Some Proprietors Of Note: Panizzi & Duncan

Extract from ‘The History of The Athenaeum – 1797-1997’.

Antonio Panizzi – 1797-1879
Prince of Librarians

From an almost penniless Italian refugee to Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum – that was the achievement of Panizzi, later to become Sir Anthony Panizzi KCB.

When he arrived in England in 1823, as a political refugee, he was, by his own admission “A man who came to this country with not quite a sovereign in his pocket, knowing no one, nor a word of the language”.

He was advised to come to Liverpool because William Roscoe was here and he might be able to scrape a living as a teacher of Italian. He joined the Athenaeum in 1824 and remained in membership until 1828, when he was appointed Professor of Italian in the new University of London, on the recommendation of Henry Brougham, who he had met in Liverpool.

Panizzi always remembered with affection his time in Liverpool, where “I am so well treated and welcomed by all”. The Athenaeum contained the first English library which Panizzi used extensively, he referred to it as “our Athenaeum library”. Using it may have stimulated his interest in libraries and his subsequent career in the British Museum, whose library he transformed into one of the world’s outstanding national collections. His extraordinary achievements led to his well-merited title ‘Prince of Librarians’.

William H Duncan MD – 1805-1863
Physician and first Medical Officer of Health in Britain

Duncan was born in Liverpool, his father a merchant, his mother a sister of Dr James Currie.

He graduated MD in Edinburgh University in 1829 and commenced practice in Liverpool. He was aPhysician at the Liverpool Infirmary and lectured at the Royal Institution School of Medicine and Surgery, which became the Royal Infirmary Medical School.

He became appalled by the high rates of mortality in Liverpool, caused by the poor state of housing, the many cellar dwellings and complete absence of adequate sanitation in the poorer districts. As a driving force for imporvements, his pressure was an important factor in the Borough Council’s promotion of the Liverpool Sanitary Act, 1846. One of its many provisions was the creation of the post of Medical Officer of Health, the first in the country, and Duncan was appointed to the post.

He then had to create a Public Health service without any examples to guide him, at the same time dealing with epidemics of typhus and cholora. His efforts eventually led to substantial falls in Liverpool’s mortality rates.

Despite Duncan’s quiet and retiring character, he was a member of many local bodies, including The Athenaeum, of which he was Honorary Secretary from 1843 to 1845.