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Biographical entry Holden, Luther (1815 - 1905)

M.R.C.S., Jan. 19th, 1838; F.R.C.S., Jan. 24th, 1844.

11 December 1815
Birmingham, UK
5 February 1905
London, UK
General surgeon


Born in his grandfather's house at Birmingham on Dec. 11th, 1815. He was the second son of the Rev. Henry Augustus Holden, who married his cousin Hyla Holden of Wednesbury in Staffordshire. His elder brother, Henry Holden, D.D. (b. 1814) , was Canon of Durham, a fine scholar and the editor with Richard Dacre Archer Hind of the Sabrinœ Corolla; the fourth brother, Philip Melancthon (1823-1904) was Rector of Upminster, Essex. Luther was educated with his father's pupils, at a private school in Birmingham, and at Havre, where in 1827 he learned to speak French fluently. He entered St. Bartholomew's Hospital in 1831 as an apprentice of Edward Stanley (q.v.), and in 1838 went for a year to study in Berlin and for a second year in Paris. An Italian student in Paris taught him to read and speak Italian.

He was appointed Surgeon to the Metropolitan Dispensary, Fore Street, E.C., in 1843, and was then living in the Old Jewry, teaching anatomy to private pupils, one of whom was William Palmer, the poisoner. Holden presented himself at the first examination for the newly established diploma for the Fellowship, and was one of the twenty-four candidates who passed successfully on Christmas Eve, 1843.

Appointed in 1846, with A. M. McWhinnie (q.v.), Superintendent (or Demonstrator) of Dissections at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, he was elected in 1859, jointly with Frederick Skey (q.v.), to lecture upon descriptive and surgical anatomy. He resigned the office in June, 1871. Elected Assistant Surgeon to the hospital in July, 1860, with Frederick Skey as his Surgeon, he became full Surgeon in August, 1865, with Alfred Willett as his Assistant Surgeon. He resigned his hospital appointments in 1880 on attaining the age of 65, and was made Consulting Surgeon. He then retired from his house, 54 Gower Street, which had a garden, moved to Pinetoft, Ispwich, and spent much of his life in travel. He visited at different times Egypt, Australia, India, Japan, and was entertained by the medical profession at Johannesburg in 1898. He was Surgeon to the Foundling Hospital from 1864 until his death.

At the Royal College of Surgeons Holden was a Member of the Council from 1868-1884; an Examiner in Anatomy and Physiology, 1875-1876; a Member of the Court of Examiners, 1873-1883; and a Member of the Dental Board of Examiners, 1879-1882. He served as Vice-President for the years 1877 and 1878, was President in 1879 and Hunterian Orator in 1881.

He married: (1) Frances, daughter of Benjamin Wasey Sterry, of Upminster, Essex, in July, 1851, and (2) Frances, daughter of Wasey Sterry, in 1868, who survived him. Both wives bore the same name and were of the same family. Both had independent fortunes. There were no children of either marriage. Holden died at Putney on Feb. 5th, 1905, and was buried in the cemetery of the Parish Church, Upminster. By his will he bequeathed £3000 to endow a scholarship in surgery in the Medical School at St. Bartholomew's Hospital; he also made handsome bequests to St. Bartholomew's and to the Foundling Hospitals.

A three-quarter-length portrait in oils - an admirable likeness - by Sir J. E. Millais, R.A., hangs in the Great Hall at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. It was painted on the occasion of Holden's retirement from the active staff of the hospital and has been engraved. A crayon sketch by Gordon Stowers hangs on the walls of the College of Surgeons. It is dated 1881, and was exhibited at the Royal Academy. There is also a fine portrait by Maguire, dated 1851, in the College Collection.

Holden was one of the last members of the school of surgeons who based their practice on anatomy, and for that reason he is remembered by his Osteology and Surgical Landmarks rather than by his surgical attainments. The imperfect treatment of syphilis in the mid-Victorian period allowed of the production of many aneurysms. Holden was a great advocate for the treatment of popliteal aneurysm by continuous digital pressure in preference to the Hunterian operation, which was often followed by secondary haemorrhage. He invented 'Holden's sausage', a cylinder of Gooch's splint containing a bag of shot. The cylinder was slung from a pulley above the bed, and was so adjusted as to press upon the fingers of the assistant who was compressing the femoral artery with one hand whilst the other was placed upon the aneurysm to make sure that the pulsation had ceased. The pressure was kept up for many hours by relays of students. The method was irksome to the students and painful to the patient, who had often to be kept under morphia. It was occasionally successful, but there was frequently so much chafing and bruising of the skin, that it fell into disuse.

For many years he 'coached' students privately for their examinations, and no one possessed a stronger hold on the affections of his pupils, nor did anyone take greater pleasure in teaching, than did Luther Holdern. One thing he abhorred with all his might, and that was the modern specialist. He believed in the good general surgeon who knew his anatomy and physiology and their applications to surgery. He was an excellent operator, and devoted the greatest care to the work in the wards and to his clinical teaching. Years advanced, but they made little impression on Holden's marvellous physical vigour and lightness of heart. He was a very accomplished and courteous gentleman, with a charm of manner that gained the confidence of the most shy student. He cared little for private practice, but had a passion for teaching, and a patience that was inexhaustible, even when dealing with those whose mental capacities were least developed. He was the personal friend and confidant, as well as teacher, of all who experienced difficulty in acquiring what they had to learn, and he succeeded in teaching those whom no one else could teach. He was beloved alike by the students amongst whom it was his delight to work, and the colleagues with whom he was ever in harmony and affectionate relations.

A fluent linguist and a good classic as well as a keen sportsman, he was a conspicuously handsome member of a handsome family, and it was interesting to notice that the older he grew the more handsome he became. He was seen at his best when he was riding to hounds. It is noteworthy, perhaps, that he was one of the few Presidents of the College who received no outside recognition in the form of honorary degrees or other decorative titles. A pencil sketch of his head is in the Royal College of Surgeons.

A Manual of the Dissection of the Human Body, in four parts without illustrations, London, 1850; 2nd ed., 1 vol., copiously illustrated, 8vo, 1851; 2nd ed., 1859; 5th ed., Philadelphia, 1885; 7th ed., 1901, 2 vols.
Human Osteology, 2 vols., London, 1855; the later editions were in one volume; 8th ed., 1929. This work marked a distinct advance in the study of the human skeleton. It is written in an easy style by a master anatomist. The author drew the illustrations himself and they were etched on stone by Thomas Godart, Librarian of the Medical School at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, who afterwards died in Australia. These illustrations formed at the time a new feature in the teaching of anatomy, for the origin and insertions of the muscles are shown upon the figures of the bones by red and blue lines.
Landmarks Medical and Surgical, first published as a series of papers in the St. Bart.'s Hosp. Rep., 1866, ii, and 1870, vi. They were issued separately in a large and revised form in 1876; 4th ed., 1888; and were translated into Spanish by Dr. Servendo Talón y Calva, Madrid, 1894. The book is an application of anatomy to surgery and shows how much anatomy can be learnt by studying the surface of the body whilst yet the skin is unbroken. There were at first no illustrations to distract from personal observations, but woodcuts were added in the later editions.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict. Nat. Biog., sub nomine et auct. ibi cit. MacCormac's Address of Welcome, 1900, 188. Lancet, 1905, i, 450, with portrait; p. 1297 contains an interesting account of Holden's Osteology. St. Bart's Hosp. Jour., 1905, xii, 87, with an unpublished portrait. Personal knowledge.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England