HC Deb 21 May 1840 vol 54 cc488-93
Mr. F. French

rose to call the attention of the House to the petition of Mr. Roberts, which had been presented on the 3rd of April, and which related to a subject of much importance in an anatomical point of view. The petitioner had discovered an antiseptic process, by which animal substances could be preserved from putrefaction, and to the value of that discovery some of the ablest surgeons and anatomical teachers in the metropolis had borne testimony. Those gentlemen, in a letter, which he held in his hand, stated that they were convinced, from what they had seen, that Mr. Roberts's preparation was capable of keeping in a fresh, moist, and inoffensive state, the flesh of animals, and they thought that it might become of important use to surgeons and students of anatomy, and that it might be made to promote materially the objects of the Anatomy Bill. That letter was signed by Sir A. Cooper, Sir C. Brodie, Mr. Green, and other gentlemen of high standing in the medical profession. There was another letter, to the same effect from Dr. Somerville, who stated, that he owed it to Mr. Roberts not less than to the medical profession, to bear his testimony to the merits of the process by which portions of the human body had been preserved for a period exceeding six weeks. Those Gentlemen, and many others, had expressed themselves in the most decided terms as to the merits of this discovery, and they had suggested to Mr. Roberts, that the hon. Member for Bridport, from his connexion with the Anatomy Bill, and from the influence which he possessed with the Government, was the best person to whom he could apply in order to have the process adopted generally in the anatomical schools, and in a manner the best cal- culated to remunerate the discoverer. Sir A. Cooper had accordingly given Mr. Roberts a letter of introduction to Mr. Warburton, and Mr. Warburton had, in consequence, offered to enter into negotiation with the Government on the subject. In his interview with that gentleman, Mr. Roberts was asked by Mr. Warburton what the value was which he put upon this discovery, and Mr. Roberts replied, that he would accept of 5,000l. for a licence to enable the whole schools of anatomy in the kingdom to make use of the process. Some time afterwards Mr. Warburton stated to Mr. Roberts, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to whom he had applied, could not give his attention to the matter, on account of the pressure of public business, till the end of the Session of 1836. About that period, however, the Chancellor left town suddenly to attend the British Association at Bristol, and from that place he proceeded to Ireland. Dr. Birkbeck had also written to Mr. Rice upon the subject, but to that letter no answer had been received. About the 22nd of September, however, Mr. Warburton received a letter from Mr. Rice (now Lord Monteagle), enclosing a letter from the Home-office, in which the receipt of Dr. Birkbeck's application was acknowledged, and in which Lord John Russell admitted the importance and utility of the process, but stated, that he did not feel himself warranted in recommending that the Government should pay to Mr. Roberts the sum of 5,000l. for its use in the anatomical schools. Now, before he proceeded further, he felt bound to say, that he had no charge to make against the Home-office, for the course which had been pursued by that department, had been perfectly straightforward. On hearing the contents of the letter which had been written by the direction of Lord John Russell, Mr. Roberts concluded, that the negotiation with the Government was at an end, and he proposed, in consequence, to enter personally into an arrangement with the different anatomical schools, so as to enable them to make use of the process which he had discovered. On stating his intention to do so to Mr. Warburton, that gentleman said "No. The letter received from Lord John Russell admits the value and importance of your discovery, and as the letter is sent to me instead of Dr. Birkbeck, it is evident that the Chancellor of the Exchequer wishes the negotiation to be continued through me." The hon. Gentleman, the Member for Bridport, had however added, that it was necessary for Mr. Roberts to put him confidentially in possession of the secret of the process, when he would make some experiments to test its efficacy, and then report to the Chancellor of the Exchequer upon the subject. With that request Mr. Roberts hesitated to comply, but the hon. Member for Bridport stated, that until he was made acquainted with the process he would not advance a step in the matter. However, on the recommendation of Sir George Sinclair, the Member for Caithness, Mr. Roberts at last consented to put Mr. Warburton in possession of the secret, and as soon as he had done so, Mr. Warburton communicated the fact to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but for two years no report had been made. This was in April, 1837, and he believed, that till the end of the year no experiment had been made as to the value of the process which had been submitted to the hon. Member. About the end of the year 1837, Mr. Roberts saw by advertisements in the public papers that two persons had taken out patents for processes similar to his own and, becoming alarmed at the delay which had taken place in determining the merits of his own discovery, he applied once more to Mr. Warburton upon the subject. To that application the hon. Member for Bridport had replied, that Mr. Roberts might make himself perfectly easy, because, as the Government had directed him to make a report on the merits of his discovery, Ministers would be obliged to remunerate him for disclosing the process, even should twenty patents for similar processes be taken out. Further time, however, elapsed without any communication being made to Mr. Roberts, and that gentleman, weary of the delay, again applied to Sir George Sinclair upon the subject. On the 2nd of February, 1838, Mr. Roberts received an answer to that application, in which Sir George Sinclair said, "Mr. Warburton thinks so highly of your invention, that he is willing to recommend that Government should pay you 1,000l. for revealing the process, and a further sum, say 2,000l. more, if on trial it should meet with general approbation and adoption." Nothing, however, was done for a considerable time longer, and it was only on the 9th of April, 1838, that Mr. Roberts received a letter from Mr. Warburton, in which was the following passage;—" I am sorry to inform you that 1 have received a letter from the Home-office, stating, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer having referred to that office the question of remunerating you for your discovery of a method of preserving animal substances from putrefaction, Lord J. Russell has declined recommending a grant of public money for that purpose." Now, he would ask whether such proceedings would be tolerated in private life, and if they could not be justified in private life how could they be justifiable in a Government? Was it fair to ask this gentleman to disclose his secret, and to appoint a person to report upon the merits of his discovery, and yet, and after such delay as had taken place, to refuse him any remuneration for his invention? He thought this was a case which called loudly for inquiry, and he hoped the House would consent to an investigation of the allegations contained in the petition. He should conclude by moving that a committee of Inquiry be appointed to inquire into the subject.

