Sir Joseph Dacre Appleby Gilpin (1745-1834)

Sir Joseph Dacre Appleby Gilpin

Written by David A Cross

Occupation: Surgeon

Early Life and Family

Members of the Gilpin family have been influential in the Lake Counties since the thirteenth century, when an ancestor killed a boar in Westmorland and they were granted an estate at Kentmere. Joseph Dacre Appleby Gilpin was the son of Captain John Bernard Gilpin (1701-1777; DCB) of Carlisle (q.v.) and his wife Mathilda Longstaffe (1703-1773), daughter of George Langstaffe (1675-1745) and Margaret Brisco (1675-1746). He was the younger brother of the Reverend William Gilpin (1724-1804; ODNB) and of Sawrey Gilpin (1733-1807; ODNB).  Captain Gilpin commanded the garrison at Carlisle until shortly before the arrival of Prince Charles Edward Stuart in 1745 and in later life held a drawing school in Carlisle Deanery.

Joseph was the captain’s fourteenth and youngest child and was probably born in Whitehaven in challenging snowy conditions in late December 1745, where the family had sought refuge during the aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion, Mrs Gilpin being described as close to her confinement. These events delayed his baptism at St. Mary’s. Carlisle, until 19 March 1746, when he was named after his late uncle Joseph Dacre Appleby (1690-1729) of Kirklinton Hall, who had married his father’s sister Susannah (1689-1769). Like so many Gilpins, his aunt was extraordinary in her own right and had continued her father’s excavations at Castlesteads in 1741, discovering a Roman bath house, and being ‘the earliest female antiquary of whom we have a record in the Wall region’ (Birley). Joseph was probably less involved in his father’s drawing school than his more famous siblings but he would certainly have benefited from the conversation of his father’s intellectual friends, notably the physician Dr William Brownrigg (1712-1800; ODNB). He attended Carlisle Grammar School between 1754 and 1757 and was then apprenticed to the physician Dr Thomas Graham of Cargo, ‘a gentleman of considerable eminence’ after which he studied at the Universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen. There followed a short period during which Gilpin operated a private practice in Carlisle and married Catherine Graham (1750-1781), daughter of John Graham (1708-1757), a Carlisle apothecary and his wife Mary Glendenning. The Gilpins had four daughters, two of whom survived to marry; Catherine (1777-1827) to Dr John Gunning C.B. (1773-1863), later Inspector General of Hospitals in Paris, and Maria Mathilda (1778-1858) to General Richard Leeson Cooke (1762-1823). The unmarried sisters were named Margaret and Mercy. Dr Gunning was a surgeon at Waterloo where he successfully amputated the arm of Lord Raglan (1788-1855), who famously demanded the return of his limb to salvage a valuable ring.

The American Revolution and the West Indies

Once commissioned as a military surgeon, Gilpin’s early career was spent in America during the war of Independence, at least between 1775 and 1781, based in New York or Boston. His wife, along with several thousand other wives ‘experienced the hardships and dangers of military life in garrisons, or ships, in encampments and on campaigns’ (Hagist) and two of his daughters were born in New England.  He is said to have been ‘noticed’ by George Washington which suggests that he assisted the wounded on both sides of the conflict.

Gilpin next practised for twenty six years in the West Indies, for eighteen years based on the island of Grenada, where the British had been defeated in July 1779 by the French under Charles Hector, comte D’Estaing (1729-1794) but regained control after the Treaty of Paris of 1783. His commanding officer was General Sir Paulus Aemilius Irving Bt. (1749-1828; ODNB) who was the son of Lieutenant Colonel Paulus Aemilius Irving (1714- 1796) who was wounded fighting with General James Wolfe at Quebec in 1769. Soon after their arrival his wife Catherine died in 1781, leaving him with small children. Here in Grenada, with his younger colleague Dr Colin Chisholm FRS (1754/5-1825; ODNB), Surgeon to His Majesty’s Ordnance on the island, he made many crucial observations on the 1793 arrival of yellow fever from Africa and described its subsequent spread in the community. Chisholm was a Scot from Inverness, who had also studied in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. They noted the symptoms and observed that the bedding and clothing of affected passengers had been retained rather than burned, which confirmed their belief in contagion, Gilpin later asserting on this issue: ‘I have as little doubt [about this] as I have of my present existence’.  

