William Perfect (1731/2–1809) was a physician specializing in the treatment of the insane, he was the son of the Revd William Perfect (d. 1757), from 1745 vicar of East Malling, Kent, and his wife, Sarah (d. 1769). He was probably born in Oxfordshire. In 1749 he was apprenticed to William Everred, a London surgeon. During his apprenticeship he attended lectures by Colin Mackenzie, a Scot specializing in obstetrics, and many years later published his correspondence with Mackenzie, relating to various difficult births at which he had assisted. Three editions of this, entitled Cases in Midwifery, appeared between 1781(?) and 1787.
In 1754 Perfect was working in Dartford, probably as assistant to a surgeon, having married the previous year Elizabeth Shrimpton (1730/31–1764), descended from a Penn, Buckinghamshire, family. The Perfects moved permanently to West Malling, Kent, in 1756, where William took over an established practice in the High Street. On his wife’s early death in 1764 Perfect was left a widower with five children: Elizabeth, Sarah, William, Huntley, and George—a sixth, Daniel, had died shortly after his mother. One of his daughters married the artist Silvester Harding (1745×51–1809); George Perfect Harding was their son.
Grief at the loss of Elizabeth seems to have resulted in Perfect’s becoming a freemason about 1765, and it was in freemasonry that he obtained his greatest social distinctions. He was promoted to the office of provincial grand orator in 1787, and eight years later became provincial grand master of the county of Kent, an office which he retained until his death.
During the 1760s Perfect threw himself into what was becoming virtually a crusade throughout the country to eliminate smallpox through the introduction of inoculation. Working with another local doctor he undertook the general inoculation of whole parishes in Kent and elsewhere, and appears to have travelled widely for this purpose until about 1769.
Perfect had already become interested in what was then termed lunacy, and now began to specialize in this, accommodating patients in his own house. Gentleness and common sense seem to have characterized his approach, whether dealing with women in childbirth or the insane. A keen believer in the value of advertising, he frequently publicized his medical services in the newspapers. An account of various mental afflictions which he had treated successfully, Methods of Cure, in some Particular Cases of Insanity, which was probably written originally for the purpose of advertisement and first published about 1778, was later expanded and, under various titles, including Annals of Insanity, had reached some seven editions by 1809. The book helped to establish his reputation in this field. Perfect obtained his MD from St Andrews University in 1783. Perfect’s lunatic asylum remained the principal private asylum in Kent for many years, although it does not appear to have been very large. On Perfect’s death his son George, who had worked alongside his father for some years, continued to run it, although with less success, becoming insolvent in 1815. As a result it was sold, the new owner, Robert Rix, soon transferring to the larger premises of Malling Place. The asylum begun by William Perfect remained in existence until the end of the twentieth century.
Perfect always enjoyed writing, both prose and verse: friends often received letters couched in rhyme. In the 1750s and 1760s he seems to have been one of a coterie of young scribblers who styled themselves Parnassians. These included William Woty, a Chatham friend Folly Streeter, and John Nichols, the future printer and writer, a few of whose poems appeared in Perfect’s two-volume collection, The Laurel Wreath (1766). This was the second of his literary publications. The first was A Bavin of Bays (1763). Both books contained poems which had first appeared in one of several London magazines to which Perfect was a contributor, particularly the General Magazine of Arts and Sciences, the Political Chronicle, and the Westminster Journal. Perfect’s work continued to appear in the London press for many years, most of it signed with one of his numerous pseudonyms. In September 1795 the Freemasons’ Magazine carried the ‘Memoirs of William Perfect, M.D., member of the London Medical Society’, which are useful for extending our knowledge of Perfect’s medical output, though one or two items are now no longer traceable, and others were never completed.
After his marriage about 1768 to a second wife, Henrietta (1745/6–1804), Perfect’s family increased by four more children: Folliott Augusta, Lucy, Thomas, and Almeria. Following Henrietta’s death, at the age of fifty-eight, Perfect married again, about 1805, his third wife being almost certainly Elizabeth Selby (1767–1851), of West Malling. He became ill in that year, however, and although able to officiate as provincial grand master in 1806, his health deteriorated from then on. Perfect died at home, in High Street, West Malling, on 5 June 1809, and was buried on 17 June with masonic rites in the vault in East Malling churchyard which he had had built some years earlier to commemorate his father and grandfather, both buried in East Malling church.
Shirley Burgoyne Black
S. B. Black, An eighteenth century mad-doctor: William Perfect of West Malling (1995)
S. Pope, ‘Freemasonry in Canterbury and provincial grand lodge, 1785–1809, and Dr Perfect, provincial grand master of Kent 1795–1809’, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, 52 (1939), 6–58 · ‘Memoirs of William Perfect, M.D., member of the London Medical
Wallis, Eighteenth century medics, 2nd edn (1988) · General Magazine of Arts and Sciences: miscellaneous correspondence, 1755–1760, 4 vols. (1759–64) · Vicar-general marriage allegations, LPL · GM, 1st ser., 79 (1809), 684 · GM, 1st ser., 74 (1804) [Henrietta Perfect]
Society’, Freemasons’ Magazine, 5 (1795), 147–51 · Masonic Museum and Library, Canterbury, William Perfect MSS, 9 folio vols., 1754–1773 · P. J. Wallis and R. V.
FREE EXHIBITION From 8th July 2019 Until Mid January 2020
“The Life of Dr William Perfect (1734 – 1809)
“William Perfect. Enlightenment, Mason, Medic and Man of Letters”.
This free exhibition about this important former West Malling resident will run until mid-January 2020.
There are two Curator’s Talks about the exhibition and the project to digitise the William Perfect manuscript, which has facilitated access to this unique resource for everyone via our website – see https://museumfreemasonry.org.uk/william-perfect-manuscript
You can book on the free Curator’s Talks which will take place on Saturday 7 September at 11am and Saturday 2 November at 11am from the website – see the link here – https://museumfreemasonry.org.uk/whats-on/william-perfect-curators-talk
At Freemasons’ Hall
60 Great Queen Street
London WC2B 5AZ
To find out more about the exhibition see – https://museumfreemasonry.org.uk/whats-on/william-perfect