Mr. Warburton

thought it would have been only fair if the hon. Member who had brought forward this subject had applied to him in the first place, and before submitting this motion to the House. Had he done so, the hon. Gentleman would have received the fullest explanation of all the circumstances to which he had adverted; but, as he had thought proper to pursue a different course, and without any intimation had made a statement on the subject to the House, he felt he had some cause to complain of the manner in which he had been treated. Mr. Roberts had come to him and had shown him letters from some of the most respectable members of the medical profession in favour of his discovery, and had asked him to bring his invention under the notice of the Government. To that request he had replied, that he was no judge of the merits of the process, but that the great question to be considered was, in his opinion, whether it was economical and easy in its application. He had also stated to Mr. Roberts, that he was willing to see the Chancellor of the Exchequer upon the subject, and he had said he would recommend the Chancellor to make him a small grant in the first place, and a larger one afterwards should the discovery prove effectual. While, however, the matter was under the consideration of the Chancellor, information of this kind reached his ears. In the minutes of the Anatomical Association he found it stated on the 12th of March, 1837:— Dr. Somerville mentioned at a meeting of the committee, that Mr. Roberts had expressed his determination, unless the governors advised the use of his antiseptic fluid, to obstruct the distribution of bodies to the anatomical schools. On obtaining information, the next time Mr. Roberts called upon him he told him he could have nothing further to do with the process, and had wished him good morning. Sir George Sinclair had, however, prevailed upon him to overlook this offence, great as he considered it to be, and at the request of that hon. Baronet he consented to go to the Chancellor again. He, however, told Mr. Roberts that he would not again see the Chancellor unless he was made acquainted confidentially with the nature of the process, in order that he might be more fully able to judge of its merits. In consequence of that determination Mr. Roberts had disclosed the secret of the process to Sir George Sinclair and to himself, and after making some experiments, he had made a new recommendation to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in favour of Mr. Roberts. He begged distinctly to be understood, however, that there had been no contract, and merely a recommendation. When he had made his report, the Chancellor of the Exchequer referred the matter to the Home-office, and Lord John Russell declined to make any grant of the public money to Mr. Roberts. In 1838, Mr. Roberts proceeded to carry his threat into effect, upon his application having been rejected by the Home-office. He distributed written papers at all the workhouses in London, and endeavoured to excite a prejudice in the public mind. Was this a man who could put in a claim to a reward out of the public money?

Mr. Hawes

said, that in answer to an application from Mr. Roberts, he referred that gentleman to a committee of Inquiry which was then sitting at the House of Commons. Before that committee, however, Mr. Roberts never chose to appear,

Mr. Goulburn

thought, that if this were really a valuable discovery, as from its nature it was not entitled to receive a patent, the individual was entitled to some remuneration at the hands of the public,

Mr. F. Maule

was of opinion that there should be the greatest delicacy on the part of Government in treating applications of this nature, when great discoveries often turned out to be great failures. He was happy to state, that the Anatomy Act had been completely successful, and that not a single case of what was termed "resurrection" now occurred.

Motion withdrawn. House counted out.