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Biographical entry Guthrie, George James (1785 - 1856)

MRCS Feb 5th, 1801; FRCS, Dec 11th, 1843, one of the original 300 Fellows; MD Aberdeen; FRS, 1827.

Born
1 May 1785
London, UK
Died
1856
Occupation
General surgeon, Military surgeon and Ophthalmic surgeon

Details

Born in London on May 1st, 1785. His grandfather, a Scotsman, served with the army at the Battle of the Boyne. His father succeeded his maternal uncle, a retired Naval Surgeon, as manager of a business for the sale of lead plaister. Guthrie learnt French from the Abbé Noel when quite a boy, and spoke it so perfectly that he was often mistaken in after-life for an émigré. At the age of 13 he accidentally came under the notice of John Rush, Inspector of Regimental Hospitals, who had him apprenticed to Dr Phillips, a surgeon in Pall Mall. He attended the Windmill Street School of Medicine, and was one of those into whose arms William Cruikshank - Dr Johnson's 'sweet-blooded man' - fell when he was delivering his last lecture on the brain on June 27th, 1800.

From June, 1800, to March, 1801, Guthrie served as Hospital Mate at the York Hospital, Chelsea, which then occupied what is now a part of Eaton Square. Surgeon General Thomas Keate issued an order that all hospital mates must be members of the newly formed College of Surgeons. Guthrie presented himself for examination on the day following the issue of the order, was examined by Keate himself, and made so favourable an impression that he was at once posted to the 29th Regiment. He was then 16 years of age; his Colonel was 24 - but, notwithstanding, it was generally agreed that no regiment was better commanded or better doctored.

Guthrie accompanied the 29th Regiment to North America as Assistant Surgeon, remained there until 1807, then returned to England with the regiment and was immediately ordered out to the Peninsula. There he served until 1814, seeing much service and earning the especial commendation of the Duke of Wellington. He acted as Principal Medical Officer at the Battle of Albuera, though he was only 26 years old, and one evening had on his hands 3000 wounded with four wagons, and such equipment as regimental surgeons carried in their panniers, and the nearest village seven miles away. He was appointed in 1812 to act as Deputy Inspector of Hospitals, but the Medical Board in London refused to confirm the appointment on the ground of his youth. He was placed on half pay at the end of the campaign, began to practise privately in London, and attended the lectures of Charles Bell and Benjamin Brodie at the Windmill Street School of Medicine. He hastened to Brussels directly after the Battle of Waterloo in June, 1815, was received enthusiastically by his former comrades, amputated at the hip with success, extracted a bullet from the bladder, and tied the peroneal artery by cutting down upon it through the calf muscles, the latter operation being afterwards known as 'Guthrie's bloody operation'.

On his return to London he was placed in charge of two clinical wards at the York Hospital [The Duke's or York Hospital - military - was in Grosvenor Place where Hobart Place now is], with a promise that the most severe surgical cases should be sent to him. He discharged this duty for two years, during which he was amongst the first in England to use lithotrity. He also began a course of lectures which was continued gratuitously to all medical officers of the public services for the next twenty years. At the end of the first course, 1816-1817, the medical officers of the Army, Navy, and the Ordnance presented him with a fine silver loving-cup appropriately inscribed. The cup has become an heirloom in the family of Henry Power (qv), to whom it was presented by his last surviving child, Miss Guthrie.

In 1816 Guthrie was instrumental in establishing an Infirmary for Diseases of the Eye, which became 'The Royal Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital', long situated in King William Street, Strand, next to the Charing Cross Hospital, but removed in 1928 to Broad Street, Bloomsbury. Guthrie was appointed Surgeon and remained attached to the hospital until 1838, when he resigned in favour of his son, C W G Guthrie (qv) [but retained his connection with the hospital until 1856]. In 1823 he was elected Assistant Surgeon to Westminster Hospital, becoming full surgeon in 1827, when the Governors made a fourth Surgeon to mark their esteem for his surgical reputation and personal character. He resigned his office in 1843, again to make way for his son.

At the Royal College of Surgeons Guthrie was a Member of Council from 1824-1856, a Member of the Court of Examiners from 1828-1856, Chairman of the Midwifery Board in 1853, Hunterian Orator in 1830, Vice-President five times, and President in 1833, 1841, and 1854. He was Hunterian Professor of Anatomy, Physiology, and Surgery from 1828-1832. He was elected FRS in 1827.

