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Biographical entry Wells, Sir Thomas Spencer (1818 - 1897)

Baronet, 1883 ; M.R.C.S., April 26th, 1841 ; F.R.C.S. (by election), Aug. 26th, 1844 ; Hon. Fellow K.Q.C.P.I., 1867 ; Hon. F.R.C.S.I., 1886 ; Hon. M.D. Dublin, Leyden, Charkof, and Bologna.

  • Image of Wells, Sir Thomas Spencer
3 February 1818
St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK
General surgeon and Obstetric and gynaecological surgeon


Born at St. Albans, Hertfordshire, on Feb. 3rd, 1818, the son of William Wells, a builder, by his wife Harriet, daughter of William Wright, of Bermondsey. He soon showed a marked interest in natural science and was sent as a pupil, without being formally apprenticed, to Michael Thomas Sadler, a general practitioner at Barnsley in Yorkshire. He afterwards lived for a year with one of the parish surgeons at Leeds, where he attended the lectures of William Hey II (q.v.) and Thomas Pridgin Teale the elder (q.v.), and saw much practice at the Leeds infirmary. In 1836 he went to Trinity College, Dublin, where he learnt more surgery from Whitley Stokes, Sir Philip Crampton, and Arthur Jacob. In 1839 he entered St. Thomas's Hospital, London, to complete his education under Joseph Henry Green (q.v.), Benjamin Travers, senr. (q.v.), and Frederick Tyrell. Here, at the end of the first session, he was awarded the prize for the most complete and detailed account of the post-mortem examinations made in the Hospital during the time of his attendance.

He joined the Navy as an Assistant Surgeon as soon as he had qualified, and served for six years in the Naval Hospital at Malta. He combined a civil practice with his naval duties, and was so highly spoken of that the Royal College of Surgeons of England elected him a Fellow in 1844. His term of service at Malta being completed, he left the Navy in 1848, having been promoted Surgeon on Feb. 3rd of that year. He then proceeded to Paris to study pathology under Magendie and to see the gunshot wounds which filled the hospitals after the struggle in June, 1848. He afterwards accompanied the Marquis of Northampton on a journey to Egypt, where he made some valuable observations on malarial fever.

Wells settled in practice at 30 Brook Street, London, in 1853 and devoted himself at first to ophthalmic surgery. In 1854 he was elected Surgeon to the Samaritan Free Hospital for Women and Children, which was then an ordinary dwelling-house - 27 Orchard Street, Portman Square - with hardly any equipment. It had been established for seven years and was little more than a dispensary, as there was no accommodation for in-patients. About the same time he was editor of the Medical Times and Gazette for seven years (1851 ?-1858).

Wells temporarily abandoned his work in London on the outbreak of the Crimean War, volunteered, and was sent first to Smyrna, where he was attached as Surgeon to the British Civil Hospital, and afterwards to Renkioi in the Dardanelles. He returned to London in 1856, and in 1857 lectured on surgery at the School of Anatomy and Medicine adjoining St. George's Hospital, which was commonly known as 'Lane's School'.

Wells did an unusual amount of midwifery in his youth, but never thought seriously about ovariotomy until one day in 1848 when he discussed the matter at Paris with Dr. Edward Waters, afterwards of Chester. Both surgeons came to the conclusion that, as surgery then stood, ovariotomy was an unjustifiable operation. Spencer Wells and Thomas Nunn (q.v.) of the Middlesex Hospital assisted Baker Brown (q.v.) in his eighth ovariotomy in April, 1854. This was the first time that Wells had seen the operation, and he admitted afterwards that the fatal result discouraged him. The ninth ovariotomy was equally unsuccessful, and Baker Brown himself ceased to operate on these cases from March, 1856, until October, 1858, when Wells's success encouraged him to recommence.

The experience of abdominal wounds in the Crimea had shown Wells that the peritoneum was much more tolerant of injury than was generally supposed. He therefore proceeded to do his first ovariotomy in 1858 and was not disheartened although the patient died. He devoted himself assiduously to perfect the technique, and the rest of his life is practically a history of the operation from its earliest and imperfect stage, through its polemical period, to the position it now occupies as a well-recognized and most serviceable operation, still capable perhaps of improvement, but advantageous alike to the individual, the family, and the State. It has saved many lives throughout the world, has opened up the field of abdominal surgery, and has thereby revolutionized surgical practice.

