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Biographical entry Skey, Frederic Carpenter (1798 - 1872)

C.B.; M.R.C.S., April 5th, 1822; F.R.C.S., Dec. 11th, 1843, one of the original 300 Fellows; F.R.S., April 20th, 1837.

1 December 1798
London, UK
15 August 1872
London, UK
General surgeon


Born at Upton-on-Severn on Dec. 1st, 1798, the second of the six children of George Skey, a Russian merchant in London. He was educated at one or two private schools in early life, the last being that of the Rev. Michael Maurice, the Unitarian preacher, father of Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-1872), whose friendship he retained through life as they had been schoolfellows.

A visit to his father's cousin, Dr. Joseph Skey, Inspector of Army Hospitals at Plymouth, was the beginning of Skey's professional education. During this visit Napoleon was brought to Plymouth in the Bellerophon, and Skey often referred in later life to the fact that he had seen the great Emperor on this occasion. From Plymouth he went to Edinburgh to begin his medical education, stayed there for a year or two, and then spent some months in Paris.

He was apprenticed to John Abernethy on April 15th, 1816, paying the ordinary premium of 500 guineas. Abernethy had so high an opinion of his pupil's ability that he entrusted Skey with the care of some of his private patients whilst he was still an apprentice. By the interest of Abernethy, Skey was appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in 1826. The appointment provoked considerable jealousy, more especially in the breast of William Lawrence (q.v.), and when other arrangements were made after the death of Abernethy, Skey resented them as unjust, and resigned in 1831.

Associating himself with Hope, Todd, Marshall Hall, Pereira, and Kiernan, he reopened the Aldersgate Street School of Medicine, which had previously been a Cave of Adullam for discontented members of St. Bartholomew's Hospital. The school soon became famous, one of the largest in London, and a thorn in the side of its neighbour. In this school Skey lectured on surgery for ten years, his lectures proving very attractive to students, many of whom became his staunch personal friends. His bearing towards them showed a frankness and cordiality which drew into intimate and enduring friendship not only his own private pupils, but also the great body of students, over whom he exercised an amount of influence larger perhaps than that of any other contemporary teacher. When fresh arrangements had been made in the Medical School at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, Skey was elected Lecturer in Anatomy in 1843, a position he resigned on Jan. 5th, 1864.

Although the work of St. Bartholomew's Hospital was completely severed from the proprietary Medical School attached to it, Skey was nevertheless elected Assistant Surgeon on Aug. 29th, 1827, after an unsuccessful contest in 1824 when Eusebius Arthur Lloyd (q.v.) was chosen. He did not become Surgeon until May 10th, 1854, and retired under a newly established age limit at 65 on Jan, 18th, 1864. He was then appointed Consulting Surgeon and continued for some time to give clinical lectures.

Skey was appointed Consulting Surgeon to the Charterhouse in 1827; on April 10th, 1837, he was admitted a Fellow of the Royal Society; and in 1859 he acted as President of the Royal Medico-Chirurgical Society. At the Royal College of Surgeons he was a Member of the Council from 1848-1867 and gave the Hunterian Oration in 1850. He was Arris and Gale Professor of Human Anatomy and Surgery, 1852-1854, when he lectured on "Muscular Action, Dislocations, and the Treatment of Disease"; a Member of the Court of Examiners, 1855-1870; Chairman of the Midwifery Board in 1862, and of the Dental Board in 1865. He served as Vice-President in 1861 and 1862, and was elected President in 1863.

In 1864 his friend Benjamin Disraeli caused him to be appointed Chairman at the Admiralty of the first Parlimentary Commission to inquire into the best mode of dealing with venereal diseases in the Navy and Army. The report of the Committee led to the framing and passing of the Contagious Diseases Act which was afterwards repealed. For his services Skey was decorated C.B.

He practised at 13 Grosvenor Street, but failing health led him to move to 24 Mount Street, Grosvenor Square, where he died on Aug. 15th, 1872. There is a bust of Skey in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, of which there is a copy in the Royal Society of Medicine. A fine lithograph of J H Maguire's is in the College Collection. It was published in 1850 and is said to be a striking likeness, not only of his countenance and expression, but also of the very air and manner of the man.

Skey was a man of great intelligence, energy, courage, candour, and good nature, a charming companion, with a genial disposition, full, even in advancing years, of youthful buoyancy. Sympathetic to all, he had in a special degree a fondness for animals. He was a good writer, a clear lecturer, and an excellent teacher. He concerned himself with the broad principles of his subject rather than with details. As a surgeon he was an able operator, and his great ability was conspicuously shown in his treatment of exceptional cases, for he was skilful and ingenious in diagnosis and, in the face of unusual difficulties, fertile in resource.

"On Structure of the Elementary Muscular Fibre of Animals and Organic Life." - Proc. Roy. Soc., 1837, iii, 462. A creditable performance considering that abstract scientific research was not encouraged by the surgeons of his day and that he had to borrow the use of a microscope.
On a New Mode of Treatment employed in the Case of Various Forms of Ulcer and Granulating Wounds, 8vo, London, 1837. The remedy was opium in small doses. He employed it with success in chilblains, and afterwards proposed to use it for troops on night duty in the Crimean trenches.
A Practical Treatise on Venereal Disease, 8vo, London, 1840. The substance of his lectures at the Aldersgate Street School of Medicine in 1838-9.
On a New Operation for the Cure of Lateral Curvature of the Spine: with Remarks on the Causes and Nature of the Disease, 8vo, London, 1841; 2nd ed., 1842. He divided the tendinous sheath of the longissimus dorsi subcutaneously.
Pamphlets and a series of letters in The Times on the dangers of over-training.
Operative Surgery, 8vo, Lond., 1850; 8vo, Phil., 1851; 2nd ed., Lond., 1858. This is a work of much merit, influenced throughout by the author's energetic protest against the use of the knife except as a last resource. He advocated the value of tonics and stimulants in preference to the bleeding and leeching which were still in use.
His great energy of thought and action rendered him incapable of steady, constant labour, and it is reported that, when he undertook to write this work, incited by a friend who offered to publish it, he set about it forthwith without previous preparation or any special attention to the literature of his subject. He wrote chapter after chapter right off, mostly in the middle of the night or very early morning, for he slept but little. He lost one of the chapters between his house and hospital, and vehemently declared that he neither could nor would rewrite it, and that the work must either be given up or published without the missing portion. It was recovered by advertising in The Times.
In his lectures on Hysteria, 8vo, London, 1867: 3rd ed., 1870, he maintains the advantages of the 'tonic' mode of treatment by 'bark and wine'.

Sources used to compile this entry: [St Bart's Hosp. Rep., 1873, ix, p.xxi. Dict. Nat. Biog., sub nomine et auct. ibi cit. Norman Moore's History of St Bartholomew's Hospital, ii, 666. MaCormac's Address of Welcome, 1900, 131.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England