Todd, Robert Bentley (1809–60), physician, teacher, and physiologist, was born 9 April 1809 in Dublin, second among nine sons and six daughters of Charles Hawkes Todd (qv), surgeon, and Elizabeth Todd (née Bentley). He was educated at a day school and by tutor before entering TCD (1825) to study law. After the death of his father, he transferred to medicine; he graduated BA (1829) from TCD, was admitted licentiate (1831) of the RCSI, and gained his clinical experience at the House of Industry Hospitals, Dublin, under Robert Graves (qv), from whom he ‘imbibed a taste for physiological inquiry; and, under his . . . direction, my first studies were pursued’ (Beale, 20).
He travelled (1831) to London ‘without a sixpence to help himself ’ (Brit. Med. Jn., 111) and began lecturing in anatomy and physiology at the Aldersgate Street School of Medicine. Graduating MA (1832), BM (1833), and DM (1836) at Oxford, he was admitted licentiate (1833) of the Royal College of Physicians, established a practice, and was appointed physician to the Western Dispensary and the Royal Infirmary for Children. He was co-founder (1834) and lecturer (1834–6) of a school which later became the Westminster Hospital Medical School.
In 1836 he was appointed professor of physiology and general and morbid anatomy at the recently founded medical school of King's College, London, which at that time was described by the Lancet as next to the worst in London. Dissension was rife, nearly half the professors had resigned and were found difficult to replace, student numbers had fallen from seventy-seven when the college opened (1831) to forty-two in 1836, expenses exceeded revenue, and there were rumours that the medical faculty would close. Undaunted by such difficulties, and aided by his pioneering spirit, boundless energy, and organisational skills and the support of his colleagues, he transformed the medical school, laying the foundation for its subsequent high reputation.
He freed the school from excessive religious tests and reformed medical education: he encouraged religious and social training for medical students; established (1841) medical scholarships conferred on the basis of merit, the first in the UK; and improved student discipline and supervision by introducing (1842) the posts of medical dean and resident medical tutor, and by organising (1849) student hostels, though he failed to realise his ambition of a full collegiate system. Todd himself served as resident dean (1842–3, 1845–6) and resident medical tutor (1843). Student numbers rose to 131 in 1843 and the school was restored to financial solvency.
‘One of the most eminent clinical teachers of the century’ (Lyle, 63), he described himself as a physiological physician and was among the first, if not the first, to appreciate the fundamental importance of anatomy and physiology to the understanding and treatment of disease. More than anyone else, he helped to change medical practice and was one of the first to teach that accurate diagnosis must precede treatment; he emphasised the value of the microscope in diagnosis and published his Clinical lectures in three successive volumes (1854–60).
Todd was the leading spirit in the foundation of King's College Hospital (opened 1840) with 120 beds, and served (1840–59) as one of its two physicians. Established to serve the needs of the poor and provide facilities for the clinical training of students, it was extended (1854) and became one of the leading teaching hospitals in the UK. He also pioneered nursing reform: he gained the support of the bishop of London, C. J. Blomfield (1786–1857), and others, and founded (1848) St John's House and the Sisterhood of St John the Evangelist (later known as the Sisterhood of St John the Divine) for the training and employment of nurses in hospitals and family care. It was the first Church of England nursing sisterhood, and the first anglican religious community to receive episcopal sanction. In 1854 its members accompanied Florence Nightingale to the Crimea, and from 1856 it undertook all the nursing in King's College Hospital, which greatly improved patient care and the ethos of the hospital; by 1870 it was organising the nursing department in Charing Cross Hospital, London, and the Galignani Hospital, Paris.
Todd became an eminent physiologist and distinguished author, and travelled (1833) to the Continent to interview prospective contributors for his first great work, Cyclopaedia of anatomy and physiology (5 vols, 1835–59), which included articles by leading scientific men. He contributed twenty-eight articles and edited this enormous work, which did ‘more to . . . advance the study of physiology and comparative and microscopic anatomy than any book ever published’ (Beale, 15). He was co-author with his former student, William Bowman (1816–92), of The physiological anatomy and physiology of man (1845–56); one of the first physiological works to give prominence to histology, it became a standard work and was influential in promoting the study of physiology in relation to medicine. Other publications include Practical remarks on gout, rheumatic fever and chronic rheumatism of the joints (1843) and articles in the Cyclopaedia of practical medicine (1833–5) and in medical journals.
He helped to establish clinical neurology as a speciality and was described as ‘by far the greatest clinical neurologist Britain had produced until the time of Hughlings Jackson [1835–1911]’ (Collier, 857). His contributions included work on peripheral neuritis and on the differentiation between spinal diseases, which at that time were collectively known as paraplegia; he identified locomotor ataxia as a distinct clinical entity. In his Lumleian lectures On the pathology and treatment of delirium and coma (1850), he described postictal paralysis, which earned the eponym ‘Todd's paralysis’. He wrote The description and physiological anatomy of the brain, spinal cord and ganglions (1845) and published several papers on the nervous system. His original contributions to medicine include his description of the valvular conditions of the heart, using the microscope, and of hypertrophic cirrhosis of the liver. He was famous for his advocacy of the use of stimulants in cases of acute disease: the ‘Potion de Todd’, consisting of brandy, cinnamon, and sugar, was included in the French pharmacopoeia, though he was not responsible for the so-called hot toddy; his case-notes show that in addition to wine and porter, he often ordered a pint and a half of brandy for his patients.
He received many distinctions: fellow (1837) and censor (1839–40) of the Royal College of Physicians of London, he was their Gulstonian (1839), Croonian (1842), and Lumleian lecturers (1849). He was elected fellow (1838) and council member (1838–9) of the Royal Society, fellow (1844) of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and hon. fellow of King's College, London (1853).
He shared (1848–53) his professorship with William Bowman and resigned due to the demands of his private practice (one of the largest in London), but continued as physician and clinical teacher at King's College Hospital until 1859. He always looked old, and though a keen advocate of the value of alcohol in medicine, his own consumption was deleterious and he died 30 January 1860 of torrential gastric haemorrhage in his consulting room at his home, Brook St., London, only hours after seeing his patients. His courage and commitment to them, in the face of imminent death, is described by W. M. Thackeray in Roundabout papers (1862; quoted in full by Coakley). He was buried in Kensal Green cemetery, London, and is commemorated by a statue by Matthew Noble (1818–76), which stands in the great hall of King's College Hospital, and by the Todd clinical prize and the Todd ward. His portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. He was survived by his widow (whose name is not known), three daughters, and a son, James Henthorn Todd (1847–91), who became a distinguished administrator in India. Of his brothers, James Henthorn Todd (qv) (1805–69), MRIA, was regius professor of Hebrew at TCD, and Charles Hawkes Todd (1813–94), QC, was vicar general of the diocese of Derry and Raphoe.