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Biographical entry Godlee, Sir Rickman John (1849 - 1925)

Baronet, 1912; K.C.V.O., 1914; M.R.C.S., July 24th, 1872; F.R.C.S., June 8th, 1876; B.A. Lond., 1867; M.B., B.S. (with Gold Medal in Surgery), 1872; M.S. (with Gold Medal), 1873; Hon. F.A.C.S., 1913.

  • Image of Godlee, Sir Rickman John
15 February 1849
London, UK
18 April 1925
Whitchurch, UK
General surgeon and Thoracic surgeon


Born of Quaker parents in Queen Square, London, W.C., on Feb. 15th, 1849, the second son of Rickman Godlee, a barrister of the Inner Temple who had married Mary Lister, the only sister of Joseph, Lord Lister. Marcus Beck (q.v.), therefore, was a cousin, and Lord Lister his uncle.

Godlee was brought up in the prosperous and quiet environment of which he afterwards gave so charming an account in the Life of his uncle. He was sent to Mr. Abbott's school at Grove House, Tottenham, where most of the Friends' children were educated, and here he learnt to become a field botanist and ornithologist, for natural history was prominent in the curriculum. He graduated in Arts at the University of London before he embarked on medicine, and entered University College in 1867, where he soon attracted attention as a neat dissector. He graduated M.B. and M.S. at the University of London, winning a Gold Medal at each examination. He served the office of House Surgeon to Sir John Eric Erichsen (q.v.), and at the end of the year 1872 he went to live with his uncle, who was then Professor of Clinical Surgery in the University of Edinburgh. He studied his methods, and published the results of his observations in the Lancet (1878, i, 694, 729) with the title, "The Antiseptic Treatment in Edinbugh".

Godlee then returned to London and was appointed Surgical Registrar at University College Hospital. Whilst acting in this capacity, on May 20th, 1874, he opened an abscess connected with acute necrosis of the tibia. He made careful drawings of the microscopic appearances of the pus with the aid of a camera lucida, and observed "certain curious minute bodied which were arranged in rows or chains". They were streptococci, but he failed to name them. It was not until the International Congress of 1881 that Koch showed photographs of the micro-organisms he had found at the margins of erysipelatous lesions. Godlee afterwards wrote on the drawing, "This was, so far as I know, the first time that organisms were seen in the pus of an abscess immediately it was opened". The drawing is now in the Lister wall case in Room I of the College Museum.

He was elected Assistant Surgeon to Charing Cross Hospital and Lecturer on Anatomy in the Medical School in 1876, and resigned both offices in 1878. He was also Surgeon to the North-Eastern (now the Queen's) Hospital for Children in the Hackney Road from 1876.

He was elected Assistant Surgeon to University College Hospital in 1877. The post was a new one and carried with it an Assistant Demonstratorship of Anatomy in University College. As a demonstrator of anatomy Godlee was able to make use of his great artistic powers. He began the drawings for An Atlas of Human Anatomy in 1876, with the design of illustrating most of the ordinary dissections and many not usually practised by the student. The Atlas was accompanied by an explanatory text. Over one hundred dissections were made for its preparation, mostly by himself during the years 1876-1880, the years during which he waited for patients. He drew each dissection in pencil, giving the vessels and nerves their distinctive colours, and the drawings were then reproduced on stone. The lithographer was able to retain the clarity of the originals but lost much of their softness. Parts I-V of the Atlas were published in 1877-1878, and the whole appeared with 48 plates in 1880. Godlee also made the drawings for Quain's Anatomy and Erichsen's Science and the Art of Surgery. He drew them on wood himself and they were then beautifully engraved by the elder Butterworth.

There appears to be very little doubt that Godlee inherited his artistic powers and tastes through his mother from the Lister side of the family. The collection at the Royal College of Surgeons contains drawings made by Sir Joseph Lister in 1862-1864 when he was planning his operation for the excision of the wrist. Some are in black-and-white, some in water-colour, and some in oils. They all show that Lister could have made his name as an artist and draughtsman. Godlee's style resembles that of his uncle, but his work is rather more accurate and delicate.

