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Biographical entry Travers, Benjamin (1783 - 1858)

M.R.C.S., Oct. 17th, 1806; F.R.C.S., Dec. 11th, 1843, one of the original 300 Fellows; F.R.S., 1813.

  • Image of Travers, Benjamin
April 1783
6 March 1858
London, UK
General surgeon


The second of the ten children of Joseph Travers, sugar broker in Queen Street, Cheapside, by his wife, a daughter of the Rev. Francis Spilsbury. He was born in April, 1783, and after receiving a classical education at the Grammar School of Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, under the Rev. E. Cogan, was taught privately until he was put into his father's counting-house at the age of 16. He evinced a decided dislike for commercial life, and as his father frequently attended the surgical lectures of Henry Cline and Astley Cooper, he was articled to Cooper in August, 1800, for a term of six years, and became a pupil resident in his house. During the last year of his apprenticeship Travers gave occasional lectures on anatomy to his fellow-students and established a Clinical Society, meeting weekly, of which he was the Secretary.

He spent most of the year 1807 at Edinburgh, and on his return began to practise at New Court, St. Swithin's Lane. He was appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy at Guy's Hospital, and, his father's affairs having become embarrassed, he was fortunate enough to be elected by a single vote in 1809 to the lucrative office of Surgeon to the East India Company's warehouses and brigade, a corps afterwards disbanded.

On the death of John Cunningham Saunders (1773-1810), who had also been apprenticed to Astley Cooper, Travers was appointed to succeed him as Surgeon to the London Infirmary for Diseases of the Eye, now the Moorfields Ophthalmic Hospital. He held the post single-handed for four years, and so developed its resources that William Lawrence (q.v.) was appointed to assist him in 1814. Together they raised ophthalmic surgery from the region of quackery into a respectable branch of medicine. Travers, indeed, met with some opposition to his ophthalmic work, but he is justly described as the first general hospital surgeon in England to devote himself specially to the treatment of diseases of the eye.

He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1813, and on May 1st 1815, was elected a Surgeon to St. Thomas's Hospital without opposition in the place of John Birch, who had died. He held office until July 28th, 1841, when he resigned and his place was taken by John Flint South (q.v.), his son Benjamin (q.v.) being appointed Assistant Surgeon on the same day.

He resigned his surgeoncy under the East India Company and to the Eye Infirmary in 1816 and then took Sir Astley Cooper's house, 3 New Broad Street, acquiring a considerable share of his City practice, when Cooper removed to Spring Gardens. He lectured on surgery at St. Thomas's Hospital in conjunction with Sir Astley Cooper. A severe attack of palpitation of the heart caused him to resign the lectureship in 1819, but he resumed it again in 1834 in association with Frederic Tyrrell.

He was President of the Hunterian Society in 1827 and in the same year was elected President of the Royal Medico-Chirurgical Society.

At the Royal College of Surgeons Travers served on the Council from 1830-1858. He was Hunterian Orator in 1838, a Member of the Court of Examiners from 1841-1858, and Chairman of the Midwifery Board in 1855. He was a Vice-President in 1845, 1846, 1854, 1855, and President in 1847 and 1856. He was also a Member of the Veterinary Examining Committee in 1833.

On the formation of the medical establishment of Queen Victoria he was appointed a Surgeon Extraordinary, afterwards becoming a Surgeon in Ordinary to the Prince Consort. He was appointed Serjeant Surgeon in 1857.

He married: (1) in 1807 Sarah, daughter of William Morgan and sister of John Morgan (q.v.); (2) in 1813 a daughter of G. Millet, an East India director; and (3) in 1831, the youngest daughter of Colonel Stevens. He had a large family, the eldest of whom was Benjamin Travers, junr. (q.v.). He died at his house in Green Street, Grosvenor Square, on March 6th, 1858, and was buried at Hendon, Middlesex.

The bust of Travers in the College was made by William Behnes (1794-1864); it was ordered in 1838. A portrait painted by W. Belmes was in the possession of the family, and an engraving of it by H. Cook is prefixed to Pettigrew's Memoir of Benjamin Travers. There is also a small seated oil painting in the College of Charles Robert Leslie, R.A. (1794-1859). It was presented in May, 1902, by Dr. Llewellyn Morgan, executor of Miss Travers, but is not very good.

Travers was a good pathologist, inheriting the best traditions of the Hunterian School, for he worked along experimental lines. He was a man of cultivated mind, of a strong personality, and of singularly fascinating manners. He inspired his pupils with a feeling akin to veneration and obtained the confidence of his patients. As an operator he was nervous and clumsy. Tradition assigns to him an exquisite polish of manners, and states that he took off his hat and acknowledged salutes more elegantly than any contemporary dandy.

An Inquiry into the Process of Nature in Repairing Injuries of the Intestine, 8vo, London, 1812.
A Synopsis of Diseases of the Eye and their Treatment, 8vo, London, 1820; 3rd ed., 1824; issued in New York, 1825.
An Enquiry into that Disturbed State of the Vital Functions usually denominated Constitutional Irritation, 8vo, London, 1824, and in 1834, A Further Enquiry respecting Constitutional Irritation and the Pathology of the Nervous System. These two works were for a long time classics, and "Travers on Irritation" was known to several generations of students. He attempted to build a rational system of surgical pathology upon a philosophic basis. The advent of bacteriology overthrew the whole structure.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Pettigrew's Memoir with portrait in the Medical Portrait Gallery, iii. Dict. Nat. Biog., sub nomine et auct. ibi cit. Betham Robinson's "St. Thomas's Hospital Surgeons and the Practice of their Art in the Past", St. Thomas's Hosp. Rep., 1899, xxviii, 441. MacCormac's Address of Welcome, 1900, 111. A Sketch of my Girlhood, by Mrs. E. M. Burges née Travers. Privately printed, Norwich, 1929].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England