Addison’s is a medical condition named after Dr Thomas Addison (1793-1860). Dr Thomas Addison first identified adrenal failure around 1850, whilst at Guy's Hospital, London, where he worked and taught for 37 years.

Thomas Addison was born in April 1793, at Long Benton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His parents Sarah and Joseph Addison, a grocer and flour dealer in Long Benton, gave him the best elementary education within their reach and aspired to start him in life on a much higher social level than their own.

Thomas Addison proceeded to the Royal Free Grammar School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and learned Latin so well that he made notes in that language. In 1812, Thomas became a medical student at the University of Edinburgh and in 1815 moved to London. He progressed rapidly and was admitted as a Licentiate of the College of Physicians in December 1819, and a Fellow in July 1838.

About the year 1820 Dr Addison entered as a pupil of Guy’s Hospital, London, where he stayed for his career as a physician and lecturer.

Addison and the adrenals 

Dr Thomas Addison first identified adrenal failure around 1850, whilst at Guy's Hospital, London, where he worked and taught for over 37 years.

Most of Dr Addison’s patients in Victorian London were poor people and a lot of them got sick with a kind of chest infection called tuberculosis (TB). Tuberculosis was deadly because modern medicines, like antibiotics, had not been invented, so doctors could not do a lot to treat people in those days. Nowadays it is very rare to get TB destruction of the adrenal glands, they are usually damaged by a different process where the body makes antibodies against the adrenals.

Dr Addison observed that some of his patients had other symptoms such as dark skin and a lot of vomiting. These patients went on to become very thin and so weak they could hardly get out of bed. This decline in health led to ultimately death. He described the symptoms as: 

"The discoloration pervades the whole surface of the body, but is commonly most strongly manifested on the face, neck, superior extremities, penis, scrotom, and in the flexures of the axillae and around the navel... The leading and characteristic features of the morbid state to which I would direct your attention are, anaemia, general languor and debility, remarkable feebleness of the heart's action, irritability of the stomach, and a peculiar change of the colour in the skin, occurring in connection with a diseased condition of the suprarenal capsules."

By studying the bodies, Dr Addison realised that this was because their adrenal glands had stopped working and had shrivelled up. In those days, nobody knew what the adrenal glands actually did, but his pioneering work showed that they were essential for life.

Dr Addison's scientific discoveries

In 1855, Dr Addison published the first scientific paper about this newly-discovered condition. The paper was called ‘Disease of the Supra-renal Capsules’. He gave the adrenal glands this name because they are found just above the kidneys, sitting on top of them like two little hats. 

Dr Addison’s passion and determination to diagnose difficult diseases resulted in the classification of two conditions: Addison's disease and one of its associated conditions, Vitamin B12 deficiency (pernicious anaemia).

Pictured: Dr Thomas Addison's gravestone at Lanercost Abbey, in Cumberland. 

Dr Addison suffered from several bouts of severe depression during his lifetime and died by suicide in 1860 aged 65, just a few months after he retired. He was buried at Lanercost Abbey, in Cumberland. The inscription on the stone chest tombstone reads:

“In memory of Thomas Addison M.D. Son of Joseph and Sarah Addison. Died June 29th 1860 aged 66 years. For 36 years physician to Guy’s Hospital London”.

Today he is known as one of our country’s great clinicans, his work improving the lives of everyone with Addison's and adrenal insufficiency for generations to come.

At the Addison's Disease Self Help Group we celebrate, remember and thank this dedicated doctor.

On our Famous Lives page you can learn more about those in the public eye associated with Addison's and adrenal insufficiency.


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