He was appointed Surgeon to the Brompton Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest on Nov. 6th, 1884, and retained the office until June 6th, 1900, when he was nominated Consulting Surgeon. The post was a new one; his predecessors, Robert Liston, Sir William Fergusson, John Marshall, and Sir Joseph Lister, had only been called in occasionally. Godlee soon justified the appointment. He began to lecture, and published in the Lancet for 1885 and 1887, "The Surgical Treatment Empyema and of Pulmonary Cavities", and in 1890 there appeared, "On the Surgical Aspect of Hepatic Abscess, being three Lectures delivered at the Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, Brompton", with 7 illustrations. In 1898 he joined Sir James Kingston Fowler in writing the surgical portion of The Diseases of the Lungs, in which they were assisted by Drs. Percy Kidd and A.E. Voelcker.

Godlee acted as private assistant to Lord Lister for some years whilst he was waiting for promotion at University College, and on Nov. 25th, 1884, he came prominently before the public as a pioneer in cerebral surgery. The patient, a man of 25, was diagnosed by Dr. Hughes Bennett as having a tumour of the brain. He was admitted into the Hospital for Epilepsy and Paralysis, Regent's Park, and the position of the tumour was located by the recent experimental work of Ferrier as being situated in the cortical substance near the upper third of the fissure of Rolando. The patient expressed a strong desire to have it removed, and Rickman Godlee was called upon to operate. The localization proved to be accurate and the glioma was extirpated without difficulty, but the patient died of secondary surgical complications. An outcry at once arose that the operation was unjustifiable, but The Times published two sensible leading articles and it was generally agreed that an advance had been made in regard to surgical interference with the human brain. The details of the case appear in the Lancet (1884, ii, 1090).

Godlee became full Surgeon at University College Hospital in 1885 and resigned on April 1st, 1914. He succeeded his cousin, Marcus Beck, as Professor of Clinical Surgery in 1892, and was appointed Holme Professor of Clinical Surgery in 1900 in succession to Christopher Heath (q.v.).

At the Royal College of Surgons Godlee held many honourable offices. He was an Examiner in Anatomy in 1884, a Member of the Court of Examiners from 1893-1903, Bradshaw Lecturer in 1907, and Hunterian Orator in 1913. He was elected a Member of the Council in 1897, and as Vice-President filled the place of President during the year 1911 when Sir Henry Butlin died in office. He was re-elected President in 1912 and again in 1913. One of his last acts as President was to deliver an address in the United States on the occasion of the Foundation of the American College of Surgeons, of which he was elected an honorary Fellow. He then reviewed the history of the English College in such a spirit of brotherhood that his address on the eve of the Great War formed a valuable link between the medical activities of the two countries.

At the Royal Society of Medicine Godlee acted as one of the honorary librarians from 1907-1916, having filled the same post in the Royal Medico-Chirurgical Society from 1895, and was President in 1916-1917.

During the War (1914-1918) he worked steadily to maintain medical efficiency, and was a constant attendant of the Central Medical War Committee, whose duty it was to recommend methods by which our armies abroad could be adequately supplied with medical officers without depleting the medical service at home. He was also Chairman of the Belgian Doctors' and Pharmacists' Relief Fund, and in this position was instrumental in bringing to the notice of the General Medical Council the advantage of allowing Belgian practitioners to qualify in England and thus to place them in a position to earn their living. Early in 1916 it became possible to relieve the medical men and pharmacists in Belgium itself, and for some months sums of money were sent to Brussels every week through the agency of the International Commission for Relief until the amount disbursed had risen to £25,000. Godlee carefully investigated the amounts paid out and made himself acquainted with the details of each grant and the destination of every cheque.

