the local history of Stoke-on-Trent, England

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Did you know? - Josiah Wedgwood I had his right leg amputated because of smallpox?


Statue of Josiah Wedgwood
Statue of Josiah Wedgwood
on the 'Wedgwood Memorial Institute' Queen Street, Burslem

Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) contracted smallpox early in his youth, this left him lame in his right leg. Later in life his leg was amputated just below the knee. 

It may be that the infirmity Wedgwood suffered from resulted in his development as a Master Potter and the foundation of Josiah Wedgwood & Sons who continue as pottery manufacturers in Stoke-on-Trent to this day. 

Josiah was born into a potters family, and in 1744 he was apprenticed as a thrower to his elder brother Thomas. He may have remained in that  position all his life had it not been for the smallpox which reduced his mobility.
Because of the infirmity Josiah began to read, research and experiment in producing "various ornamental and fancy articles, and to experiments in imitating the natural agates, jaspers....."


The Right Hon. W.E. Gladstone (Chancellor of the Exchequer) on the occasion of his laying of the foundation stone of the Wedgwood Memorial Institute  (around 1863)
"Then comes the well-known attack of smallpox, the settling of the dregs of his disease in the lower part of the leg, and the amputation of the limb, rendering him lame for life.... in the wonderful ways of Providence, that disease...drove him to meditate upon the laws and secrets of his art.."


Josiah Wedgwood I had his right leg amputated (midway between the thigh and knee) on 28 May 1768.

Surgical opinion suggests that smallpox suffered as a boy left him with an infection known as ‘Brodie’s abscess’, which eventually disabled the joint completely. With no anaesthetics and no antiseptics, the risks of such an operation were considerable. But Josiah I made a rapid recovery and had a wooden leg made by Mr Addison of Long Acre, who made ‘lay figures for artists’.

In later years, the artificial limbs were produced by a local cabinet maker.

From Jewitt's 'a Life of Josiah Wedgwood' 1865:-

  "It would be far from my wish to destroy, or to entrench,
even in the slightest degree, on the true poetry of this relation; but as its sentiment cannot be altered, or its beauty impaired, by correcting one of the statements, I do not hesitate to say, what I have every reason for believing to be the case, that the amputation of the leg was not altogether the result of the small-pox, which had produced a disorder and weakness in that limb, but of an accident; and that it did not take place during the boyhood of the great man, but at a much later period of his life. The boy had genius and thought, energy and perseverance, in him, which wanted not the bodily affliction to become developed, and to bring them to active perfection. His mind was such as would have surmounted every obstacle which manual employment could offer, and would have risen above every unfavorable circumstance by which he might be surrounded.

The smallpox, it is true, at that early period gave him leisure and opportunity to think, to experimentalise, and to form those ideas which in after life he so successfully and beneficially, both to himself and to the world, worked. out; but he would have become a great man even without that ailment to help him on.

The small-pox left a humour which settled in the leg, and on every slight accident became so painful, that for one half of the time of his apprenticeship he sat at his work with his leg on a stool before him. The same cruel disorder continued with him till manhood, and was at one time so much aggravated by an unfortunate bruise, that he was confined to his bed many months, and reduced to the last extremity of debility. He recovered his strength after this violent shock but was not able to pursue his plans for some years without frequent interruptions from the same sad cause. At length the disorder reached the knee, and showing symptoms of still advancing so as to endanger his life, he was advised to undergo amputation, and submitted to it, it is said, about the 34th year of his age. From this period he enjoyed a tolerably good state of bodily health and activity, and has been known to attribute much of his success of life to his confinement under this illness, because it gave him opportunities to read, and to repair the defect of an education which had, as I have shown, been necessarily narrowed by circumstances."


more on Wedgwood

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