The son of a Plymouth surgeon, Yonge went to sea with the Royal Navy as an apprentice surgeon as a young boy. Later he went on several voyages with the Newfoundland fishing fleets. In his twenties he set up in practice in Plymouth and over the years became prosperous.
Yonge was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1702 and Mayor of Plymouth for 1694-95. He wrote medical text books and a journal of his life.
Little is known of the forebears of James Yonge. His father John was a surgeon in the Plymouth area, of unclear origins of his father are not clear. He may have come from Ireland and been part of the Protestant ascendancy; Yonge refers in his Journal to visiting his grandmother in Cork. The accounts in Burke's Landed Gentry, that he was a descendant of the Yonges of Colyton in Devon, are unfounded.
His mother Joanna Blackaller (1618–1700) was the daughter of Nicholas Blackaller of Dartmouth, Devon, England. The Blackallers were merchants. His parents were married in St Savours, Dartmouth in September 1640. By the time Yonge was born, his parents were living in Plymouth, England. He was baptised in the Parish Church of St Andrew, Plymouth, England on 11 March 1647. Yonge was the fifth of seven children, all of whom survived at least to early adulthood.
There is a family story of a quarrel with his brother Nathaniel, who unlike Yonge was not a royalist. There is evidence that they did not get on in Yonge's Journal.
In 1658 Yonge's father had him articled as an apprentice at the age of ten to Silvester Richmond of Liverpool, the surgeon on the Navy vessel HMS Constant Warwick. He was next was appointed surgeon's mate to HMS Montague, which formed part of Lord Sandwich's fleet in the Downs and in 1660, aged 13, he sailed on the Montague which was involved in an ineffectual bombardment of Algiers in the following year. He was released from his apprenticeship, in May 1662, by his master's retirement. He was then an assistant at Wapping, to an apothecary named Clarke. There he apparently picked up practical knowledge of the making up of medicines.
Yonge returned to Plymouth in September 1662 and was then unwillingly bound to his own father for another seven years. This action by his father rankled with him all his life. He wrote "My elder brother was maintained like a prince, I clad with old turned cloaths, and not one penny in my pocket, he was hard as a master."
Yonge soon was at sea again. During this period he undertook several voyages with the Newfoundland fisheries. The first was in May 1663 when aged 16, he took passage in the ship Reformation. Yonge spent time on land and used to walk between settlements, making sketches and observations on the industry. In January 1666, during the Second Dutch War, his ship, the Bonaventure was captured by the Dutch and he was shackled together with other prisoners, for fifty one days. (The biography of the Victorian writer Charlotte Yonge by Christabel Coleridge refers to Yonge being a galley slave of the Moors, possibly conflating the time he was a Dutch prisoner with the fact that he did serve off Algiers whilst in the Navy.) In September 1666 he was exchanged for a relative of the secretary of the Dutch Admiralty, who was a prisoner at Harwich.
In February 1668, Yonge made what was to be his final voyage, to Newfoundland in the Marigold of Plymouth. He describes his arrival:
"Coming up with the ice we find no passage, stand through it and in two hours got on the inside of it ...but not without knocking our ship. find ourselves the first ship in the land and Admiral of St Johns. God be praised for this good landfall and good place!
Yonge returned to Plymouth on 29 September 1670, and established himself in practice, aged 25. He was then appointed surgeon at the Naval Hospital in Plymouth, established following the outbreak of the Third Anglo-Dutch War in 1672. In 1674, Thomas Pearse, the Surgeon-General of the Navy, made Yonge his deputy.
In 1692, following his appointment as surgeon to the new dock at Hamoaze, Plymouth, Yonge had to go to London. Whilst there he attended Edward Tyson's anatomical lectures at Surgeons Hall. In 1702, in London again, he was persuaded to sit the examination of the College of Physicians, as an Extra-Licentiate. In his journal Yonge states there was no need as he did not intend to practice in practice in London or the immediate environs as he already had licence from the Bishop (presumably the Bishop of Exeter) but that College persuaded him that it would give him added status.
Yonge corresponded with Sir Hans Sloane. In London he associated with Francis Atterbury, Charles Bernard, Edward Browne and Walter Charleton as well as Tyson. He was also a frequent visitor to Oxford, where he catalogued the Ashmolean Museum and was entertained at the University.
Yonge exposed the plagiarism of John Browne. Browne's Compleat Treatise of the Muscles appeared in a second edition in 1683. Yonge then pointed out that it put together text from the Muskotomia of William Molins with illustrations from the Tabula anatomicae of Giulio Casserius.
