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Biographical entry Mayo, Charles (1788 - 1876)

MRCS, April 5th, 1811; FRCS, Dec 11th, 1843, one of the original 300 Fellows.

29 December 1788
27 November 1876
Winchester, UK
General surgeon


Born on Dec 29th, 1788, the third son of the Rev James Mayo, MA, Head Master of Queen Elizabeth’s Free Grammar School, Wimborne, and Rector of Avebury in succession to his father and grandfather. The Mayos may be described as a Wiltshire family, members of it having flourished there as clergymen and schoolmasters. To this Wiltshire family also belonged Thomas Mayo, MD, President of the Royal College of Physicians, Herbert Mayo, the distinguished physiologist, and others well known in literature.

Charles Mayo received a sound education at the Grammar School under his own father. He became a good Latinist and Grecian and was taught French carefully by a French émigré, M Leprince, a man of good family compelled by the exigencies of the French Revolution, which had ruined him, to earn his living as a schoolmaster in England. The émigré lived nine miles from Wimborne at Ringwood, and was lent a horse by the head master in order to ride home half-way.

“Young Mayo was sent to some appointed spot, whence he had to ride the horse back whilst Monsieur dismounted and finished his journey on foot. But it so happened that, some short time before, a frightful murder had been committed at Parley, a desolate village a mile or two to the south of the road between Wimborne and Ringwood, and the bodies of the two murderers were hung in chains from a gibbet on a heath within a very short distance from Parley, where, although the gibbet has vanished, the memory of the affairs surives to the present day (1876). On one occasion young Charles Mayo, when he was sent as usual to take the horse from the Frenchman, was tempted to leave the high road and go and inspect the remains of the murderers, whose bones and rags swung and creaked horribly in the wind, but when he returned to the high road, the Frenchman, not seeing him at the accustomed spot, had gone on towards Ringwood, and the truant did not return to Wimborne with the horse till long after the appointed time, and with no small fear of the consequences, for his father, amongst other accomplishments, was thought to excel in the use of the birch. Whether or not, however, this anatomical pilgrimage was considered to mark out his future destiny, the profession of medicine was chosen for him, and he began, at the age of fifteen, by being apprenticed to Mr Brown, a city apothecary, who flourished and kept a shop at the corner of Raven Row, Bethnal Green, just on the east of Bishopsgate Street. Mr Brown was a Member of the Society of Apothecaries - a body of men at that time of good culture and social position, amongst whom were many good botanists. The Society kept up the ancient and decent custom of examining the pupils of all its members in Latin at the beginning of their apprenticeship and gave them the opportunity, by means of herborising excursions, of cultivating a practical acquaintance with botany, a taste for which was preserved by the subject of this sketch up to a late period in life. In truth, the change from the life of the Wimborne schoolboy to that of the apprentice in Bishopsgate required some compensation. The business of an apothecary was a kind of compound between a trade and a profession, in which the professional skill supplied dignity, but the trading element supplied the means of living. Remuneration was obtained by supplying draughts, mixtures, and other forms of drugs, which were supplied profusely, and formed the items in a long bill of charges sent in at Christmas. That a medical practitioner shall supply his patients with medicine is reasonable and convenient, but that he shall make the medicine supplied the basis of remuneration, instead of his time and skill, is derogatory to himself and injurious to his patients. We have heard Mr Mayo describe the weak parts of this system, which were - the multiplicity of bad debts which crowded the ledger of the Bishopsgate apothecary, and the heavy cost of drugs, and particularly of bottles, which were taxed, in proportion to the receipts.

“Meanwhile, the young apprentice’s life was not a cheerful one. The errand-boy slept under the counter, the apprentice had a bed in an adjoining closet, and the family lived in a dingy back-parlour; whilst a drawing-room upstairs, where the carpet and furniture were covered with brown holland, was used only about twice a year.

“The apprentice had the recreation, if he chose, of accompanying the mistress once a week in a hackney-coach to hear a Calvinistic preacher at Clerkenwell. He had a book called ‘Tyrocinium Medicum; or, the Duties of Apothecaries’ Apprentices’, which will give some idea of the trade element amongst the general practitioners of the time (by William Chamberlaine, 1812, in the College Library). The dusting of shelves and bottles was held to be the chiefest of duties, and the writer enforces it on the medical apprentice in the terms in which Ovid excites the young men of his day to brush away the dust of the amphitheatre from off the clothes of the young ladies
‘Et si nullus erit pulvis tamen excute nullum’.”

After some three years of this melancholy life young Mayo joyfully became a student at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where, by contrast, the medical atmosphere was ‘elevated and dignified’ in a high degree. He studied anatomy with great ardour, and was for long dresser to Sir Charles Blicke, the founder of our College Library and at that time a leading London surgeon. He also came under the favourable notice of Abernethy, Lawrence, Stanley, and Wormald, as well as others on the high road to repute.

