The son of a Yorkshire doctor, Joseph Ritchie was trained as a surgeon; he met the Shakespeare forger William Henry Ireland while working as a hospital surgeon at York. In 1813 he was surgeon to the Lock Hospital in London, where he made acquaintances in the scientific community. After serving as secretary to the British Ambassador at Paris Ritchie was commissioned by the British government to lead an exploration of the southern Sudan. During the preparations he met Benjamin Robert Haydon and John Keats, whose Endymion he promised to carry to Africa "to fling it in the midst of the Sahara." Ritchie fell ill and died during the expedition.