On 5 October 1823 the first edition of an independent general medical journal appeared on London’s newsstands. Its editor was Thomas Wakley, a surgeon from Devon, who brought on medical colleagues William Lawrence and James Wardrop, journalist William Cobbett, and a libel lawyer as associates.
PRIVILEGE AND NEPOTISM
Wakley named the journal The Lancet after the small very sharp surgical instrument, more commonly known as a ‘scalpel’. The weekly publication claimed to report on London’s hospital lectures and describe the important cases of the day. However, Wakley’s specific aim was to attack incompetence, privilege and nepotism in the British medical establishment.
MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT
The journal dissected medical lectures, exposed malpractices, and even accused the nephew of the president of the Royal College of Surgeons of incompetence (in his painfully laborious extraction of a bladder stone through a cut in a patient’s scrotum). Because of its high-profile targets, The Lancet often ended up being sued for libel in the courts. In a number of cases, a guilty verdict was returned but then damages set at a very low figure. This appeared to prove The Lancet’s point: that nepotism existed throughout the British establishment — but that reform was possible. With its reputation intact, The Lancet’s popularity soared. In 1935, Wakley became a Member of Parliament, where he was an outspoken proponent of all kinds of social reform. He kept his seat there until 1852. On his death, in 1862, his family retained editorship of The Lancet until 1908.
Under new owners, The Lancet’s work continued through the 20th century. It only published research that it saw as relevant to ordinary human lives, and maintained extremely high standards. It published groundbreaking studies, from shell shock in World War One soldiers, to diabetes, breast cancer, heart disease, nutritional labelling and mental healthcare. It conducted campaigns, such as that to ban tobacco in the UK (2003), and to demand an independent investigation into the US bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan (2015).
JOURNALS AND PODCAST
Since 1991, The Lancet has been owned by Dutch academic publisher Elsevier. Its British editor-in-chief is Richard Horton, and it has editorial offices in London, New York City and Beijing. The Lancet Group now encompasses twenty-four separate journals, each dealing with a specific area of medical research, including HIV, child and adolescent health, infectious diseases and psychiatry. It also has a fortnightly podcast, The Lancet Voice.