Wells completed his first successful ovariotomy in February, 1858, but it was not until 1864 that the operation was generally accepted by the medical profession. This acceptance was due chiefly to the wise manner in which Wells conducted his earlier operations. He persistently invited medical men in authority to see him operate. He published series after series of cases, giving full accounts of the unsuccessful as well as the successful cases, until in 1880 he had performed his thousandth ovariotomy. He had operated at the Samaritan Free Hospital for exactly twenty years when he resigned his office of Surgeon in 1878 and was appointed Consulting Surgeon. He frequently modified his methods throughout the whole of this time, and always towards greater simplicity. The hospital never contained more than twenty beds, and of these no more than four or five were ever available for patients needing ovariotomy.

At the Royal College of Surgeons Spencer Wells was a Member of Council from 1871-1895; Hunterian Professor of Surgery and Pathology, 1877-1888, his lectures dealing with "The Diagnosis and Surgical Treatment of Abdominal Tumours"; Vice-President, 1880-1881 ; President, 1882 ; Hunterian Orator, 1883 ; Morton Lecturer "On Cancer and Cancerous Diseases", 1888 ; and Bradshaw Lecturer "On Modern Abdominal Surgery" in 1890.

He received many honours, acting as Surgeon to the Household of Queen Victoria from 1863-1896 ; he was created a baronet on May 11th, 1883, and he was a Knight Commander of the Norwegian Order of St. Olaf.

He married in 1853 Elizabeth Lucas (d. 1886), daughter of James Wright, solicitor, of New Inn and of Sydenham, by whom he left five daughters and one son, Arthur Spencer Wells, who was Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1893-1895.

Spencer Wells's operations were models of surgical procedure. He worked in absolute silence, he took the greatest care in the selection of his instruments, and he submitted his assistants to a rigorous discipline which proved of the highest value to them in after-life. At the end of every operation he personally superintended the cleaning and drying of each instrument. He was an ardent advocate of cremation, and it was chiefly due to his efforts and to those of Sir Henry Thompson (q.v.) that this method of disposing of the dead was brought into early use in England.

Almost to the last Wells had the appearance of a healthy, vigorous country gentleman, with much of the frankness and bonhomie of a sailor. He was an excellent rider, driver, and judge of horseflesh. Besides his London residence, 3 Upper Grosvenor Street, he owned the house and fine gardens at Golder's Green, Hampstead, which were bought for public recreation in 1898. He drove himself daily in a mail phaeton with a splendid pair of horses down the Finchley Road from one house to the other, dressed in a grey frock-coat with a flower in the buttonhole and a tall white top hat.

A half-length oil painting by Rudolph Lehmann executed in 1884 represents Wells sitting in the robes of a President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. It was bequeathed to the Royal College of Surgeons at his death. A bust executed in 1879 by Oscar Liebreich is in possession of the family. He appears in Jamyn Brookes's portrait group of the Council.

The Scale of Medicines with which Merchant Vessels are to be Furnished…with Observations on the Means of Preserving the Health and Increasing the Comforts of Seaman, 12 mo, London, 1851 ; 2nd ed., 8vo, 1861.
Practical Observations on Gout and its Complications, 8vo, London, 1854.
Cancer Cures and Cancer Curers, 8vo, London, 1860.
Diseases of the Ovaries : their Diagnosis and Treatment, 8vo, London - vol. i, 1865 ; vol. ii, 1872. It was also issued in America, and was translated into German, Leipzig, 1866 and 1874.
Note-book for Cases of Ovarian and other Abdominal Tumours, 8vo, London, 1865 ; 2nd ed., 1868 ; 7th ed., 1887. Translated into Italian, Milan, 12mo, 1882.
On Ovarian and Uterine Tumours, their Diagnosis and Treatment, 8vo, London, 1882. Translated into Italian, 8vo, Milan, 1882.
Diagnosis and Surgical Treatment of Abdominal Tumours, 8vo, London, 1885. Translated into French, 8vo, Paris, 1886.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Autobiographical details in The Revival of Ovariotomy and its Influence on Modern Surgery, 8vo, London, 1884. Dict. Nat. Biog., sub nomine et auct. ibi cit. MacCormac's Address of Welcome, 1900, 197, with portrait - not a very good likeness. Stewart McKay's Lawson Tait, his Life and Work, 1922, passim. Sir D'Arcy Power, "Eponym xxiii : Spencer Wells's Forceps," Brit. Jour. Surg., 1927, xiv, 385, with portrait.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England