A classic contemporary transmission of yellow fever was the unfortunate voyage from 1792-3 of The Hankey, later dubbed ‘the ship of death’, which sailed from the Isle of Wight, to Bolama and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, then to Sierra Leone, Cape Verde, Barbados, Grenada, San Domingue (Haiti) and Philadelphia, infecting as it went. Once identified as a vector of disease, the ship returned under naval escort to Britain where the crew was quarantined and the vessel burned to the waterline. Gilpin and Chisholm’s stance on yellow fever was accepted in the West Indies but the received opinion in this period was that disease was spread by a ‘baneful miasma’ from swamps, a view that proved difficult to dislodge from the minds of senior physicians.  

Next Gilpin engaged with an epidemic in Martinique in 1793 where nearly all his medical colleagues died and then in Guadaloupe in 1794 where his commanding officer was Sir Charles Grey (1729-1807), later the 1st Earl Grey. In 1793 Dr Chisholm published An essay on the malignant pestilential fever, which refers to The Hankey and was expanded to a book in 1801. Gilpin was still on the islands during the Grenada slave rebellion of 1795-6. Returning on leave to England in 1796, he married Aemilia Susannah Irving (1753-1822) at St George’s, Hanover Square, London on 2 October. She was the sister of General Sir Paulus Irving, his commanding officer in the West Indies, whose estates of Woodhouse and Robgill Tower in Dumfriesshire, were not far north of his native Carlisle. Joseph and Aemilia then sailed back together to the West Indies with Catherine’s children. 

Pestilence in Gibraltar

Joseph Gilpin’s next posting was to Gibraltar in 1713, where he was the senior doctor and Deputy Inspector General of Military Hospitals. The Rock of Gibraltar had been captured by an Anglo-Dutch fleet in 1704 and finally ceded to Britain via the Treaty of Utrecht, in the year the doctor arrived. Gibraltar was a cosmopolitan maritime nexus between Europe, Asia and Africa, where overcrowding and poor sanitation led to periodic outbreaks of typhus, cholera and yellow fever. Little was understood either about the different diseases or the vectors that led to epidemics and confusion resulted from the symptoms being often similar [Diamantopulos] and yellow fever was not properly diagnosed until the late 1880s. An outbreak in 1649 killed a quarter of the population; ‘a malignant fever’ in 1804 took off about one third of the population; and another lesser outbreak sputtered on from 1810 to 1811 when infected people were sent to the lazaretto, a building reserved for those infected with leprosy or plague. Yet another full blown epidemic occurred in 1813, soon after Gilpin’s arrival, during a critical period of the Peninsular War, where Gibraltar was a most strategic garrison.  

Gilpin’s experience, gained from previous theatres of conflict, was to be successfully implemented here.  When two sailors arrived on the Fortune from Cadiz and soon infected many neighbours in the same street, Gilpin visited them before they died, observing how the disease spread from one person to another. He believed the disease manifested again the symptoms of yellow fever, that he had seen ‘in Grenada under the late Earl Grey’ and viewed it as one of the most dangerous infectious diseases. As he had observed before, this disease was contagious, or, more properly, infectious, since actual physical contact did not appear to be necessary to its transmission. Victims were bilious, anxious, exhibited white tongues, yellow skin and fluctuating temperature, but showed more characteristic symptoms of protruding eyes, pain under the orbit, dilated pupils, dark vomiting, haemorrhages from the mouth and nostrils, and suppression of urine. Gilpin wrote again of his conviction that the disease was ‘communicable from one person to another’ (Army Board).

He reported ‘instantly’ to the governor, Lieutenant General Colin Campbell [1754-1814], who ordered a quarantine to be laid, infected bedding to be burned and all patients to be moved to the civil or military lazaretto. Barriers were erected across the streets and the civilians living in overcrowded accommodation were encouraged to move to the neutral ground adjacent to the Rock, whilst the troops were ‘removed and encamped at Europa’, the southernmost point.  Inspectors and Town Sergeants were appointed in each district to whom reports were given when anyone was taken ill and careful statistical records were kept centrally. Subsequently, Gilpin received daily reports from the ‘health guard’ whilst the pratique master Mr Sweetland administered the quarantine for incoming vessels. Gilpin corresponded across the cordon sanitaire with John Cortes, a Spanish doctor on the Rock who was responsible for the two ‘isolation hospitals’, namely the quarantine stations or lazarettos. A key colleague in Gibraltar was Surgeon Major W.W. Fraser who recorded the infections and deaths from 8 September to 13 November 1813, from which it is clear that the infections peaked in late October. Of the 2847 persons infected, 904 died between 8 September and 3 December and among the survivors were those who had been previously infected in the West Indies or Spain. Gilpin averred that there were no authentic cases of a person having the disease a second time.