He married twice and had two sons and one daughter, none of whom left issue. He died suddenly on his birthday - May Day - 1856, and was buried at Kensal Green. [See entry for his younger son Charles W G Guthrie; the elder son Lowry Guthrie (1814-48) became a clergyman, see Venn's Alumni Cantabrigienses.]

Guthrie is described as a man of active and robust frame, keen and energetic in appearance, with remarkably piercing black eyes. Shrewd and quick, he was at times very outspoken and somewhat inconsiderate in regard to other people's feelings; but behind his military brusqueness was much kindness of heart. He was very popular as a lecturer, his lectures being full of anecdotes and illustrative cases, and his Hunterian Oration is memorable; it was given fluently and without notes, as was afterwards done by Sir James Paget, Savory, Henry Power, Butlin, and Moynihan. He was noted for his coolness as an operator and for the delicacy of his manipulations. His unrivalled experience in military surgery, gained during the later years of the Peninsular War and at the most receptive period of his life, justly entitles him to be called 'the English Larrey'. It enabled him to advance the science and practice of surgery more than any other army surgeon since the days of Richard Wiseman. Before his time it was usual to treat gunshot wounds of the thigh by placing the limb on its side. Guthrie introduced the straight splint. He differed from John Hunter in the treatment of gunshot injuries requiring amputation. Hunter was in favour of the secondary operation; Guthrie advocated immediate removal of the limb. After Albuera he introduced the practice of tying both ends of a wounded artery at the seat of the injury; Hunter contented himself with its ligature above the wound. Guthrie also advocated the destruction with mineral acids of the diseased tissues in cases of 'hospital gangrene'.

In connection with ophthalmic surgery he taught that the cataracting lens should be extracted, not 'couched', and he was one of the first to describe congenital opacity of the lens. He was heterodox in the treatment of syphilis for he recommended that mercury should not be used, and his advice was largely followed by his pupils. At the College of Surgeons he was in favour of Reform, and did much to secure the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832. He was opposed to the Charter of 1843.

A life-size half-length portrait by Henry Room (1802-1850) hangs in the Secretary's Office at the Royal College of Surgeons. It was presented by his daughter, Miss Guthrie, in 1870. There is a bust by E Davis, also presented by Miss Guthrie in 1870; there are two copies of a fine mezzotint in the College Collection. The plate was engraved by William Walker after Room, and was published by the London Publishing Co on May 10th, 1853. A crayon portrait by Count D'Orsay is in the Westminster Hospital. There is also a clever but rather spiteful pencil sketch in the College Collection. It represents Guthrie lecturing on emphysema - May 6th, 1830 - "Mr Guthrie's 11th Lecture" appears in the handwriting of William Clift below the sketch. It is initialled T M S in the bottom right-hand corner. It was probably made by T Madden Stone, Library Assistant in 1832, who was unfriendly to Guthrie - and not without reason.

PUBLICATIONS: -
Guthrie is best known by his Treatise on Gunshot Wounds, which was first published in 1813 [changed to 1815]. It may still be read with pleasure for the graphic accounts of the Military Surgery of a bygone age.

The Commentaries on the Surgery of the War in Portugal, Spain, France and the Netherlands from the Battle of Roliça in 1808 to that of Waterloo in 1815, revised to 1853, of which a new edition was published in 1855, is a digest of the Treatise on Gunshot Wounds. It forms the substance of Guthrie's public lectures and contains his matured opinion on military surgery.

In 1819 he published a Treatise on the Operation for the Formation of an Artificial Pupil, which he included in a larger work entitled, Lectures on the Operative Surgery of the Eye. These lectures reached a 3rd edition in 1838.

Remarks on the Anatomy Bill in a Letter to the Right Hon Lord Althorp, 1832.
The Wounds and Injuries of the Arteries of the Human Body, with the Treatment and Operations required for their Cure, 1846. In these lectures Guthrie drew attention to the anastomotic circulation.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict. Nat. Biog., sub nomine et auct. ibi cit. MacCormac's Address of Welcome, 1900, 90. Brit. Jour. Surg., 1916-17 (changed to 1915-16), iii, 5, with portrait. T. Madden Stone's Echoes from the College of Surgeons, 1890-1. Lancet, 1850, i, 726. Hallet's Catalogue of Portraits and Busts in the Royal College of Surgeons of England, 1892, July. Johnston's R.A.M.C. Roll, No. 2080. Jour. R.A.M.C., xiv, 577, with portrait].

Royal College of Surgeons of England