In 1920 he retired to Combe End, a farm which he had long cultivated at Whitchurch in Oxfordshire. It overlooked the Thames and the grounds ran down to the river. Here he made many improvements and additions to the house, acted as a gentleman farmer, took part in the affairs of the village, and wrote a history of it in the Parish Magazine. He did not, however, lose interest in the College, and was enabled to carry out a project which had been long in his mind - the worthy display of Lord Lister's instruments and manuscripts. It was proposed at first to place the memorial in the Library, but when this was found inappropriate, a cabinet made from the design of the College architect - Mr. Freer - was placed in the Museum and was formally inaugurated on the occasion of the First Lister Memorial Lecture, May 14th, 1925.

Godlee married in 1891 Juliet Mary, daughter of Frederic Seebohm, LL.D., D.Litt., of the Hermitage, Hitchin, but had no children. He died at Whitchurch on Sunday, April 18th, 1925, with the diagnosis of ruptured abdominal aneurysm, but there was no post-mortem examination. He was buried at Whitchurch. Lady Godlee survived him.

Many honours fell to Rickman Godlee. He was surgeon to the Household in the time of Queen Victoria, and Surgeon in Ordinary to King Edward VII and to King George V. He was created a baronet in 1912 and was decorated K.C.V.O. in 1914. He was a Fellow of University College, London, an Hon. LL.D. of the University of Toronto, a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, and an Hon. M.D. of Trinity College, Dublin. A striking portrait in oils was presented to the College by Lady Godlee in 1925.

Godlee retained to the last many traces of his Quaker ancestry. Absolutely honest, downright, and somewhat sarcastic, he took nothing for granted that was capable of demonstration. Whatever he undertook was done thoroughly, and he thus became an expert oarsman, for he loved the river; a good carpenter; an excellent farmer; and a field naturalist. His artistic tastes extended beyond drawing, for he made a fine collection of etchings and was an expert in books, their paper and their binding. Courteous in manner and easy of address, he filled the office of President of the College with great dignity. He was a good teacher, but not so good as Marcus Beck, and he left no school as did his cousin. He operated well and did much to improve the surgery of the chest, and more to ensure that his uncle's methods were carried out in their entirety. He left about £94,000, and, after making certain specific bequests, directed that the residue should be divided between University College Hospital and College, £10,000 being devoted to the foundation of Travelling Scholarships.