During the outbreak, Gilpin prepared infusions of febrifugal Peruvian bark from the tree Cinchona succirubra with which he dosed the six members of his family four to five times daily. Their survival he attributed to the bark, unlike the families of many of his neighbours who perished. Though Peruvian bark was available in London from the seventeenth century, Gilpin had probably encountered it for the first time in North America in the 1770s. 

The following year the epidemic waned and the number of deaths fell to around 100, thus providing an index of Gilpin’s achievement. Despite the abilities and experience of his team, 1400 lives were lost altogether, including that of Governor Campbell, one of the last fatalities, who had been in post for only three years. Among other things, Gilpin observed the dry climate, the lack of swampy areas and the absence of open cisterns on the Rock which in his view contributed to the undermining of the established theory of ‘miasma’. This distinction he communicated to the Army Board whose members, predictably, were of the opposite, popular, view.  

After Campbell’s death, his deputy maintained a strict quarantine for visiting ships and even the new governor Sir George Don (1753-1832) was compelled to spend six weeks at anchor on the Juan Nepomuceno. Gilpin’s advice proved effective and he was given credit for successfully controlling the outbreak. Interviewed by the Army Board, Gilpin maintained his opinion that the disease was infectious, that it did not originate in Gibraltar, that his conviction was ‘not to be shaken’, and he did not think it necessary ‘to combat further the opinions of others’ (Army Board). It was evident that Gilpin had ‘fearlessly and faithfully discharged his most arduous duties’ (Obit.).

Building upon the progress made, in 1814 Sir George Don initiated the improvement of water quality, sanitation and drainage, repaired the Naval Hospital, rebuilt the public St Bernard’s Hospital, provided free vaccinations against smallpox and established a museum of Natural History and Pathology. Despite all this, in 1835 many still believed that yellow fever originated in Gibraltar, a place ‘famous for filth’ (Martin). Nonetheless, in recognition of his ‘great professional abilities, zeal and attention’ in quelling the epidemic and his ‘prompt and vigorous measures’ which reduced the casualties, Gilpin was knighted by the Prince Regent ‘in the name and on the behalf of his Majesty’ on 23 February 1815 at Carlton House. This acknowledgement of his achievement had come via an earlier recommendation of the late Lieutenant General Campbell to the 3rd Earl Bathurst, The Secretary for War and the Colonies, though he had previously been ‘noticed’ by the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) and the Duke of Kent.

Gilpin continued to be involved in the controversy about contagion, which continued well into the nineteenth century; the contagionists doing their utmost to refute the statements of the anti-contagionists. An attack in 1807 on ‘the Chisholm theory’ by Dr Edward N. Bancroft (1772-1842) led to further correspondence between Gilpin and his former colleague about the Gibraltar outbreak, Bancroft receiving a belated but spirited riposte from Chisholm in 1813. Gilpin wrote: ‘What I witnessed myself carried an indelible conviction to my mind of the highly contagious nature of (the) disease’ (Letter dated 12 August 1813). Having contributed to the evidence, he is cited in several books and articles and like many of his peers he was convinced that such epidemics originated in Africa, irrespective of whether they broke out in the West Indies, North America or Europe.  In the view of one commentator, the testimonies of Gilpin and his other colleague Dr Steward of Grenada ‘cannot be invalidated without impeaching the moral characters of these honourable men’(Eberle).  In time, the contagionist position was entirely accepted by the medical establishment.

Public Life in Carlisle

At some point before 1804, Gilpin returned to Carlisle on indefinite leave and became involved in politics. As an able speaker, he was elected Mayor for the first time in 1806 and in 1811 was living in Castle Street. Soon after this he was commanded to return to Gibraltar. Finally returning to Carlisle in 1816 he enjoyed ‘his honours and the high esteem of his fellow citizens’ and his ‘knowledge of the world, his medical experience, his courteous disposition and urbanity made [him] a great acquisition for the town’. Elected mayor of Carlisle on three more occasions between 1816 and 1821, he was the Seconder of Sir Philip Musgrave Bt. [1794-1827] as a Whig Parliamentary Candidate in 1826, at a turbulent time when the Riot Act was read and three civilians were shot. He was also a shareholder in the Carlisle canal company, which linked the city to the Solway Firth. Furthermore, ‘his venerable appearance…the benevolence of his disposition - the interest and intelligence of his conversation - his great urbanity - combined to gain him troops of friends wherever he went’ (Barnes; Jefferson), a position undoubtedly aided by his ‘great fund of anecdote’ (Obit.). He wrote and published poetry including The Wall Flower and Scaleby Castle and took an interest in exhibitions at the Carlisle Academy in the 1820s.  

