The Twickenham Museum
People : Architects and Scientists

Dr Stephen Hales
Scientist, philanthropist & curate of Teddington
1677 - 1761

Rev Stephen Hales

Perpetual Curate of Teddington

Stephen Hales was born at Beakesbourne in Kent and in 1696 entered Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Graduation in 1700 was followed, in 1702, by election to a fellowship of that college. In 1709 he was ordained priest and nominated Perpetual Curate of Teddington where he remained for the rest of his life. His house, which he acquired in 1739,later known as Percy House, stood at the west end of the High Street next to Elmfield House.

In 1718 he was also elected Rector of Porlock in Somerset, exchanging this living, in 1723, for that of Faringdon in Hampshire where he subsequently spent his summers.

National reputation for research into animal and plant physiology

His national reputation was founded upon research into the fundamentals of animal and plant physiology and the nature of air. He became celebrated for invention and the application of science to the social and economic needs of the day. In about 1730 his work on decapitated frogs deeply offended Dr Johnson who bracketed him with doctors who 'extend the art of torture'.

In parallel his major energies were devoted to Christian welfare and philanthropic endeavour.

The parish of St Mary, Teddington was the beneficiary of these qualities. He introduced a fresh water supply to the village, channelling springs and streams to flow through the village. He oversaw and even contributed to the restoration and extension of the church and churchyard on various occasions. Drunkenness and immorality also engaged his attention, the former causing unfavourable comparison with Faringdon; the latter leading to acts of Public Penance in the church by transgressors. As a total abstainer he supported the unpopular Gin Act of 1736, attempting to restrict the sale of gin through penal excise duty. Notices had appeared all over London, saying: "Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence, clean straw for nothing".

Pope comments on Hales' experiments

He was clearly a friend of Alexander Pope, being one of the witnesses to his Will. In February 1737 Hales took his guest, Charles Wesley, to see Pope's garden. Pope, however was, according to Spence concerned about Hales' experiments on animals, particularly dogs:

Spence: I shall be very glad to see Dr Hales, and always love to see him; he is so worthy and good a man.

Pope: Yes he is a very good man, only - I'm sorry - he has his hands imbrued with blood.

Spence: What, he cuts up rats?

Pope: Aye, and dogs too. Indeed, he commits most of these barbarities with the thought of it being of use to man. But how do we know that we have a right to kill creatures that we are so little above as dogs, for our curiosity, or even for some use to us?

Chaplain to the Princess Dowager of Wales

In 1752 Horace Walpole was on hand with waspish comment, following Hales' appointment as chaplain to the Princess Dowager of Wales. He wrote to Horace Mann on 11 December: "...the old philosopher, a poor, good primitive creature...but two years ago accepted the post of Clerk of the Closet to the Princess, after literally leading the life of a studious anchorite till past seventy."

Hales died at Teddington on 4 January 1761 and was buried beneath the floor of the tower of the church where there is an inscription. There is a monument by Joseph Wilton in Westminster Abbey and, in 1759, his neighbour Thomas Hudson painted a portrait of him which is in the National Portrait Gallery.

Further reading:

D G C Allan & R E Schofield, Stephen Hales Scientist and Philanthropist, Scolar Press, 1980
David G C Allan, Science, Philanthropy and Religion in 18th Century Teddington - STEPHEN HALES, DD FRS 1677-1761. Borough of Twickenham Local History Society Paper no83, 2004

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