By the 1670s Yonge had become a person of some importance, and was called to fill a succession of civic and professional offices in Plymouth, whose charter had been re-granted by Charles II. In 1679 he was elected a member for life of the Common Council of the Borough of Plymouth. In 1682 he was appointed a churchwarden at St Andrew's. In 1694 he became alderman and mayor of Plymouth. He gives in Plymouth Memoirs this account of his mayoralty in 1694-5.
Dec. the Lord Cutts came to town, Lay at my house. 3 Regiments quartered in town, to be Embarked for the W. India by this Lord, gave me great trouble in Quartering them.
Alderman Dell died January. no Loss.
June My Ld Marquis of Carmarthen, son & heir to the duke of Leeds, being Rere Admiral of the blew came into port, spent an evning merryly at my house, & treated me wth r Governor, &c next day on board the Lenox very nobly, wth Gunnes.
In August filld [sic] up both Benches, by chosing In", Rogers, Nics. Edgcumb, Wm• Munyon, and m' Tho Bound Aldermen. Tho Burgoyn, James Bligh, Tho Darracot, Wm Lovel, Ben Berely and Wm Wyat 0who had been my aprenytic, assistants
His brother Nathaniel who was also involved in the politics of the town. On his death Yonge wrote in the Plymouth Memoir:
"he was a zealot in this new model and I believe the disappointment they met [four Whig magistrates had just died and the two Whig Members of parliament for Plymouth had been replaced by Tories] and the odium they contracted help to bring ye asthma on him"
In his Plymouth Memoirs he gives short biographies of the mayors in his time, containing "ye memorable occurrences in their respective yeares". For example:
"Rob Brown Mayor 1711 Was chosen the usual day. A tool, & a fool, dyed soon after, and was succeed by B. Berry, who served the rest of the yeare: and having no house in town, Lodged and Kept the Mayoralty at an house that was comon for quarting strangers, & selling punch, Ale, to the great scandal of the office...but they stuck at nothing, -seemd [sic] to regard neither the credit, or welfare of the town, filled up ye benches with men that were of mean, Scandalous, --- as if they had been sworn to choos the worst -- and did many things contrary to the constitution, & custom of the Burrough, chose a Mayor that did not Inhabit, filled the Benches with Lawyers."
He held the appointment as surgeon to the Devonport dockyard from 1692 to until April 1701. Towards the end of his tenure, at the end of the 17th Century a new residential terrace was constructed at the dockyard for the senior officers. Most of the terrace was destroyed in World War II but Yonge's part survives. He wrote in his Journal:
"in May this year I got a warrant to be Surgeon of the Navy and yard at Plymouth, Capt. Hen. Greenhill Commander, John Addis, clerk of the chequer, Mr. Stollard master attendant, Mr. Watt master builder, Mr. Gazby store keeper, Mr. Rob. Yonge clerk of the ropeway, Mr. Thomas Yeo master ropemaker, Mr. Chavy mast-maker, Mr. Jethro Brown boatswain of the yard, Mr. Richard Lea clerk of the survey, Mr. Israel Pownel builder's assistant, Mr. Spickerwell master caulker, and myself surgeon, with Mr. Perry as porter. These were officers that had houses in the yard; the sailmaker, joiner, bricklayer, &c. had none. We all very fine houses, stables, gardens, &c., but did not live easy under the Commander, who was a proud, morose man."
Yonge's service for the Navy ended on an unhappy note in 1701. He wrote in his Journal:
1701. The beginning of this year, April 25, I was displaced from the dock by the false accusation of Comr St Lo. He had attempted it twice before, but then the Lords of Admiralty made enquiry into the matter and found me innocent but notwithstanding that and a promise they made not to hearken any more to him, they did on this third wrong information put me out without notice or hearing and this injustice he got by quitting Weymouth to Col Churchill’s brother.
In his Journal he refers to 12s. as the fee for a twenty-mile visit, another £1, and, for an outside visit of two days' duration, £1 l0s. Bleeding a lady in bed cost 10s., as against 2h, 6d. for a man. A post mortem 3s. 4d.'
During the late 17th century he seems to have been very busy. He was travelling all over Devon and Cornwall. He recites his earnings for one year that he got £40 for 12 days treatment for a man run through with a blade - a lady at Butshead that he often had to visit £40 a year - tapping Mr Pake 25 guineas [£26.25] etc. - curing 9 fistulas for which he got between £30 and £70 each - treating an ulcer in the bladder for four years £200 etc.
He earned from 25 to 100 guineas for a single operation and boasted that he obtained £120 in Ye one year for treating sailors for the pox (syphilis) in the naval hospital at Plymouth.
One of the last commissions that he refers to in his journal is the embalming of the body in preparation for his lying in state in London, of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell who drowned off the Scilly Isles in one of the worst ever peacetime disasters of the Royal Navy. For this he was paid £50.
