Conceived by a fiery Victorian physician and rights campaigner named Thomas Wakley, The Lancet came into the world in a fit of protest. Born in 1795 in Devonshire to a family of yeoman farmers with 11 children, Wakley had in his early twenties married the daughter of a wealthy businessman and hospital governor who set him up with a London medical practice. Ensconced in a 15-room house at 5 Argyll Street, Wakley had every reason to believe his success imminent until one evening in 1820 when an unexpected knock on his door was followed by a brutal assault. The assailants believed (probably baselessly) that Wakley had played a role in the execution of members of the Cato Street Conspiracy, a radical plot to murder the entire cabinet and the prime minister. Wakley survived, but his house and practice were burned to the ground.
Part of the founding myth of The Lancet was that it was born from Wakley’s outrage and desperation. His insurance company refused to cover damages from the fire, leading to Wakley’s first confrontation with institutional injustice. He sued — and won. His practice had been ruined but a new career as a journalist rose from its ashes. The episode thrust Wakley’s name into the limelight and, according to a review of his 500-page 1897 biography, earned him “a reputation as a man who would fight strenuously against an injustice”.
With The Lancet, Wakley set out to do something different. While the existing journals were the elite products of an elitist medical system, The Lancet was “founded by a marginal medical man with no reputation and a left-of-centre agenda [within] a conservative profession”, according to a 1998 history published in (none other than) The Lancet. But The Lancet was far more than an ideological and class reaction to medical orthodoxy…..