The Kidney Stone of Alderman Adams

Continuing the theme of health, medicine and Parliament, Dr Patrick Little of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section looks at how a notable and multifaceted London MP of the mid-17th century provides a vivid illustration of a danger highlighted in very recent clinical trials…

The link between the Ig Nobel Prize for improbable research and the 1640-1660 Section of the History of Parliament Trust is not immediately obvious; but the Ig Nobel for medicine which was awarded at the ceremony at Harvard University on 13 September this year has very distinct seventeenth century resonances. The laureates, Marc Mitchell and David Wartinger, had followed up anecdotal reports that violent movement, especially associated with funfairs, could cause kidney stones to dislodge and pass through the renal system into the bladder and out of the body, by conducting proper scientific field trials, using a simulated renal system and real ‘calculi’ or kidney stones. The apparatus was then taken for numerous ‘goes’ on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster at Disney World in Florida. Happily for those afflicted with this painful condition, the trials proved that roller coasters do indeed cause calculi to be excreted. There was, however, a word of caution: ‘Persons with known renal calculi of a volume likely to cause ureteral obstruction… may wish to avoid the kinds of external forces evaluated in the current study’ [‘Validation of a Functional Pyelocalyceal Renal Model for the Evaluation of Renal Calculi Passage While Riding a Roller Coaster,’ Marc A. Mitchell, David D. Wartinger, The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, vol. 116 (October 2016), pp. 647-652].

To modern eyes, Alderman Thomas Adams is one of the more appealing of mid-seventeenth century politicians. He was born in 1586, the second son of a yeoman farmer from the Shropshire town of Wem, and may have been intended as a clergyman, as he was educated at Cambridge University before dropping out to become apprenticed to a London draper. Adams became a member of the Drapers’ Company and grew to be prosperous merchant and master of his company in 1640. He did not forget his roots, however, remaining in close contact with his family and making frequent trips home to see his aging mother, and in the 1630s he organised the ‘Shropshire feast’ for all the gentlemen of that county resident in London. He saw education as a religious duty, not only for his own children but also for the wider community, and he is most famous today as the founder of the grammar school at Wem, now known as the Thomas Adams School. He also helped to fund a new chair of Arabic at Cambridge University.

Adams was a reluctant politician. His position as a London alderman with godly leanings no doubt influenced his decision to side with Parliament against King Charles I in 1642, but he was no zealot. He opposed the sacking of his friend, Sir Richard Gurney, as lord mayor in July 1642, and tried to keep the City militia out of the clutches of the radical new mayor, Isaac Penington, in July 1643. When Adams himself became lord mayor in October 1645 he was treated with some suspicion by the parliamentary authorities, and after the king fled from Oxford in May 1646 it was rumoured that he had secretly gone to London, and was ‘ready to disclose himself through the favour of the mayor’ [Cal. State Papers Venetian 1643-7, p. 259]. In the year that followed, Adams became associated with the Presbyterian caucus in the City that opposed the New Model Army and its Independent allies, and a leading light in the new militia committee that sought to mobilise the London trained bands as a force to defend the City, and supported the Presbyterian coup that seized Parliament at the end of July 1647. With the New Model’s occupation of London, Adams was impeached and sent to the Tower, only being released in June 1648, as the Independents sought to curry favour with London in the face of pro-royalist uprisings in Kent and elsewhere.

With the execution of Charles I in January 1649 Adams was purged from the court of aldermen, but this did not mark the end of his political career. After the foundation of the Cromwellian protectorate, Adams tried to return to public life, and was elected as MP for London in the elections of July 1654, although he was immediately excluded by the council of state. He was again elected for the City in August 1656, and again excluded – the only MP to have the distinction of being barred from both these Parliaments. The protectoral council was perhaps wise to treat Adams as an enemy, as in the second half of the 1650s he was in contact with royalist agents, and reputedly sent ‘considerable sums of money beyond seas’ to the court in exile [(N. Hardy), The Royal Commonwealthsman, or King David’s Picture (1668), 35]. He went with a delegation to meet Charles II in The Hague in May 1660, and was knighted. A month later he was made a baronet, and having been restored to the aldermanic bench, resumed his position at the top of London society.

Adams enjoyed his new-found success for only a few years before his sudden death in February 1668. It is the manner of his death that provides the link with the Ig Noble Prizes and the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, especially their concerns that such rides should be avoided by those with ‘renal calculi of a volume likely to cause ureteral obstruction’. For when Adams’s coach was involved in an accident and overturned, the violent movement dislodged a massive kidney stone which had apparently never troubled him before, but now blocked his urethra and killed him, after several weeks of ‘miserable torture’. Samuel Pepys, who had himself undergone an unpleasant and dangerous operation to remove a kidney stone a few years earlier, was later shown ‘the stone cut lately out of Sir Thomas Adams’s body’, and was suitably impressed, recording that it was ‘very large indeed, bigger I think than my fist, and weighs above 25 ounces’ [The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. R. Lathom and W. Matthews (1983), ix. 136]. Adams was much lamented in the City, with 1,000 people attending his funeral sermon, and his monument celebrated his many achievements and ‘meritorious actions’ and dubbed him, with some justification, ‘the best of men in the worst of times’[J. Wilford, Memorials and Characters… of Divers Eminent and Worthy Persons (1741), app., 27-8].




Biographies of Thomas Adams and Isaac Penington are being prepared for publication by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.

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