Godlee has a permanent place in the history of surgery both for his Life of Lister and for the part he took in collecting and publishing Lister's writings:-
(i) Lord Lister, 8vo, portraits, illustrations, etc., London, 1917; 3rd ed., revised, 8vo, Oxford 1924. This biography is written, like all Godlee's works, in excellent idiomatic English. It is written, too, in the spirit dictated by Lister himself, who said that "a scientist's public life lies in the work that is his". That is to say, the main part of the biography is a history of antiseptic surgery written by one who was intimately associated with Lister in his experimental work and its developments, and who for many years, in association with Sir W. Watson Cheyne, assisted him in his operative practice. It includes, therefore, a graphic sketch of Victorian medicine in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London, as well as on the Continent. It shows how the revolutionary doctrines were received and the spirit in which they were interpreted.
(ii) The Collected Papers of Joseph, Baron Lister, 2 vols., 4to, Oxford, at the Clarendon Press, 1909. These volumes were prepared for the Press by a committee consisting of Sir Hector C. Cameron, Sir William Watson Cheyne, Bart., Rickman J. Godlee, C. J. Martin, M.D., and Dawson Williams, M.D. The volumes are illustrated throughout and must always remain the classical corpus of Lister's work.
Amongst his other publications are: -
An Atlas of Human Anatomy illustrating most of the Ordinary Dissections and many not usually Practised by the Student, 8vo, London, 1880. Parts I-V were published in 1877-8.
"Cases of Intussusception treated by Operation." - Lancet, 1898, ii, 1262.
"Case of Rare Fracture of the Radius," 8vo, London, 1884; reprinted from Clin. Soc. Trans., 1883, xvi, 120.
"Nephrectomy for Tumour in an Infant," from Clin. Soc. Trans., 1885, xviii, 31.
"On a Case of Obstruction of One Ureter by a Calculus, accompanied by Complete Suppression of Urine," 8vo, London, 1887; reprinted from Med.-Chir. Trans., 1887, lxx, 237.
"Surgical Treatment of Empyema" and of "Pulmonary Cavities," Lectures, Lancet, 1886, i, 51; 1887, i, 457.
"Reflections suggested by a Series of Cases of Renal Calculus." - Practitioner, 1887, xxxix, 241, 329.
"Some Cases of Abdominal Cysts following Injury," from Clin. Soc. Trans., 1887, xx, 219.
Introductory Address in the Faculty of Medicine at University College, London, October, 1889, 8vo, London, 1889.
"On the Surgical Aspect of Hepatic Abscess. Being three Lectures delivered at the Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, Brompton," 8vo, 7 illustrations, London, 1890; reprinted from Brit. Med. Jour., 1890, i, 61, etc.
The Past, Present and Future of the School of Advanced Medical Studies of University College, London: being the Introductory Address at the Opening of the Winter Session, October, 1906, 8vo, illustrated, London, 1907.
The Bradshaw Lecture on Prognosis in Relation to Treatment of Tuberculosis of the Genito-urinary Organs, delivered before the Royal College of Surgeons of England, December, 1907, with portrait of Dr. William Wood Bradshaw, 8vo, London, 1908.
The Hunterian Oration delivered at The Royal College of Surgeons, 1913, with portraits of John Hunter and of the several conservators, plates of the Museum, John Hunter's death-mask, etc., 8vo, London, 1913.
Birmingham and Midland Institute. Our Attitude towards Modern Miracles. A Presidential Address, 1919, 8vo, portrait, 1919.
"Thomas Wharton Jones," with portrait, and bibliography of Wharton Jones, 8vo, London, 1921; reprinted from Brit. Jour. Ophthalmol., 1921, v, 97, 145.
The Diseases of the Lungs (with JAMES KINGSTON FOWLER), 8vo, London and New York, 1898.
Godlee revised the 6th and 7th editions of Heath's Practical Anatomy, 8vo, 24 coloured plates, London, 1885 and 1888.
Appendix, "Superficial and Surgical Anatomy" (with G.D. THANE), in Quain's Anatomy, 10th ed., 8vo, London, 1896.
Two Cases of Bronchiectiasis, etc (with Charles Theodore Williams), 8vo, London, 1886.
"Stretching of the Facial Nerve for the Relief of Spasm of the Facial Muscles" (with W. ALLEN STURGE), 8vo, London, 1881; reprinted from Clin. Soc. Trans., 1881, xiv, 44.
"The Doctors and Mr. Lloyd George. Reply of the Royal Colleges" (with Sir THOMAS BARLOW), a letter in The Times, 1912, Feb. 15.
Six Papers by Lord Lister, with a Short Biography and Explanatory Notes by Sir Rickman J. Godlee, Bt., K.C.V.O. (Medical Classics Series), 8vo, portraits, coloured plates, etc., London, 1921.
See also Holmes and Hulke's Surgery.
A further list of pamphlets is contained in a volume of Pamphlets and Reprints, presented to the Library by Lady Godlee after Sir Rickman's death. Among the 37 titles are a number not mentioned in the foregoing bibliography.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Lancet, 1925, i, 896, with portrait, not very good. Brit. Med. Jour., 1925, i, 809, with portrait, neither like nor flattering. Surg. Gynecol. and Obst., 1925, xli, 110. University Coll. Hosp. Mag., 1911, ii, 33, with caricature portrait of Godlee in a characteristic attitude. Additional facts kindly given by the Secretary of University College and of the Brompton Hospitals. Personal knowledge. The contributions to the Parish Magazine, the first of which is dated April, 1921, and the last June, 1925, were collected and published by Lady Godlee under the title, A Village on the Thames. Whitchurch Yesterday and To-day, 8vo, London, 1926. A short Memorial Sketch is prefixed and there are excellent portraits and a bibliography.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England