The Lyon Archive

James Johnson, the People's Doctor

By the beginning of 1839, Lyon’s patience and optimism seems to have worn thin, and he determines to get a second opinion, this time calling on Dr. James Johnson (40). While Van Oven was the foremost doctor for poor Jews, Johnson was much more of a specialist. He had published several works which had received international attention and was an expert on tropical diseases, the effects of travel, and what today would be classified as mental health, making him a perfect fit for Lyon’s case (“A Sketch” 22, 40). Despite his fame, Johnson was a very generous man and often waved or reduced his fees (44), making multiple appointments with him within Lyon’s financial means.

Although Van Oven was a very capable doctor, his publications indicate that he had a very different view of medicine than Johnson and focused primarily on lifestyle as a cure. He thought that the secret to a long and healthy life was diet and hard work and that life should be enjoyed in moderation. His book claimed that “few really die of old age” and dying at the age of 152 was “premature" (Cook 7). He blamed those who died sooner for living a foolish, leisurely life instead of the healthier life of a peasant (7). He most likely advised Lyon to eat small meals consisting of simple food and to stay active. However, this did not improve Lyon’s health, and although they shared a common religion, they had very different views of how life should be led. 

James Johnson 1777-1845

James Johnson was a prominent doctor known for his intellect, kindness, and relatability. 

Lyon, who enjoyed books, chess, and theatre and desired to live the life of an upper-class Englishman, was unlikely to have been happy with Van Oven’s philosophies. Johnson, in addition to being much more capable of treating someone with Lyon’s condition, seemed more in sync with his lifestyle and values. He was widely traveled, greatly enjoyed literature, and suffered from bouts of depression, much like Lyon himself (“A Sketch” 45). After Lyon’s first consult with Johnson, he found his case “very favorable” and seemed very reassured when Johnson reiterated Van Oven’s opinion that his numbness would eventually go away (Lyon 40).

Lyon never expounds on his opinion of his doctors, but the diary hints at his feelings of frustration with Van Oven’s diagnosis and inability to cure him. In Johnson, he seemed to have found a doctor much more suited to him, particularly since his symptoms were due to anxiety and depression and not some physical impediment, which Van Oven appeared unable to treat. Johnson mentions that mental disorders, “a whole class of maladies...unattended by any evident disorder of the body,” were often “attributed to the imagination” and ignored by physicians (Chapman 129). While Lyon does not explicitly state that this was the case with Dr. Van Oven, it would certainly explain his change in doctors and apparent satisfaction with Johnson’s opinion.

Additionally, Johnson, as someone who suffered from dyspepsia most likely due to depression, would have been much more sympathetic to Lyon’s plight (“A Sketch” 40). Johnson’s essays were renowned in part for being approachable, and many of them were read by the general public and reprinted for years due to their popularity. At the height of his career, his writings were "found on almost every table" (41). His works drew from his own pain and experiences, creating an intimacy and resonance unique in the field of medical writings; reading Johnson was like seeing one’s sufferings “painted by a master-hand” (40). As a practitioner, Johnson was likely even more understanding. A socially driven individual such as Lyon would no doubt appreciate this type of patient care. Knowing all this, Lyon’s seemingly random decision to start with Dr. Van Oven before abruptly shifting to become Dr. Johnson’s patient makes a great deal of sense.