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Biographical entry Simon, Sir John (1816 - 1904)

C.B., 1876; K.C.B., 1887; M.R.C.S., Aug. 24th, 1838; F.R.C.S. (by election), Aug. 26th, 1844; Hon. D.C.L. Oxon., 1868; LL.D. Cantab., 1880; LL.D. Edin., 1882; M.D. Dublin, 1887; Med. Chir. Doctor, Munich, 1872; F.R.S., Jan., 9th, 1845.

10 October 1816
London, UK
23 July 1904
London, UK
Chief Medical Officer, General surgeon and Pathologist


Born in London on Oct. 10th, 1816, the sixth of the fourteen children of Louis Michael Simon (1782-1879) by his second wife, Mathilde Nonnet (1787-1882). His father, who had been a shipbroker and served on the Committee of the Stock Exchange from 1837-1868, was the son of an Englishman who had married a French wife, whilst his mother was the daughter of a Frenchman who had married an English wife.

John Simon was christened at St. Olave's, Hart Street, E.C. - Pepys' church - and began his education at Pentonville, after which he was for seven and a half years at Greenwich under the Rev. Dr. Charles Parr Burney, son of Dr. Charles Burney and grandson of Johnson's friend, where he had John Birkett (q.v.) as a schoolfellow. He then lived with Leonard Molly, a pastor, for a year at Hohensolms, near Wetzler, in Rhenish Prussia, and acquired a good knowledge of German. He was apprenticed, on his return to England in the autumn of 1833, to Joseph Henry Green (q.v.) for the usual fee of 500 guineas. Green was Surgeon to St. Thomas's Hospital and Professor of Surgery at the newly founded King's College, and his pupil attended both institutions.

In 1838, a year before the end of his apprenticeship, Green allowed Simon to obtain the M.R.C.S. that he might be appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy at King's College, having Francis Thomas MacDougall (q.v.) as his colleague, and in 1840 he was elected the senior of two Assistant Surgeons appointed on the opening of the Hospital founded in connection with King's College. The junior Assistant Surgeon was William Bowman (q.v.), with whom Simon formed an intimate friendship and from whom he learnt to work on scientific lines. The outcome was a paper read before the Royal Medico-Chirurgical Society on June 8th, 1847, on "Subacute Inflammation of the Kidney" (Trans. Roy. Med-Chir. Soc., 1847, xxx, 141) which is illustrated with a plate showing the microscopic appearances described.

In 1844 Simon gained the Astley Cooper Prize with a "Physiological Essay on the Thymus Gland" (4to, London, 1845), and contributed to the Royal Society "The Comparative Anatomy of the Thyroid Gland" (Phil. Trans., 1844, cxxxiv, 295). He was elected F.R.S. on Jan. 9th, 1845, and was afterwards a Vice-President.

Simon was invited in 1847 to accept the newly created Lectureship on Anatomical Pathology at St. Thomas's Hospital with charge of beds, and he thereupon resigned his demonstratorship of King's College, but retained the Assistant Surgeoncy. Green resigned his office of Surgeon, and on July 20th, 1853, Le Gros Clark (q.v.) and John Simon were elected "to do out-patients". Simon then severed all connection with King's College, and on July 6th, 1863, became full Surgeon to St. Thomas's Hospital in succession to G.W. Macmurdo (q.v.). He resigned his lectureship in 1871 and the office of Surgeon in 1876.

As a surgeon Simon was not brilliant, for he was neither rapid nor graceful, but every operation he performed was carefully planned and prepared for. He was in the habit of going frequently to the dead-house and there performing every kind of operation, endeavouring to make improvements on old methods and to learn the exact landmarks and lines of section to be made in novel or unusual operations, particularly where bones were concerned. He repeated Syme's amputation in this manner many times before he performed it on the living patient, and he was the first surgeon in this country to undertake Pirogoff's method of removing the foot. He was particularly apt in the diagnosis of abscesses within bones, which he located with great accuracy. He was equally good in the treatment of difficult strictures of the urethra, and in passing a catheter he almost seemed to confer intelligence on the instrument. He was the first to open the membranous part of the urethra by the same route as was afterwards followed by Edward Cock (q.v.). Simon devised and practised the operation before Cock published his results and substantiated his claim to priority in the St. Thomas's Hospital Reports (1879, x, 139). A proof of the paper with Simon's corrections is in the Library of the Royal College of Surgeons. As a pupil of Joseph Henry Green he was an expert lithotomist, using a pointed and extremely stout knife, and a grooved staff.

Simon was a great power in the Medical School at St. Thomas's, and it was in some measure due to his incisive and satirical pen that St. Thomas's Hospital was not converted into a country convalescent hospital at the time it was compelled to move from its old site at the foot of London Bridge. Without respect of persons he was active in removing abuses, in introducing reforms, and in extending the area and efficiency of instruction. In particular he was especially active in securing suitable accommodation for the treatment of diseases of the eye when Richard Liebreich (1829-1916) was appointed Ophthalmic Surgeon.

At the Royal College of Surgeons Simon was a Member of the Council from 1868-1880, a Vice-President in 1876 and 1877, and President in 1878.

