HUGH DOWNMAN, an ingenious physician and poet, the son of a country gentleman of both his names, was born at Newton House, in the village of Newton St. Cyrus, near Exeter, in 1740, and educated at the grammar-school of Exeter. About 1758 he was entered of Baliol college, Oxford, where he remained until he took his bachelor's degree, and in 1762 was ordained by bishop Lavington in the cathedral of Exeter, but he had little attachment to the church, nor were his prospects very alluring. In 1765 he repaired to Edinburgh, with a view to study medicine, and took up his abode in the house of Dr. Blacklock, who, having read his first poetical production, "The Land of the Muses," bestowed encouraging praise. This poem was published at Edinburgh in 1763, but has never since been reprinted. To it were added "Poems on several occasions," of various merit, but all indicating a considerable share of poetical taste. In 1769, Mr. Downman came to London, where he attended the hospitals and lectures for one winter. He then received his master's degree at Cambridge, and soon after settled as a practitioner at Exeter, and married the daughter of Dr. Andrew, an eminent physician in that city. Here his practice was rapidly increasing, when, in 1778, the severity of a chronic complaint, contracted in his earlier years, obliged him to consult his health by change of air, and retirement, during which he amused himself by literary efforts. The first was his tragedy of "Lucius Junius Brutus," published in 1779, in which there are some poetical beauties, but not enough of the dramatic form to suit the stage. "Belisarius," his second dramatic attempt, was performed at the Exeter theatre, but with little success; but his third, "Editha," brought out at that theatre in 1781, was performed for seventeen nights. This, however, must be imputed to its being founded on a local event peculiarly interesting to an Exeter audience; in other respects all his tragedies must be allowed to be better adapted to the closet than the stage.
About 1777, a design was entertained of publishing a translation of Voltaire's works, and the poetical department was entrusted to Dr. Downman. The plan was too extensive, and those who undertook it failed. The publication was consequently discontinued; but a volume of the tragedies, containing Oedipus, Mariamne, Brutus, and The Death of Caesar, was printed in 1781. It might be suspected, that the expressive energy of our author's language was little suitable to the expanded tinsel of a French dramatist; yet he is thought to have succeeded in familiarizing these tragedies to the English reader. When Mr. Polwhele, in 1792, collected the original miscellaneous poetry of Devonshire and Cornwall, Dr. Downman, at that time his intimate friend, was a large contributor. His pen indeed was seldom from his hand, and his poetical stock was almost inexhaustible; so that, while many poems were distinguished by his signature, he could claim many others marked with single initials.
About the same period a literary society was established at Exeter, consisting at first of nine, afterwards augmented to twelve members. The design of this meeting was, to unite talents of different descriptions, and genius directed to different pursuits. In a society thus formed, conversation would probably rise superior to the usual discussion of the topics of the day, and by talents thus combined or contrasted each might improve with the assistance of another. An essay on any subject, except a strictly professional one, was read by every member in his turn, which might suggest a subject of discussion, if no more interesting one occurred. This society for nearly twelve years was conducted with equal spirit and good humour. A volume of its essays has been published, and materials for another have been preserved; but, in a Iater period, the communications were less numerous, though the society was supported with equal harmony till 1808, when the impaired health of Dr. Downman, its first founder and chief promoter, damped its spirit, and the meetings were discontinued. In the collections of this society are the few prose compositions of the subject of this memoir, though generally united with poetry. The very judicious address to the members, on their first meeting, was from his pen; and the defence of Pindar from the imputation of writing for hire, supposed to be countenanced by passages in the 11th Pythian, and the 2d Isthmean odes, accompanied by a new translation of each, displays equally his learning and the acuteness of his critical talents. In the same volume is an essay "on the origin and mythology of the Serpent Worship," tracing this superstition to its earliest periods, in Judea, Aegypt, and Greece, a subject which he afterwards pursued with respect to the worship of the sun and fire, in an exclusive essay, not published, in which, pursuing the track of Mr. Bryant, he chiefly rests on the insecure and delusive basis of etymology. His other contributions were an essay on the shields of Hercules and Achilles, and various poetical pieces. But his chief reputation is founded on his excellent didactic poem of "Infancy," first published in 1771, and received with such avidity by the public, that he lived to see the seventh edition. He had now so far recovered as to be able to resume his profession, and his practice for several years was extensive and successful. In 1805, increasing infirmities warned him to retire; and, weaning himself from business by a visit to his friends in Hampshire and London, he declared his intention of resigning it entirely. This determination met with a strenuous opposition. He was urged to contract his limits; to give occasional assistance in consultation, at the least inconvenient hours; in short, to continue his useful labours in the way most easy to himself; but every solicitation was in vain, and he retired to private life with the eulogies and blessings of all around him. In his retirement, he made few original efforts. He reviewed his former labours, and a selection of those which he preferred is reserved in MS. The "Poems sacred to Love and Beauty," appear to be some of these early efforts; and he published with his last corrections, the seventh edition of "Infancy." He died at Exeter, Sept. 23, 1809, deeply lamented as an ingenious scholar, an able and humane physician, and an amiable man.