Two of Sir Joseph’s servants before 1818 were James and Lucy Bough, the parents of the Carlisle artist Sam Bough (1822-1878) (q.v.), Lucy being his cook. Gilpin’s wife Aemilia died in October 1822, his daughter Catherine died in Paris in 1827 and by 1830 he was living alone in Fisher Street, apart from his staff. In 1831 he was remembered in the will of Kenneth Francis Mackenzie (1748-1831), the plantation owner of Lusignan, in Demerara and the Attorney General of Grenada.  MacKenzie surely must have been only one of the slave owners known to Gilpin, but despite that grim period resonance, this association underlines Gilpin’s clubbable appeal.  Finally, in 1833 he moved to Bath to be near his daughter Maria Mathilda, the widow of General Cooke, and he lived in Old Sydney Place until his death aged 89 on 7 October 1834, when he was buried in the nearby graveyard of St Mary’s, Bathwick.  

He had signed his own will in Bath on 10 June 1833, witnessed by Louisa Townsend, spinster and Edward Blackmore MD, who had the previous year observed an outbreak of cholera in Plymouth (Blackmore). Probate was granted on 31 October 1834 to Maria who was the sole beneficiary. Gilpin’s portrait was painted by Robert Edge Pine (sale Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucester, 2016), who had also painted George Washington and his marble bust by David Dunbar (1792-1866) is in Carlisle Cathedral. During the fund raising for this monument by Mr Thurnham, the Carlisle Journal wrote: ‘Sir Joseph was a man of talent, of great private worth, and deservedly esteemed by all parties and we trust that the subscription will be such as to do honour to a man who, living, never had an enemy’.  


  • Katherine Arner, Making Yellow Fever American: The Early American Republic, the British Empire and the Geopolitics of Disease in the Atlantic World, Journal of Atlantic Studies, vol.7, 2010
  • Edward Nathaniel Bancroft, A sequel to an essay on the Yellow Fever, 1807
  • C.P. Barbier, William Gilpin, his Drawings, Teachings and Theory of the Picturesque, 1963
  • David A, Cross, Public Sculpture of Lancashire and Cumbria, 2017, 142-3 
  • David A. Cross, Captain John Bernard Gilpin, Cumbrian Lives, 2020 
  • John Eberle ed., American Medical Recorder, vol 3, c.1820, 563-4
  • Don N. Hagist, Three Brave British Army Wives, The Journal of the American Revolution, 28 October 2014
  • Samuel Jefferson, The History and Antiquities of Carlisle, 1838
  • Robert Martin, A History of the British Colonies, 1835
  • Stephen Matthews, The Life and Works of David Dunbar, 2015
  • Denis Perriam, Sir Joseph Gilpin, Cumberland News, 18 July 2008
  • Bruce Short, Dr Robert Robertson FRS [1742-1829] Fever specialist and philosopher-experimenter in the treatment of fever with Peruvian bark in the latter 18th Royal Navy,
  • Billy G. Smith, Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World, Yale, 2013
  • Army Board, An account of an epidemic fever which occurred at Gibraltar in 1804, 1810 and 1813 taken from official documents…..and from the communications of Joseph D.A. Gilpin M.D., The Medical and Chirugical Society, London, vol.5, 1814
  • British Medical Journal, presidential address, 11 February 1905, 197 ff
  • Carlisle Journal, 25 November 1834
  • Edinburgh Gazette, 3-7 March 1815
  • E. Blackmore, Facts relating to epidemic cholera determined from personal observation …at Plymouth in 1832, Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal, 6 September 1848, 482-3
  • George Diamantopulos, Typhus Icterodes of Smyrna, Journal of American Medical Association, 14 July 1888
  • The Medical Register of 1783 lists a Dr Thomas Graham of Cargo, Carlisle, who was buried at Kirklinton on 21 August 1787
  • Obituary of Sir Joseph Gilpin, The Medical and Surgical Journal, vol.6, 383
  • Obituary of Sir Joseph Gilpin, Carlisle Journal, 11 October 1834
  • [Victor G.] Plarr, Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons [for Gunning]
  • Gilpin letter of 1813 from