04 June 2022

How Dr De’Ath died working
to reduce mortality rates
in Victorian Buckingham

Hamilton House was the home of Dr George De’Ath (1861-1901), a pioneering doctor who worked to reduce the high incidence of early mortality in Buckingham in the late 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

The former British Foreign Secretary, Lord (David) Owen, was one of the ‘Gang of Four’ who left the Labour Party to form the Social Democratic Party. A medical doctor, his saturnine countenance led him to be dubbed ‘Doctor Death’ by the veteran Labour politicians Dennis Skinner and by the satirical magazine Private Eye.

But Buckingham had its own Dr De’Ath over 100 years ago, who was a pioneering doctor who worked to reduce the high incidence of early mortality in the town at the end of the 19th century.

Are people pushed towards careers that reflect their names? The term for this idea is nominative determinism, a phrase popularised by a recurring column in the New Scientist. This refers specifically to the theory that people are drawn to jobs that match their names.

This is part of what researchers call ‘implicit egotism’ – the idea that we are attracted to things that remind us of ourselves, whether it is marrying a person who shares the same birthday, or moving to a place with a phonetically similar name.

Hamilton House on West Street, Buckingham, is a late 19th century architect-designed house, built in 1898 for a local doctor and now used as a nursing home.

The west end of West Street is dominated by Castle House and Hamilton House, both substantial buildings set within sizable grounds beside each other on the north side of West Street.

The other historic properties at the west end of West Street are primarily residential. Many are detached, and are relatively widely spaced apart and situated within spacious grounds. At this end of the street, limestone as well as brick is used for the buildings and boundary walls. This create a very different character from the brick and render dominated elevations at West Street’s east end with built frontages of buildings close to the back edge of the pavement.

Hamilton House is one such example of a large, detached, late 19th century building situated back from the road behind a stone wall with brick coping.

The house, which is now used as a nursing home, has been heavily extended in more recent years, but the original range is quite a flamboyant building, built of brick with applied decorative timber.

The original house has an attractive entrance which is emphasised by a flat lintel porch resting on wooden corbels and supported from above by wrought iron braces. Above the porch is a large arched window ornamented with decorative and coloured glass.

Hamilton House is important because it was the home of Dr George De’Ath (1861-1901), a pioneering doctor who worked to reduce the high incidence of early mortality in Buckingham in the latter half of the 19th century.

Dr De’Ath was a son of Robert Death, later De’Ath, a surgeon in Buckingham. Dr De’Ath worked with Florence Nightingale, to improve hygiene and sanitary conditions in peoples’ homes and cottages and he established the first ever Conference of Rural Health Visitors at Buckingham Nursing Home in 1892.

He established the town’s first sewage farm, and it paid for itself by growing mangel-wurzels.

Tragically, Dr De’Ath died prematurely in 1901 at the age of 39, possibly of overwork; Florence Nightingale died the same year at the age of 90. When Dr De’Ath died, the Royal Latin School in Buckingham created the De’Ath Memorial Prize, still awarded today.

Despite the addition of modern extensions, Hamilton House contributes to the character of the Conservation Area in this part of Buckingham by virtue of its associations with Dr De’Ath, the attractive boundary wall enclosing its grounds, the trees and vegetation in its gardens and the views afforded across the grounds of Castle House.

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