In the end, their mutual friend Benjamin Franklin helped negotiate an agreement between the two men. Hewson later dedicated the second part of his study on blood to Franklin.

Hewson had made the acquaintance of Franklin through his wife Mary "Polly" Stevenson, whom he had married in 1769. Polly's mother Margaret Stevenson had been Franklin's landlady since he arrived in London in 1757. He formed a familiar relationship with both women who served as something of a surrogate family for him during his absence from his wife and daughter in Philadelphia. He soon grew particularly fond of Polly, who in the year of their first meeting was a pretty eighteen year old with an inquisitive mind. His respect for her intelligence is evident in the fact that he corresponded with her a great deal about various intellectual and scientific topics, including his work on electricity. Moreover, while some of their exchanges were playful and flirtatious, he more often assumed a paternal role. Franklin, who had missed his own children's weddings, walked Polly down the aisle when she married William Hewson. He later served as godfather to their first son, William.

In 1774, at the age of thirty-five, William Hewson died from septic fever that resulted from a wound suffered during a dissection. He was survived by his widow Polly and their two sons, William and Thomas Tickell. A daughter, Elizabeth, was born four months after her father's death. The French botanist and physician Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, also a friend of Franklin, suggested to Polly Stevenson that she issue a translation of her husband's work. A Latin edition was published in Leiden in 1795.

Polly Stevenson remained close friends with Franklin until the end of his life. "Our friendship has been all clear sunshine," he wrote to her in 1783, "without the least cloud in its hemisphere." Two years later she visited him in Passy. Upon his urging, she moved her family to Philadelphia in 1786, to be near her old friend. Polly was at his bedside when he died in 1790, thirty-three years after their first meeting. She remained in Philadelphia for another two years, until 1792, when she relocated to Bristol, Pennsylvania, to be with her eldest son William, who had established a medical practice there.

Like his father, the younger son Thomas Tickell became a well-known physician. As a boy he attended the school of William Gilpin, at Cheam, near London. After the removal of the family to Philadelphia, he studied at the College of Philadelphia (now University of Pennsylvania) and afterwards commenced his medical training with the Philadelphia physician John Foulke. In 1794 he moved to London, where he was house-surgeon in St. Batholomew's hospital. He subsequently studied medicine in Edinburgh before returning to London and finally, in 1800, to Philadelphia.

Thomas Tickell Hewson entered into private practice in Philadelphia, and he also engaged in many other medical and charitable activities. In 1806 he was appointed physician to the Walnut Street Prison, a position he held for twelve years. He also served as one of the surgeons of the Philadelphia Almshouse and of the Orphan Asylum. In 1815 he published a translation from the French of François-Xavier Swediaur's Treatise on Syphilis. The following year he was appointed as a professor of Comparative Anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania. When yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia in the summer of 1820, Hewson volunteered his services at the Yellow Fever Hospital. He subsequently was selected to join a committee charged with drafting recommendations that would help prevent future outbreaks of the disease. Twelve years later he was a member of a similar board that was concerned with cholera outbreaks in the city.

In 1822 Hewson established a school of medicine which offered classes in anatomy and practice. He also played a leading role in the planning and publication of the first national Pharmacopoeia (1830) as well as its decennial revision. From 1835 to his death in 1848, he was president of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia.

Thomas Tickell Hewson's scientific contributions were recognized with numerous awards and honors, including membership in the Edinburgh Medical Society in 1796, the American Philosophical Society in 1804, and the Philadelphia Linnaean Society in 1813.

He was married to Emily Banks. She died in 1837, after a marriage of twenty-four years. The couple had twelve children, ten of whom survived him. Their son Addinell (1828–1889) was also a prominent Philadelphia surgeon.

Collection Information

Physical description

1 microfilm reel.


Presented by Mrs. Addinell and accessioned, 04/--/1940; Film 103.1 presented by Thomas J. Michie and accessioned, 11/--/1956.

Location of originals:

Originals in possession of Mrs. Addinell Hewson, Mrs. Hendrik Booraem (Maryland), and Thomas T. Michie (Charlottesville, VA).

Early American History Note

This is a microfilm of an early American collection that may be of interest to researchers at the APS and may complement an original manuscript collection at the APS.

Indexing Terms


  • Microfilm Collection

Geographic Name(s)

  • Philadelphia (Pa.) -- Social life and customs.


  • Physicians -- United States.

Personal Name(s)

  • Bache, Benjamin Franklin, 1769-1798
  • Fothergill, A.(Anthony),1732?-
  • Franklin, Benjamin, 1706-1790
  • Hawkesworth, John
  • Hewson, Mary Stevenson, 1739-1795
  • Hewson, Thomas T.
  • Hewson, William, 1739-1774
  • Morgan, John, 1735-1789
  • Smibert, Williams
  • Williams, Jonathan