Throughout his life Simon was interested in pathology. He was an original member of the Pathological Society in 1846, contributed several papers to its Transactions, and was elected President in 1867. The best exposition of his aims and methods in pathological teaching is to be found in his Inaugural Address delivered at St. Thomas's Hospital in 1847, which was afterwards published in his General Pathology as Conducive to the Establishment of Rational Principles for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Disease, 1850. Simon said of the latter work that as a result of its publication he woke up to find himself famous - not as a surgeon, but as a sanitary reformer. The judgement proved true; few now think of Simon as a surgeon, all know him as the maker of modern sanitary science in England.

Simon was one of the illustrious figures in Victorian medicine. When he began his labours in the field of public health it was not thought to be the duty of the State to seek out and prevent the causes of disease and death in its citizens. There was no administrative authority in the country, central or local, that had any medical officer or medical adviser for sanitary purposes: the development of a science and practice of preventive medicine was quite unknown.

In 1848 Simon was appointed the first Medical Officer of Health of the City of London. He was the first and for many years the only Medical Officer of Health in London. He was the head of the Medical Department of the Government from the years of its creation in 1855 to his retirement in 1876, and must be considered the founder and in some directions its creator.

Simon's record of ability and industry was marvellous, whilst his imaginative faculty was of a very high quality. Cultivated as a linguist, as a student of Oriental literature, and as the friend of artists, poets, and philosophers, he was able to think grandly, to project his mind into the future, to discern the real meaning of social evils as well as their probable developments, and so to devise schemes of prevention and amelioration which could never have occurred to move plodding, if equally industrious, minds.

One can scarcely estimate the importance to civilization and humanity of Simon's work. It may be briefly stated that he drained the city and rendered it healthy, abolished the pernicious system of central cesspools under houses, intramural slaughter-houses, and other malodorous trade establishments, and conducted an active crusade against smoke, intramural graveyards, Thames pollution, impure water, and overcrowded dwellings. To enumerate the full details of Sir John Simon's official career would be to write a history of hygienic reform.

For many years after the close of his official life in 1876 as Chief Medical Officer to the Privy Council and afterwards to the Local Government Board, Simon occupied himself with public work and was a Crown Representative on the General Medical Council. In the latter part of his life he gradually and completely lost his sight.

He married on July 22nd, 1848, Jane O'Meara, daughter of Matthew Delaval O'Meara, who had been Commissary-General in the Peninsular War. They had no children and she died on Aug. 19th, 1901. Lady Simon was a close friend of Ruskin, who used to call her "dear P.R.S." (Pre-Raphaelite sister and Sibyl). Simon died at his house, 40 Kensington Square, where he lived since 1867, on July 23rd, 1904, and was buried at Lewisham Cemetery, Ladywell.

A bust by his friend Thomas Woolner, R.A., was presented to the College by the subscribers to the Simon Testimonial Frund on Dec. 14th, 1876. It is a remarkable presentation of a remarkable head. A photograph in late middle life faces pages 187 in MacCormac's Address of Welcome. An excellent likeness in extreme old age is appended to the obituary notice in the Lancet (1904, ii, 308) and is reproduced in the St. Thomas's Hospital Reports (1905, xxxiii, facing page 393).

Sir John Simon was remarkable for the extent of his knowledge. The influence of Joseph Henry Green, to whom he had been articled, coupled perhaps with his early education in Germany, gave a philosophical basis to his thoughts and actions through life. In 1865 he edited the Spiritual Philosophy of his old master. He was widely read in the classics and in English literature and became an excellent writer of English prose. In youth he pursued a course of reading in metaphysics and in Oriental languages, and his general culture allowed him to value and to appreciate the friendship of such literary and artistic friends as Thackeray, Tennyson, Rossetti, Alfred Elmore, R.A., Sir George Bowyer, George Henry Lewis, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Tom Taylor, Ruskin, Sir Arthur Helps, Thomas Woolner, R.A., and Robert Lowe, afterwards Lord Sherbrooke. He was mainly responsible with J. A. Kingdon (q.v.) for the establishment by the Grocer's Company of scholarships for the promotion of sanitary science.

Considering his eminence Sir John Simon received little public recognition during his lifetime. He was decorated C.B., the ordinary reward of a faithful public servant, on his retirement in 1876, but it was not till Queen Victoria's Jubilee that he was promoted K.C.B. The Harben Medal of the Royal Institute of Public Health was awarded him in 1896, and the Buchanan Medal of the Royal Society in November, 1897.

Simon's chief reports and writings on sanitary objects were issued collectively by subscription by the Sanitary Institution of Great Britain in two volumes in 1875.
English Sanitary Institutions Reviewed in their Course of Development and in Some of their Political and Social Relations, 8vo, London, 1890. A charmingly written and fair-minded account of the development of public health in England from the earliest times. It appears now to be somewhat difficult to obtain.
Personal Recollections of Sir John Simon, K.C.B. This was privately printed in 1898. It consists of 34 pages printed by Wiltons Ltd., 21 & 22 Garlick Hill, E.C., and is dated Oct. 4th, 1894. It was revised on Dec. 2nd, 1903, "in blindness and infirmity". The Library of the Royal College of Surgeons possesses a copy enriched by the author's corrections.
Bibliography in the Catalogues of the Surgeon General's Library, series i and ii.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Men and Women of the Time, 15th ed., sub nomine. MacCormac's Address of Welcome, 1900, 184, with portrait. St. Thomas's Hosp. Rep., 1904, xxxiii, 393, with portrait. Proc. Roy. Soc., 1905, lxxv, 336. Dict. Nat. Biog., Supplement ii, sub nomine et auct. ibi cit.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England