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Henry Bence Jones

Born  1813
Died  1873

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English physician and chemist, born December 31, 1813, Thorington Hall, Yoxford, Suffolk County; died April 20, 1873.

Biography of Henry Bence Jones

Of the three physicians treating the case of Thomas McBean, Bence Jones is the one who became legendary. Bence Jones' protein is a well established term in multiple myeloma.

Henry Bence Jones was born in Thorington Hall, Suffolk. His mother was Matilda Bence, the daughter of Bence Jones, also of Thorington Hall and rector of Beccles; and his father was William Jones, a lieutenant-colonel in 5th Dragon Guards. This explains the double family name, which may be spelled both with or without the hyphen.

Bence Jones was educated at the prestigious Harrow School in London, and at the age of 18 became a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating B.A. in 1836. He excelled in sports, being a competent rower and cricket player. He first intended to become a priest and was close to being ordained. This did not occur, however, and in the mid 1830s the somewhat confused young man tried to find work with a relative in Liverpool, shortly afterwards to investigate the possibilities for emigrating to New Zealand.

It was a relative who advised him to study medicine, and from 1836 he studied medicine at St. George's Hospital in London, situated near Hyde Park Corner. He started his service in the laboratory of the hospital dispensary, remaining there for about one year. It was here his interest in chemistry was awakened, and parallel to his medical education, he was a private pupil in chemistry of professor Thomas Graham (1805-1869) in his laboratory at University College. He also attended lectures in physics by Michael Faraday (1791-1867).

In 1841 Bence Jones went to Giessen, Germany, to study in Justus von Liebig's (1803-1873) school of animalistic chemistry. Liebig was the leading chemist of his time. This breadth of knowledge characterizes Bence Jones' entire life and work and explains much of his high reputation among colleagues.

Bence Jones became a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1842, and settled in practice in London. That year he married his cousin, lady Millicent Acheson. Her interest seems to have been rather low, but was encouraged by a family friend, Lady Byron, widow of the famous poet. The result seems to have been a happy marriage producing seven children.

In his autobiography Bence Jones describes the education as a mixture of practical hospital work at St. George's Hospital and periods of theoretical study both in London and Cambridge. Bence Jones remained faithful to St. George's all through his life.

Bence Jones was elected member of the College of Physicians in 1845 and was elected that year to assistant physician to St. George's Hospital, also teaching forensic medicine. He became a full physician and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1846 and received his doctorate in Cambridge, and became Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1849. In 1860 he was appointed secretary of the Royal Institution, and as such published recent scientific discoveries for the lay public. He remained in that position for most of his life. He was said to commence work at the dawn of light, ending with a round late in the evening.

Bence Jones was a member of the council of the College of Chemistry which was established in 1865. With Dr. Charles West (1816-1898) he contributed importantly to the establishment of the Children’s Hospital in 1850. In 1851 lectured at the Royal Institution on animal chemistry, and in 1854 on alcohol, sugar, and Vinegars ( as well as on ventilation. In 1863 he taught chemistry at the Middlesex hospital, as stand in for Fowles. In 1865 he was a distinguished member of the royal commission for rinderpest.

In the 1850s Bence Jones was a frequent visitor to well known health resorts in Europe, being interested in mineral water cures.

He published on many topics, including renal calculi, chemical analysis of the urine, and gout. His first paper on cystine calculus was in 1840, he described the abundance of urate crystals in the urine of gouty subjects. His attempts to apply chemical laws to human phenomena were well ahead of his time and were not as successful as they might have been because the complexity of biochemistry and physiology were not understood.

Bence Jones insisted on examining the urine as a standard procedure in diagnosing clinical diseases, both chemically and with the microscope. Through his own example thus instilled into his students, he not only founded an important clinical test approach but enabled scientific contributions as he showed that the sugar in diabetic urine continued to be present despite withholding sugar in the diet. His way of combining practical medicine with chemistry contributed to the world fame of his publications.

Bence Jones was very well known and sought after physician, his popularity still growing when he had to resign for reasons of failing health. Among his friends were Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who for a period was also his patient. Darwin's reports that "he (Bence Jones) half starved me to death" through his prescribed diet. Other friends were Thomas Huxley (1825-1895) – ”Darwin's bull dog" - Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) - "The Lady with the lamp" - whom he helped in her House for gentlewomen. But foremost was the physicist Michael Faraday, of whom Bence Jones in 1870 published a comprehensive biography, Life and letters of Faraday. He retained friendly contacts to scientists in other countries.

In 1861 Bence Jones suffered from palpitations and shortness of breath, and in 1862 laid down his hospital duties at St. George's Hospital due to a heart disturbance. However, he was still was able to work as censor at the College of Physicians, where, in 1868, he gave the Croonian lectures under the title of Matter and force. His health deteriorated, and it was only with great difficulty he was able to go to Oxford in 1870 in order to be conferred doctor of honour of jurisprudence. In 1873 he was struck by generalized dropsy and died of congestive cardiac on April 20. His old teacher Liebig died in the same year and their obituaries appear alongside in the Lancet.

Like Dalrymple, Bence Jones lived on Grosvenor Street, and it was probably not accidental that it was Dalrymple who was allowed to do the microscopy work in the case of Thomas McBean.

In St. George's Hospital, which in 1980 moved to Tooting in south-western London, is a bust of Henry Bence Jones. This honour is also bestowed upon John Dalrymple, whose bust is to be seen in a hospital near to his native city of Norwich.


Besides his books, Bence Jones made numerous contributions to journals.
  • On gravel, calculus and gout; chiefly an application of Prof. Liebig’s physiology to the prevention and cure of these diseases. London, 1842.
  • On animal electricity (Abstract of the discoveries of E. Du Bois-Reymond). 1852.
  • Chemistry of urine. 1857.
  • On animal chemistry in its application to stomach and renal diseases. 1856.
  • Lectures on some of the applications of chemistry and mechanics to pathology and therapeutics. 1867.
  • Lectures on matter and tone.
    Croonian Lectures; College of Physicians, 1868.
  • The life and letters of Faraday. 2 volumes.
  • The London and Provincial Medical Directory. Obituary.
    London: Royal College of Physicians, 1858: 866.
  • Francis Darwin:
    Life and letters of Charles Darwin.
    Volume 2. London: John Murray, 1887: 215.
  • J. Rosenbloom:
    An appreciation of Henry Bence Jones, MD, FRS.
    Annals of Medical History, 1919, 2: 262-264.
  • R. R. James:
    British masters of ophthalmology.
    British Journal of Ophthalmology, London, 1926, 10: 240-247.
  • E. T. Collins:
    The History & Traditions of the Moorfields Eye Hospital.
    Volume 1. London: H.K. Lewis, 1929: 75-79.
  • H. Bence-Jones:
    An autobiography.
    Posthumous, private publication by Crusha & Son, London, 1929: 3-33.
  • G. H. Brown:
    Lives of the fellows of the Royal College of Physicians of London 1826-1925.
    Royal College of Physicians of London, 1955: 63.
  • J. R. Clamp:
    Some aspects of the first recorded case of multiple myeloma.
    Lancet, London, 1967; 2: 1354-1356.
  • Henry Bence Jones (1813-1873).
    Classic in Oncology, 1978, 1: 47-56.

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