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Biographical entry Bland-Sutton, Sir John (1855 - 1936)

Baronet 1925; K.B. 1912; M.R.C.S 20 April 1882; F.R.C.S. 12 June 1884; L.R.C.P. 1882; L.S.A. 1882; F.A.C.S. 1927; LL.D. Aberdeen 1914, St Andrew's 1923, Birmingham 1924, Glasgow 1925, Leeds 1931; D.Sc. Toronto 1927; M.Ch. Dublin 1928; M.D. Bordeaux 1925.

  • Image of Bland-Sutton, Sir John
21 April 1855
Enfield Highway, UK
20 December 1936
London, UK
Anatomist, General surgeon and Obstetric and gynaecological surgeon


Born at Enfield Highway on 21 April 1855, eldest son and second of the nine children of Charles William Sutton, who had a farm where he fattened stock, killed it and sold it in Formosa Street, Maida Hill. His mother was Elizabeth, daughter of Joseph Wadsworth, a Northamptonshire farmer. Bland-Sutton says that he learnt from his father to stuff birds, beasts, and fishes, to charm warts and to pull teeth; from his mother an intimate knowledge of the Bible.

Educated at the local school, he acted there for two years as pupil teacher with the intention of becoming a schoolmaster, but being a biologist at heart he determined to become a doctor as soon as he had the money necessary to pay the fees. He attached himself therefore to the private school of anatomy kept by Thomas Cooke, F.R.C.S., which then occupied a tin shed in a disused churchyard in Handel Street, just off Mecklenburgh Square. Here he learnt anatomy, and taught it to lazy and backward medical students until he had earned enough to pay the fees at the Middlesex Hospital. He entered there as a student in October 1878 and was immediately appointed prosector of anatomy, (Sir) Henry Morris being lecturer on the subject. In 1879 he was advanced to be junior demonstrator, became senior demonstrator in 1883 and lecturer 1886-96.

In 1884 he was Murchison scholar at the Royal College of Physicians. Two years later he was elected assistant surgeon to the Middlesex Hospital, with the proviso that he should remain in London during the months of August and September, when the senior surgeons were accustomed to take their annual holiday. He performed his duties thoroughly, and devoted himself especially to pelvic operations upon women. In 1886 he became assistant surgeon to the hospital for women, then a small institution in the Fulham Road, and was promoted surgeon six months later with charge of fifteen beds. Here he soon acquired fame as an operating surgeon, and disarmed criticism by welcoming professional men and women to the operating theatre and by publishing his results widely in the medical papers. In 1889 he changed his name by deed pool from J. B. Sutton to John Bland-Sutton. In 1905 he became surgeon to the Middlesex Hospital and filled the post until 1920, when he resigned and was made consulting surgeon. During his tenure of office he was a most liberal supporter of the hospital. In 1913 he presented to it the Institute of Pathology, which was built on the site of the museum, of which he had been curator from 1883 to 1886. To the hospital chapel he gave a beautiful ambry, a piscina, and a font, and made considerable contributions towards the cost of the mosaic pavement in the baptistry. He also assisted largely in the purchase of a playing field for the students of the medical school.

At the Royal College of Surgeons he won the Jacksonian prize in 1892 with his essay on diseases of the ovaries and the uterine appendages, their pathology, diagnosis and treatment. In 1885, 1886, 1887 and 1889-91 he gave the Erasmus Wilson lectures on the evolution of pathology. He was elected a member of the Pathological Society in 1882, and served on the council of the society from 1887 to 1890 but held no other office. He was an examiner in anatomy for the Fellowship in 1895. He was a Hunterian professor of comparative anatomy and physiology for the years 1888-89 and gave a lecture again as Hunterian professor in 1916; was Bradshaw lecturer in 1917; and Hunterian orator in 1923. Elected to the Council in 1910, he was vice-president in 1918, 1919, and 1920, and was President for the years 1923, 1924, and 1925, being preceded by Sir Anthony Bowlby and succeeded by Lord Moynihan. In 1927 he was elected a trustee of the Hunterian collection.

During the war he was gazetted major, R.A.M.C.(T.) on 16 September 1916 and was attached to the 3rd London General Hospital at Denmark Hill. The surroundings and discipline of a military hospital proved uncongenial, and in 1916 he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel, placed upon an appeal board, and directed to collect he specimens of gunshot wounds which formed a unique display in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, till they were destroyed by the bombing of 1941.

Always interested in animals, their habits and diseases, Bland-Sutton became a prosector at the Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park in 1881 whilst he was still a student at the Middlesex Hospital. He retained his interest in the gardens throughout his life, and in 1928 was made vice-president of the Zoological Society of London. In 1891-92 he lectured on comparative pathology at the Royal Veterinary College in Camden Town in succession to Prof. John Penberthy, F.R.C.V.S.

He was president of the Medical Society of London 1914; president of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland 1929; president of the Royal Society of Medicine 1929; president of the International Cancer Conference held in London in 1928. He was, too, a Knight of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem from 1924.

He married: (1) in 1886 Agnes Hobbs of Didcot, who died in 1898; and (2) in 1899 Edith, the younger daughter of Henry Heather Bigg. She survived him but there were no children by either wife. Lady Bland-Sutton died in 1943 and was by her will a most generous benefactress to the College. She founded a research scholarship in memory of her husband, and also bequeathed a suite of Chippendale furniture for the president's room, and the silver table ornaments made for the dining hall at 47 Brook Street, mentioned below, as well as much other furniture. Bland-Sutton died after a short period of failing powers at 29 Hertford Street, Mayfair on Sunday, 20 December 1936. His body was cremated, and memorial services were held in the chapel at the Middlesex Hospital on the 23rd and in Westminster Abbey on 29 December.

