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Biographical entry Keate, Robert (1777 - 1857)

Member of the Surgeons' Company, May 3rd, 1798; FRCS, Dec. 11th, 1843, one of the original 300 Fellows.

Laverton, Somerset, UK
2 October 1857
London, UK
General surgeon


The fourth son of William Keate, D.D., rector of Laverton, Somerset; was born at Laverton on March 14th, 1777. John Keate, his elder brother (1773-1852), was the well-known and ferocious head master of Eton. Robert Keate was educated at Bath Grammar School until 1792, when he was apprenticed to his uncle, Thomas Keate, who in 1798 was elected Surgeon to St. George's Hospital in succession to Charles Hawkins, and was also appointed in the same year Surgeon General to the Army in succession to John Hunter. Robert Keate entered St. George's Hospital in 1793, and was made Hospital Mate in 1794 and Deputy Purveyor to the Forces on Sept. 26th, 1795. In 1798 he became a member of the Surgeons' Corporation and was appointed Staff Surgeon in the Army, from which he retired on half pay on March 25th, 1810, with the rank of Inspector-General of Hospitals.

In 1800 he was appointed Assistant Surgeon to his uncle at St. George's Hospital, where he succeeded him as full Surgeon in 1813, and held the post until 1853, outstaying his powers.

He was early introduced to practice among the royal family. In 1798 he attended the Princess Amelia at Worthing, who was suffering from a "white swelling of the knee". The Duke of Clarence, later King William IV, always showed great confidence in him, and made him Serjeant-Surgeon Extraordinary, and in 1841 Queen Victoria continued him as Serjeant-Surgeon.

Keate used to say, "I have attended four sovereigns and have been badly paid for my services. One of them, now deceased, owed me nine thousand guineas"; but William IV always paid, though there is no doubt that Keate's frequent visits to Windsor led to some loss of practice. It is told of him that he one day received an urgent summons to Windsor to see Queen Adelaide, and he arrived there about the breakfast hour. The Queen, who was suffering from a pain in the knee, gave Keate a hint that the presence of the King might be dispensed with. Keate accordingly said to the King, "Will your Majesty be kind enough to leave the room?" "Keate," replied the King, "I'm damned if I go." Keate looked at the King for a moment and quietly said, "Then, your Majesty, I'm damned if I stay." When Keate got as far as the door the King called him back and said, "I believe you are right, and that you doctors can do anything; but had a Prime Minister or the Lord Chancellor ventured to do as you have done, the next day I should have addressed his successor."

Keate contributed little to the literature of his profession, yet he rose to the highest eminence in it. He was anxious to avoid operations, yet he was a good operator, accurate in diagnosis, and a sound practitioner. Timothy Holmes (q.v.) remembered Keate as a very old man when he but seldom visited the hospital. He once saw him operate and his hand shook terribly. Holmes, too, recollected his saving the limb of a lad from amputation after the Assistant Surgeon had actually ordered the boy into the operating theatre. He was a terror to his house surgeons and dressers from the violence of his temper and language. He clung to office at the hospital - there was no rule as to retirement then - until he was bullied into giving up by certain of the governors, who persisted in inquiring at every meeting how often the senior surgeon had visited the hospital, and for how long, and who did the work there which he did not do.

Keate was sensible of the value of the scientific advancement of surgery, and deserves our recollection as a good surgeon and an honest man. Sir Benjamin Brodie spoke highly of Keate, who was slightly his senior; and he joined with Brodie in the effort, which the latter began, to raise the surgical practice of the hospital to a higher level, by more careful and systematic visits to the patients, and by more constant and regular instruction of the students. He won the warm friendship of his great contemporary, who speaks of him in his autobiography in the following terms: "He was a perfect gentleman in every sense of the word; kind in his feelings, open, honest and upright in his conduct. His professional knowledge and his general character made him a most useful officer of the Hospital; and now that our game has been played, it is with great satisfaction that I look back to the long and disinterested friendship that existed between us." With his death was ended the direct connection of the Serjeant-Surgeoncy with the Army. At the College of Surgeons he was co-opted to the Court of Assistants in 1822, being the last person to be so chosen, and continued as a life member of the Council until 1857. He was President in the years 1831 and 1839, and he served and acted as Examiner from 1827-1855. He married the youngest daughter of H. Ramus, an Indian Civil Servant, by whom he had two sons and four daughters. [One daughter married W E Page FRCP and was the mother of H M Page (1860-1942) FRCS 1886, qv in Supplement.] One of his sons, Robert William Keate (1814-1873), was successively Governor of Trinidad, of Natal, and of the Gold Coast.

Keate is described as being a square, compact little man, with a rough complaining voice. He was unmistakably a gentleman, but there was something of the 'Scotch terrier roughness' in all that he said and did. He was always a favourite with the pupils, who never turned him into ridicule in spite of his trying ways. Keate was perfect in minor surgery, the placing of limbs, and bandaging, and was reputed to be the only man who could make a linseed-meal poultice to perfection. He did marvels, too, with red precipitate ointment, saying, "My uncle used it for many years. I have used it all my life, that's why I use it." In standard operations, such as amputation of the thigh by the circular method, he excelled even Robert Liston (q.v.). In chronic and painful diseases of joints he used the cautery freely, and his judgement of tumours was good but wholly empirical. He did not care for anatomy, and he had no other tastes but surgery. He died in Hertford Street, Mayfair, on Oct. 2nd, 1857. A portrait of him hangs in the Board Room at St. George's Hospital.

Keate wrote only two papers: -
"History of a Case of Bony Tumour containing Hydatids Successfully Removed from the Head of a Femur." - Med.-Chir. Trans., 1819, x, 278.
"Case of Exfoliation from the Basilar Process of the Occipital Bone and from the Atlas after Excessive Use of Mercury." - Lond. Med. Gaz., 1834-5, xvi, 13 (with drawing): Le Gros Clark referred to the specimen and reproduced the drawing in the Med.-Chir. Trans., 1849, xxxii, 68.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict. Nat. Biog. et auct. ibi cit. MacCormac's Address of Welcome, 1900, 85. J. F. Clarke's Autobiographical Recollections of the Medical Profession, 1874, 378, 510. Med. Times and Gaz., 1857, ii, 410. Johnston's R.A.M.C. Roll, No.1451].

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