Nebraska Academy of Sciences


Date of this Version



1980. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences, VIII:207-210. Copyright © 1980 Krush


John Abernethy was born in London on April 3, 1764, the second son of five children of John and Elizabeth (Weir) Abernethy, both from Northern Ireland and of Scottish descent. The father of our John Abernethy was a merchant in the firm of Abernethy and Donaldson in London. His father and grandfather before him, both named John Abernethy, had been "Protestant dissenting ministers in Northern Ireland." John's father decided on medicine and surgery as a career for him, although some biographers felt that with his extraordinarily retentive memory he would have succeeded equally well, or better, in a law career.

Completing his education at the top of his class at Wolverhampton Grammar School in 1778, Abernethy became apprenticed to a family neighbor, Sir Charles Blicke, who had a lucrative medical practice. He attended medical lectures and was influenced by men such as Sir William Blizard, Mr. Percival Pott, Dr. Andrew Marshall, and Dr. John Hunter before and after he was elected assistant surgeon (and later surgeon) at Saint Bartholomew's Hospital in 1787, where he spent the remaining years of his medical career.

Abernethy is best known for his lectures and writings on surgery and for the first attempt at classification of tumors, some of which he considered hereditary. His classification divided tumors into several types of sarcomas, such as: common vascular, adipose, pancreatic, cystic, mammary, tuberculated, medullary, and carcinomatous, each illustrated by one or more of his "cases."

Abernethy suffered from gout and rheumatism for some years and retired at about age sixty. He died, surrounded by wife and children, in Enfield on April 20, 1831, at the age of 67.

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