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Biographical entry Birkett, John (1815 - 1904)

M.R.C.S., Oct. 6th, 1837; F.R.C.S. (by election), Aug. 26th, 1844.

14 April 1815
Upper Clapton, Middlesex, UK
6 July 1904
London, UK
Anatomist and General surgeon


Born April 14th, 1815, at 10 The Terrace, Upper Clapton, Middlesex, the only child of John and Mary Birkett. Educated at various private schools; at one the master was a Frenchman, at another a mathematician and astronomer, and at a third a Greek scholar. Birkett thereby gained a wide general knowledge.

In September, 1831, he was bound apprentice to Bransby Cooper, then Surgeon to Guy's Hospital, being, as is thought, the last pupil to pay the customary fee of £500 which gave the apprenticeship some claim to consideration when a vacancy occurred on the hospital staff. Birkett did not begin his medical studies at Guy's Hospital until October, 1832. He was admitted M.R.C.S. on Oct. 6th, 1837, and was immediately appointed a Demonstrator of Anatomy. He held the post until 1847, and had in succession as his colleagues James P. Babington, Thomas Moody, and Alfred Poland. He was elected F.R.C.S. without examination in 1844 and signalized the session 1845-1846 by giving demonstrations on microscopic anatomy on certain evenings in each week, and in this way beginning the teaching of histology in the medical school. In 1847 he was appointed to make the post-mortem examinations in the hospital, and in May, 1849, he was elected Assistant Surgeon in consequence of the death of John Morgan and the promotion of Edward Cock (q.v.). In the same year he gained the Jacksonian Prize for his Essay on "Diseases of the Mammary Gland". In this year, too, making a bid for practice he moved from 2 Broad Street Buildings, where he had lived since 1840, to Wellington Street, Southwark. He lectured on anatomy jointly with John Hilton (q.v.) in 1851, and two years later he was elected Surgeon to Guy's Hospital on the resignation of Bransby Cooper, his former master, and this post he held until 1875, when he retired on reaching the age of 60. As full Surgeon he lectured on surgery conjointly with John Poland, and in 1856 he moved to Green Street, Grosvenor Square, where he spent the rest of his active life until he retired to Sussex Gardens in 1896, where he died after a prolonged illness on July 6th, 1904.

At the Royal College of Surgeons he served on the Council from 1867-1883, and was Hunterian Professor of Surgery and Pathology from 1869-1871, lecturing on the nature and treatment of new growths. He was an Examiner in Anatomy and Physiology (1875-1877), a Member of the Court of Examiners (1872-1882), of the Examining Board in Dental Surgery (1875-1882), Vice-President (1875 and 1876), and President (1877). He was one of the Founders of the Pathological Society of London and served as a Vice-President (1860-1862), doing good work by insisting upon the use of the microscope in the investigation of tumours at a time when such a method was unusual. He served for some years as Inspector for the Home Office of the Anatomical schools of Anatomy in the Provinces. He was Master of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers in 1871 and 1892.

In 1842 he married Lucy Matilda, daughter of Halsey Jansen; five sons and a daughter survived him out of a family of seven boys and three girls; two of his sons were distinguished football players.

John Birkett was essentially a surgeon of the old school, a reliable operator, a good anatomist, and very careful in the after-treatment of his patients. He obtained good results because he was clean in himself, was not engaged in anatomy, and was accustomed to have the patient washed before he was brought into the operating theatre. The diagnosis and treatment of tumours of the breast, hernia operations, and the surgery of the arteries interested him most; abdominal operations and surgical interference with joints and veins were abhorrent to him. As a teacher he was slow and uninspiring; as an individual he was a cultured gentleman of wide knowledge, an excellent field botanist, and a great walker. In these walks he carried into private life the characteristics which had made him successful as a surgeon. Few men knew better than he how to use a map. To form one that could be serviceable and easily consulted even if the walk were no longer than from Sevenoaks to Maidstone or across the Yorkshire Moors from Danby to Goathland he would make the starting-point the centre by joining two or more of the ordnance survey plans. Then after bevelling the edges that the junction might be almost invisible, colouring the areas of equal height, describing concentric circles increasing by two or more miles, mounting on linen and constructing a case no whit inferior to that sold in the map-sellers' shops, he was secure from losing his way in his peregrinations, come fog, come snow, or blinding rain.

Publications: - A. Von Behr's Handbook of Human Anatomy, General, Special and Topographical. Translated from the original German and adapted to the use of English students by John Birkett. 8vo, London, 1846.
Description of Some of the Tumours Removed from the Breast and Preserved in the Museum of Guy's Hospital, 8vo, with 6 plates, London, 1848.
Diseases of the Breast and their Treatment [Jacksonian Prize Essay], 8vo, plates, 1850.
Adenocele of the Mammary Gland, 8vo, London, 1855.
Contributions to the Practical Surgery of New Growths or Tumours. Series iii. Cysts 12mo, plates, London, 1859.
Articles on "Injuries of the Pelvis", "Hernia", and "Diseases of the Breast" in Holmes's System of Surgery, 1870, and again in Holmes and Hulke's System of Surgery, 1883.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Lancet, 1904, ii, 182. Personal knowledge.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England