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Biographical entry South, John Flint (1797 - 1882)

M.R.C.S., Aug. 6th, 1819; F.R.C.S., Dec. 11th, 1843, one of the original 300 Fellows.

  • Image of South, John Flint
3 July 1797
Southwark, London, UK
8 January 1882
Blackheath, London, UK
General surgeon


Born on July 3rd, 1797, the eldest son by his second wife of James South, a druggist in Southwark. Sir James South (1785-1867), President of the Royal Astronomical Society, who also qualified as a medical man, was his half-brother. His father made money by prescribing for immense numbers of children with bowel complaints. John Flint South was put to school in October, 1805, with the Rev. Samuel Hemming, D.D., at Hampton, Middlesex, where he remained until June, 1813, making such good progress in Latin that in after-life he was selected to examine the articled pupils in that language before they were apprenticed at the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

He began to attend the practice of St. Thomas's Hospital a few weeks after leaving school, and on Feb. 18th, 1814, was apprenticed, for the usual sum of 500 guineas, as an articled pupil to Henry Cline the younger, then a Surgeon at the Hospital. He attended Sir Astley Cooper's lectures on anatomy, and made the acquaintance in 1813 of Joseph Henry Green (q.v.), a fellow-apprentice whose support proved afterwards of the greatest service to him. He was admitted M.R.C.S on Aug. 6th, 1819, six months before he had completed his indentures.

He then acted for some months as prosector to the Lecturers on Anatomy at St. Thomas's Hospital, and on Dec. 14th, 1810, was appointed Conservator of the Museum and Assistant Demonstrator of Anatomy for a term of three years at a salary of £100 a year. He was elected Demonstrator of Anatomy jointly with Bransby Cooper (q.v.) in February, 1823, and on the retirement of Sir Astley Cooper he was appointed Lecturer on Anatomy in 1825 in preference to Bransby Cooper, an event which put the culminating stroke to the disagreements between the two Borough Hospitals and led to the separation of the Medical Schools of Guy's and St. Thomas's.

He was elected Assistant Surgeon to St.Thomas's Hospital - a post specifically made for him - on April 9th, 1834, and succeeded Benjamin Travers, senr. (q.v.), as full Surgeon on July 28th, 1841. This post he resigned in April, 1863, having retired from the lectureship of surgery in April, 1860. An attack of illness - largely of a neurotic character - led him to resign his lectureship on anatomy in 1841, and to move from London to Morden Road, Blackheath Park, where he lived for the rest of his life.

At the Royal College of Surgeons, South was a Member of the Council from 1841-1873. In 1844 he delivered the Hunterian Oration, which was planned on so large a scale that he never arrived at Hunter's period in the history of medicine. From 1845-1847 he was Professor of Human Anatomy; a Member of the Court of Examiners from 1849-1868; Chairman of the Midwifery Board in 1859; and a Member of the Dental Board from 1864-1868. He served as Vice-President during the years 1849, 1850, 1858, and 1859, and was elected President in 1851 and 1860. As Vice-President in 1859 he signalized his year of office by getting the body of John Hunter re-buried in Westminster Abbey, and wrote the inscription for his monument.

The last twenty years of his life were spent in gathering materials for a history of English surgery. The materials he accumulated became unmanageable, were afterwards edited by D'Archy Power at the request of his widow, and were published under the title The Craft of Surgery in 1886. The original manuscript volumes containing a transcript of the Court Minutes of the Barber-Surgeons' Company of London, 1540-1745, got scattered and some found their way to Canada.

In 1852 he made a journey to Sweden for the purpose of introducing the vegetable marrow, and for this service the Swedish Horticultural Society at Stockholm awarded him its Linnean Medal in bronze at the instigation of his friend, Professor Retzius.

South married: (1) in 1832 Mrs. John Wrench, the second daughter of Thomas Lett, of Dulwich House, and (2) in 1864 Emma, daughter of John Louis Lemme, of Antwerp and London, the niece of his life-long friend, J. H. Green. Children of both marriages survived him. He died at Blackheath Park on Jan. 8th, 1882, and was buried in Charlton Cemetery. There is an excellent bust by H. Weekes, R.A., which was executed in 1872. A steel engraving is prefixed to Feltoe's Memorials, and his portrait by T. H. Maguire (1840), lithographed by M. & N. Hanhart, is in the Young Collection at the Royal College of Surgeons.

South was a man of varied attainments, who had many interests outside his professional work. As a surgeon his name is linked with an historical specimen preserved in the Museum at St. Thomas's Hospital. It is a case of ligature of the abdominal aorta for an aneurysm of the iliac artery. He tells of the operation in the diary which he kept from boyhood; -

"June 21st, 1856. At eight this morning went with Sutton Sams to Dreadnought, to find Black and get body to take up aorta, which I did pretty well: back home: left by 12.21 North Kent to Hospital. There met Green in consultation about aneurysm case and setlled with him about tying aorta. Mr. Simon and Busk afterwards saw it. Waited for Luke but he did not come. I was in a great state of anxiety during the hour; but I had prayed earnestly for help last night and constantly during the morning and was most graciously heard. We went into the theatre a little after two and though it took long to get the patient under choroform, directly I sat down I was perfectly calm: went through the operation with great quiet and self-possession and not to the disadvantage of the patient. Green, Solly and Clark and also Croft, who had come up from the Dreadnought, were very able assistants and part of myself. I never operated with more self-command and steadiness: and He knows in whose help alone I relied: how thankful I am for an answer to my prayers."

South was old-fashioned in dress, wearing a black cut-away coat with large pockets, and a high white stock round his neck. His face was close shaved, and his appearance generally somewhat puritanical. His manners were punctilious, but he was easily roused to wrath and did not then measure his language. He was deeply religious, and threw himself with zeal into church work, especially in connection with Sunday schools. From 1843 onwards he was Surgeon to the Female Orphan Asylum. It is characteristic of the leisurely times in which he lived that when an emergency case was admitted to the Hospital during his week on duty, the porter would be sent in a cab to Blackheath to fetch him, a distance of six or seven miles. In 1831 he was a prime mover in establishing the Surrey Zoological Gardens and Botanical Society.

As an author South is best known by his edition of Von Cheliu's System of Surgery (2 vols., 8vo, London, 1847), into which he wove so large a mass of his own experience that it is still of value as representing the surgery of his time.
A Short Description of the Bones, 32mo, London, 1825; 3rd ed., 8vo, 1837.
South's Knochen-Lehre, 16mo, Berlin, 1844.
Household Surgery, 12mo, London, 1847, which had a large sale and of which a 5th edition appeared in 1880.
He also assisted J. H. Green in preparing the second and third editions of The Dissector's Manual, 8vo, London, 1825.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict. Nat. Biog., sub nomine et auct. ibi cit. Betham Robinson's "St. Thomas's Hospital Surgeons" in St. Thomas's Hosp. Rep., 1899, xxviii, 444. MacCormac's Address of Welcome, 1900, 123. Memorials of John Flint South, collected by the Rev. Charles Lett Feltoe, 8vo, London, 1884].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England