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Biographical entry Green, Joseph Henry (1791 - 1863)

M.R.C.S., Dec. 1st, 1815; F.R.C.S., Dec., 11th, 1843, one of the original 300 Fellows; F.R.S., 1825; Hon. D.C.L. Oxon., 1853.

  • Image of Green, Joseph Henry
1 November 1791
London, UK
13 December 1863
Hadley, Barnet, UK
Anatomist and General surgeon


Born at 11 London Wall on Nov. 1st, 1791, the only child of Joseph Green, a wealthy London merchant, head of the firm of Green & Ross, of Martin Lane, Cannon Street, E.C., and afterwards of London Wall, his mother being Frances, sister to Henry Cline, Surgeon to St. Thomas's Hospital. A delicate boy, he was educated at Ramsgate and at Hammersmith until, at the age of 15, he accompanied his mother to Germany, where he spent three years, partly in Berlin and partly in Hanover.

He was apprenticed to his uncle, Henry Cline, in 1809; and on May 25th, 1813 - the rule against the marriage of apprentices having just been rescinded - he married Anne Elizabeth Hammond, daughter of a surgeon at Southgate and the sister of one of Cline's dressers. Mrs. Green outlived her husband, but there were no children. For the next two years he lived at 6 Martin Lane, E.C., where his father was in business, and during this time he acted as Cline's anatomical prosector and gave a regular course of demonstrations on practical anatomy.

He began to practise in 1816, first at 22 and afterwards at 46 Lincoln's Inn Fields, then the fashionable neighbourhood for surgeons. In the same year he was formally appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy at St. Thomas's Hospital, and in this position was called upon to perform many of the duties which now devolve upon a Resident Medical Officer. The summer of 1817 was spent with his wife in Germany reading philosophy with Professor Solger at Berlin.

He was elected Lecturer on Anatomy and Physiology jointly with Astley Cooper in 1818, and on June 14th, 1820, he was chosen Surgeon to St. Thomas's Hospital in the place of his cousin, Henry Cline the younger, who had died of phthisis at the age of 39. Shortly after his appointment as Surgeon he undertook the Lectureship on Surgery and Pathology in the United Schools of St. Thomas's and Guy's Hospitals, again conjointly with Astley Cooper.

From 1824-1828 Green gave a series of lectures on comparative anatomy as Hunterian Professor at the College of Surgeons, in which he dealt for the first time in England with the whole of the animal sub-kingdoms. Richard Owen wrote of these lectures that they "combined the totality with the unity of the higher philosophy of the science illustrated by such a series of enlarged and coloured diagrams as had never before been seen. The vast array of facts was linked by references to the underlying unity, as it had been advocated by Oken and Carus." In 1825 he was elected F.R.S., and in the same year he was appointed Professor of Anatomy at the Royal Academy, a position he held until 1852. In the same year, too, came the unfortunate episode which led to the separation of the United Borough Hospitals. Sir Astley Cooper on his retirement wished to assign his share of the lectureship he then held to his nephews, Aston C. Key (q.v.) and Bransby Cooper (q.v.). Green, who had paid £1000 for his own half-share, agreed, but the hospital authorities declined to sanction the arrangement. Sir Astley Cooper thereupon began to lecture at Guy's on his own account, and a quarrel ensued. Green, true to his principles, behaved as a gentleman, protested, left the way open for reconciliation, and finally accepted an apology from Cooper.

When King's College was founded in 1830 Green was nominated Professor of Surgery and held the post until 1836. He continued in office as Surgeon to St. Thomas's Hospital, resigning in 1853. He was co-opted to the Council of the College of Surgeons in 1835 to fill the place of William Lynn, Surgeon to the Westminster Hospital, and became a Member of the Court of Examiners in 1840 in the place of Sir Benjamin Brodie - both appointments being made for life. He was elected President in 1849 and again in 1858, having given the Hunterian Oration in 1840 and 1847. He succeeded Sir Benjamin Brodie as President of the General Medical Council in 1860.

There is no means of knowing when or how Green became acquainted with S. T. Coleridge, the poet metaphysician, but they were on terms of intimacy as early as 1817, and from 1824 Green contrived to spend many hours every week with him at the Gillmans' house. Coleridge died in 1834, and Green made the post-mortem examination. He was left literary executor and trustee for the children, and spent the rest of his life in carrying out the duties thus imposed upon him.

Green's father died in 1834, and left him so considerable a fortune that he retired to Hadley, near Barnet, keeping only a consulting-room in London. At Hadley he wrestled for thirty years with Coleridge's philosophy, teaching himself Greek, Hebrew, and Sanscrit in the process. He published as a result of his labours The Literary Remains, The Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit (1849), Religio Laici, and prepared two volumes of Spiritual Philosophy, an endeavour to systematize the teaching of Coleridge. They appeared posthumously in 1865 under the editorship of Sir John Simon (q.v.), his apprentice and friend. Coleridge's influence appears markedly in Green's two Hunterian Orations. The first deals with "Vital Dynamics", the second with "Mental Dynamics or Groundwork of a Professional Education". In "Vital Dynamics" Green discusses the mental faculties and processes concerned in scientific discovery, and especially insists upon the importance of pure reason as the light by which nature is to be understood. He continues the same line of argument in "Mental Dynamics", and in both eulogizes John Hunter.

Green died at The Mount, Hadley, on Dec. 13th, 1863, and was buried at Highgate. Sir John Simon gives a wonderful account of his death in the following words: -
"I would show that not even the last sudden agony of death ruffled his serenity of mind, or rendered him unthoughtful of others. No terrors, no selfish regrets, no reproachful memories, were there. The few tender parting words which he had yet to speak, he spoke. And to the servants who had gathered grieving round him, he said, 'While I have breath, let me thank you all for your kindness and attention to me'. Next, to his doctor, who quickly entered - his neighbour and old pupil, Mr. Carter - he significantly, and pointing to the region of his heart, said - 'congestion'. After which, he in silence set his finger to his wrist, and visibly noted to himself the successive feeble pulses which were but just between him and death. Presently he said - 'stopped'. And this was the very end. It was as if even to die were an act of his own grand self-government. For at once, with the warning word still scarce beyond his lips, suddenly the stately head drooped aside, passive and defunct for ever. And then, to the loving eyes that watched him, 'his face was again all young and beautiful'. The bodily heart, it is true, had become more pulseless clay; broken was the pitcher at the fountain, broken at the cistern the wheel; but, for yet a moment amid the nightfall, the pure spiritual life could be discerned, moulding for the last time into conformity with itself the features which thenceforth were for the tomb."

Green's reputation as a surgeon stood very high, especially in lithotomy, in which he always used the gorget of his uncle, Henry Cline. In appearance he was tall with a languid air, but he impressed his patients by his polished and benignant manners.

There is a bust by H. Weekes, R.A., in the College, and an oil-painting hangs in the Grand Committee Room at St. Thomas's Hospital. Of this portrait it was said by a critic when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy: "There is no face in the whole collection, whether in manly beauty or in its expression of intellectual superiority, to be compared with the portrait of Joseph Henry Green, although there be statesmen, great soldiers, and philosophers around." Emerson was introduced to Green by the late Dr. Garth Wilkinson, and remarked on his typical 'surgeon's mouth', with its close-shut lips and air of restraint and firmness. The bust illustrates both these observations.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict. Nat. Biog. Sub nomine et auct. ibi cit. MacCormac's Address of Welcome, 1900, 116. Sir John Simon's Memoir prefixed to Green's Spiritual Philosophy. The original manuscript is in the College Library. Brit. Jour. Surg., 1919-20, vii, 7, with portrait.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England