Once he had made his name his role was perhaps equivalent to that of the consultant or society doctor for Yonge was not however average. He amassed a considerable fortune during his life through hard work and one suspects hard nosed commercial brain. A document in the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office shows that his assets and income in 1718 amounted to £21,000. A remarkable sum bearing in mind it had nearly all come from the results of his medical practice. It is very difficult to compare monetary value of the past with today but by way of an example taking a compilation from several sources, in 1718 an average farm labourer would have earned £18 a year and an attorney £120. It was this money which established the family in society for generations to come.
Yonge died on 25 July 1721 and was buried in the Church of St Andrew, Plymouth. A memorial was erected to him, apparently destroyed during the Second World War when the church was badly damaged. An old church guide quotes it:
"Here underneath lyeth buried the body of James Yonge physitian. Fellow of the Royal Society. He was once mayor of his native town and dyeth the 25th day of July 1721 in the 76th year of his age."
Yonge's best known work is his Journal, published in 1963 by Frederick Noël Lawrence Poynter, as The Journal of James Yonge, Plymouth Surgeon. It gives a complete account of his life from the age of ten until the age of 61. It is considered to be the most important diary of the 17th century after those of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. In it Yonge mentioned famous people he had seen in his travels, dropping names and in some cases giving a frank.
In 1678 Yonge visited London with John Sparke, the member of Parliament for Plymouth, and whilst there met a number of members of the Royal Society. In consequence he wrote Currus Triumphalis de Terebintho. It describes how he used turpentine to arrest a haemorrhage, describes the flap operation in amputation and shows that he was familiar with tourniquets. On 3 November 1702 Yonge was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and made contributions to the Philosophical Transactions. He published there on subjects as diverse as "on a bullet in the trachea, on two huge gallstones and on intestinal concretion ". In correspondence with Charles Goodall he noted the application of lemon juice as good for the gums in cases of scurvy.
Yonge published in 1685 Medicaster Medicatus, A reply to William Salmon and in 1699 Sidrophel Vapulans. William Salmon was a well known empiric. Yonge returned to attack him at the prompting of Charles Goodall, who had quarrelled with Richard Boulton, an ally of Salmon, over comments made about Charles Leigh. In Sidrophel Vapulans, he wrote on the large number of unqualified people practicing medicine.
"It is therefore a great wonder that in this age of regulation and amendment nothing is done to rectify the notorious abuses and secure us from the mischief done by those men who without skill or authority under he pretence of restoring and preserving do destroy men's lives and estates and more especially at such a time when the Nation is in need of both for its defence and preservation."
"Why then should impudent ignorant quack and empirics (smiths weavers cobblers draymen women etc) boldly and unaccountably take upon them great cures and things of great difficulty in which they partly use sorcery, witchcraft, [cause] grievous hurt damage and destruction of many of the Kings liege people, most especially of them that can not discern the uncunning from the comic cunning."
Yonge did not get everything right. Also in Sidrophel Vapulans he wrote:
How absurd it is to affirm that a bright and dark moon shall have the same effect, that a body fourteen times less than the Earth and at such a great distance from it shall press the ocean to such an extent and while its in the like situation force it to retire…. So the cause of the motion seems as that of the heart only known to him that made it.
Most of Yonge's published works were on surgical procedures. He was probably the first person to perform a successful brain operation in England. Because few believed him he published in 1682 an account entitled "Wounds of the Braine Proved Curable", a treatise based on several of his own cases. He left details of an early trepanning operation that he performed on a man who "by a prodigious wound in the forehead lost as much brain as the shell of a pullets egg can contain and was cured in Plimmouth by J. Y. 1686".
Yonge also published Several Evidences to prove that Eikon Basilike was written by Charles I. Modern research however indicates that the work was in fact by John Gauden.
Yonge married on 28 March 1671 Jane, daughter of Thomas Crampporne of Buckland Monachorum in Devon. By her he had two sons, the eldest of whom predeceased him or and six daughters but only one, Johanna, survived to adulthood to have a family of her own.
His brother Samuel wrote a work entitled "A Censure of Three Scandalous pamphlets, and in it he commented on Yonge:
“I am sorry to say my Prefacer [Yonge] a great friend to all dissenters, went to all their meetings, contributions etc till he was forced to go to sacrament to get the hospital at Plymouth and then he baulked at complying and was dragged to the Lords table and then became one of the greatest enemies they had.”
Yonge's eldest son James Yonge (1679–1718) married Mary Upton, daughter and heir of John Upton of Puslinch, Newton Ferrers, Devon. Yonge made the marriage possible, paying off Upton debts and mortgages and building of a new Puslinch House which cost a reputed £10,000. The house of Puslinch remains in the ownership of the Yonge family.