Portraits: Three-quarter length, sitting, in presidential robes, by the Hon. John Collier, R.A., hangs in the Royal College of Surgeons of England. It is a good likeness and is well reproduced in black and white in Sir A. E. Webb-Johnson's eulogy in the Middlesex Hospital Journal, 1937, 37, 4, and in the Annals of the College, 1950, 6, 362. An earlier portrait by Collier is at the Royal Society of Medicine. The Middlesex Hospital has a marble bust by Sir George Frampton, and a drawing by George Belcher.

Bland-Sutton's professional life was typical of his generation. Born into a large middle-class family where money was not too abundant, he had to rely entirely upon himself. This he did, as was then usual amongst the younger men who aspired to the staff of a teaching hospital, by coaching. Some did this by taking a house, marrying, and securing as many resident pupils as possible, each of whom paid an inclusive fee of £126 a year. The less fortunate, like Bland-Sutton, had to content themselves with private classes at £8 to £10 a head, for a three months' course of tuition. The direct way to promotion was through the dissecting room, for as yet pathology was little more than morbid anatomy. Sutton was a first-rate teacher and soon made enough money to travel as far as Vienna. He climbed the ladder by the ordinary steps, slowly at first as a junior demonstrator of anatomy, then as curator of the hospital museum, next as assistant surgeon to a small special hospital, finally as assistant surgeon, surgeon, and consulting surgeon to his own hospital, the Middlesex. He had to fight every step of the way, for there was plenty of competition and continuous opposition, but he had good health, a constant fund of humour, was a loyal friend, and was generous in giving both publicly and in private. He had hobbies, too, which sustained him: a love of travel, a curiosity about animal life and a certain artistic sense. Throughout his life he was a general surgeon, more especially skilled in abdominal operations. Of slight physique and with very small and bright eyes, he had a curious bird-like habit of rapidly cocking his head sideways when he wished to emphasize a joke or a witty remark. A fluent writer and an entertaining after-dinner speaker, he retained and perhaps cultivated his native and marked cockney accent.

He lived at 22 Gordon Street, Gordon Square, from 1883 to 1890; at 48 Queen Anne Street, 1890 to 1902, and thereafter at 47 Brook Street, Grosvenor Square. Here he built in 1905, at the back of the house, a copy, reduced by one-third, of the Apodama or audience chamber at Susa or Shushan (in Persia) where it is recorded in the Book of Esther that Ahasuerus gave the great feast and afterwards invited Vashti to show her beauty to the assembled princes and people. In the reduced copy of this splendid hall Bland-Sutton and his gifted wife delighted to exercise a generous hospitality; Rudyard Kipling, and old and intimate friend, was a frequent guest. The house and the hall were pulled down for an extension of Claridge's Hotel, and Bland-Sutton moved finally to 29 Hertford Street, Mayfair.

Comparative dental pathology, in J. Walker Valedictory address, Odontological Society, 1884.
A descriptive catalogue of the pathological museum of the Middlesex Hospital, with J. K. Fowler. London, 1884.
An introduction to general pathology, founded on lectures at R.C.S. London, 1886.
Ligaments, their nature and morphology. London, 1887; 4th ed. 1920.
Dermoids. London, 1889.
Surgical diseases of the ovaries and Fallopian tubes. London, 1891.
Evolution and disease. London, 1890.
Tumours innocent and malignant. London, 1893; 7th ed. 1922.
Osteology in H. Morris Treatise of anatomy, 1893.
Tumours, and Diseases of the jaws in Sir F. Treves System of surgery, 1895, 1.
The diseases of women, with A. E. Giles. London, 1897, 8th ed. 1926.
Tumours in Warren and Gould International textbook of surgery, 1899, 1.
Essays on Hysterectomy. London, 1904.
Gall-stones and diseases of the bile-ducts. London, 1907; 2nd ed. 1910.
Tumours in W. W. Keen Surgery, 1907, 1 and 1913, 6.
Cancer clinically considered. London, 1909.
Essays on the position of abdominal hysterectomy in London. London, 1909; 2nd ed. 1910.
Fibroids of the uterus. London, 1913.
Misplaced and missing organs (Bradshaw lecture R.C.S.). London, 1917.
Selected lectures and essays. London, 1920.
John Hunter, his affairs, habits and opinions (the Hunterian Oration). London, 1923.
Orations and addresses. London, 1924.
The story of a surgeon. London, 1930.
On faith and science in surgery. London, 1930.
Man and beast in eastern Ethiopia. London, 1911.
Men and creatures in Uganda. London, 1933.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 21 December 1936, p. 14b, with portrait, 24 December and 30 December p. 13e; Lancet, 1936, 2, 1529, with portrait, a good likeness, and p. 1546, with eulogy, 1937, 1, 50 and 112; Brit. Med. J. 1937, 1, 47, with portrait as in Lancet and p. 102; Middlesex Hospital J. 1937, 37, p.4, with reproduction of the Hon. John Collier's painting; Nature, 1937, 139, 223 by W. Sampson Handley; J. Amer. med. Assoc. 1937, 108, 485; J. Obstet. Gynaec, 1937 Supplement; The seven stages of John Bland-Sutton and an epilogue, by Sir Comyns Berkeley with portrait, caricature by George Belcher; Dictionary of National Biography, 1931-1940, p.840, by Victor Bonney, F.R.C.S; personal knowledge.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England