After qualifying he went down to Winchester and was elected Surgeon to the County Hospital in 1811, and here till 1870 he gained a high professional reputation both in general surgery and as a lithotomist. Quite at first he met with some opposition at the hospital, and appealed to Abernethy to support him on the eve of his first operation for stone. The great Surgeon wrote as follows:

“MY DEAR SIR, - If the Governors of any hospital entrusted me with the care of the patients, I would take care to do my duty to the best of my ability. I would not bleed and purge a patient repeatedly prior to an operation for lithotomy, to the extent you describe, at the suggestion of any man, if it did not appear to me proper. There is but one general rule for a man’s conduct: Do as you would be done unto. I would not defer the operation beyond that time when it seemed most conducive to the patient’s welfare to perform it. You know I use a gorget, which cuts as well as any knife that ever I tried, and has the advantage of being a conductor for the forceps. If I used a knife it should be such a one as Mr Cooper uses. I know not what to advise you to do. You represent your patient as much reduced, and if the subject were unfavourable for an operation, I would rather send him to a London Hospital than run the risk of his dying after an operation, however well you might perform it. This is the beginning of lectures; I have scarcely time to write. Had it happened at any other season I would have gone to Winchester.
“Yours most sincerely,
J ABERNETHY. August, 1812.”

The operation was successful, and Mayo thereupon began a remarkable career. His success as a lithotomist reached a climax when he extracted without mishap, in December, 1818, one of the largest stones so far recorded, which weighed over 14 oz. In 1848 he performed two lithotomies in one day, but both proved fatal. His last was on a man of his own age (74) in 1861, which was successful. His procedure and implements, in imitation of Cheselden, were bold and simple. When he came to Winchester he found the best practice in the hands of long-established surgeons, who debarred him from ‘the Close’ and the ‘County’, but among lesser patients his vogue was very extensive. He exhibited in the strongest possible degree that incongruous combination of professional work which linked together Raven Row and St Bartholomew’s Hospital. At one time of the day he would be tying the subclavian artery or diagnosing an obscure fracture, whilst at another he would be busily superintending the dispensing of medicines for sick paupers or club patients, for he took all the practice that offered itself.

He performed a number of capital operations for axillary and other aneurysms (some of which were published in the Medico-Chirurgical Transactions), cases of complete transposition of the viscera, deep encysted tumours of the neck (Lancet), and epispadias. At the age of 84 we find him entering his last case, one of obturator hernia, with a youth’s carefulness and clearness. The practice of the Winchester County Hospital was ‘homely but effective’ under Mayo. He set fractures with rough wooden splints in a manner which it would have been hard to outrival.

A contributor to the Medical Times and Gazette (1876, ii, 638) wrote:
“There was one thing which comes to the remembrance of the writer pretty vividly - the air of the Hospital: a compound of bad breath, unwashed skin, and ulcerated legs, which could be tasted as well as smelt the moment anyone entered the hospital door. Thirty or forty years ago people lamented the frequent deaths after operations from pleurisy or other apparently eccentric causes; but it is easy to see now (1876) that, in a purer air, Mr Mayo would have had a much larger percentage of successful lithotomy cases, whilst many a life might have been spared which was sacrificed to puerperal fever and erysipelas in the hospital and town.”

Mayo loved his work, though much of it was beneath his talent. Winchester in his day became a centre of professional education and Mayo’s many pupils were deeply attached to him. In manner he outdid the great Abernethy, whom he is supposed to have copied: he was blunt, outspoken, and testy to the greatest degree, and when made angry, as he often was, he relieved himself and amused his hearers by a stream of half-humorous vituperative epithets of the quaintest and most original description. He was a man of exuberant health and activity, up early and late, and never seeming to feel hunger or fatigue - so, at least, some of his pupils used to think when he summoned them to make post-mortem examinations, dress compound fractures, and to do other unsavoury work at the hospital before breakfast.

In 1870 this grand old lion of the ancient school resented the honour done him at his hospital when he was removed from the active to the consulting staff: in 1874 he grew blind, but fully believed himself fit to continue in practice. Latterly he grew less restless and consoled his dark hours by listening to the music of the daily cathedral services.

In 1851 his fellow-citizens gave him a grand entertainment in honour of the fortieth anniversary of his hospital appointment. He was elected Mayor of Winchester.
His memory remained vigorous almost to the last, and he delighted in telling of his early days.

At the, very end of his life he talked of ‘going home’, and died painlessly in great old age at his residence in St Peter Street, Winchester, on Nov 27th, 1876. He married in 1835 Miss Dennis, the daughter of a clergyman, and of his two sons one was Dr Charles Mayo of Fiji, Fellow of New College, Oxford, the other the Rev James Mayo. There were two daughters of the marriage. Mayo was one of the last of those who had been “in practice prior to 1815”.

“Successful Case of Lithotomy.” - Med.-Chir. Trans., 1820, xi, 54.
“Case of Aneurism in which a Ligature was placed on the Subclavian Artery.” - Ibid., 1823, xii, 12.
“Case of Axillary Aneurism Successfully Treated by Tying the Subclavian Artery.” - Ibid., 1830, xvi, 359.
“A Report on Lithotomy.” - Prov. Med. Jour., 1846, 439.
“Case of Strangulated Femoral Hernia Successfully Treated by Opium.” - Ibid., 1847, 319.
“Lithotomy and Hernia.” - Prov. Med. Jour., 1846-7.
“Cervical Encysted Tumour.” - Lancet, 1847, i, 667.

Sources used to compile this entry: [St Bart’s Hosp. Jour., 1929, xxxvi, 142].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England