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Biographical entry Ellis, George Viner (1812 - 1900)

MRCS April 21st 1835; FRCS Dec 11th 1843 one of the original 300 Fellows.

25 September 1812
25 April 1900
Minsterworth, Gloucestershire, UK


Born on Sept 25th, 1812, the second son of Viner Ellis, of Duni House, Minsterworth, near Gloucester, where his family had for many years been landowners. He was educated at the Crypt Grammar School, and then at the Cathedral Grammar School, and was afterwards apprenticed to Dr Buchanan, of Gloucester. On the advice of his scientific uncle, Daniel Ellis, FRS, Edinburgh, he was entered as a medical student at the newly-founded University College, London, where his career was one of distinction, In his vacations he studied in Paris, and he also followed courses of lectures and worked at anatomy in Berlin.

He was for a long period Demonstrator of Anatomy under Professor Richard Quain, and succeeded him in the Chair of Anatomy in 1850, resigning with the title of Emeritus Professor in 1877. He never mingled much with the professional world. At the time of his death in the year 1900, Viner Ellis was magni nominis umbra to the younger generation of medical students, but in his day he had been one of the ruling spirits of the world of anatomy in this country. He gave his whole working life to the study and teaching of his chosen subject. Though too austere and unsympathetic in manner and strict in discipline to be popular with the great body of students, he was held in the highest respect by all, and in almost affectionate regard by a chosen few. Though he disdained the art of clothing the dry bones of anatomy with any flesh of human interest, his lectures were so exact in detail and so clear in expression that they were always listened to with close attention if not with pleasure. He taught most conscientiously, having his students' credit greatly at heart. Such was his grief when University College men failed badly in the Royal College of Surgeons examinations, that on one occasion, after they had figured very poorly, he appealed to his class, with tears rolling down his face, to remove this disgrace from him.

His name soon became a household word with medical students at large when he published his famous Demonstrations of Anatomy: being a Guide to the Knowledge of the Human Body by Dissections. This appeared in 1840, and quickly became the standard text-book in English and American dissecting-rooms. The 11th edition was published in 1890 (edited by Professor G D Thane).

A number of quaint anecdotes were told of Ellis. His class was always in perfect order, and once when his colleague, Professor Robert Grant, then very old and feeble, found his men unmanageable, he called Viner Ellis to his aid. After a brief but convincing interview with Ellis the unruly became quiet as lambs in 'poor old Grant's' lecture-room. He hated smoking and forbade it to his dissectors, who once, so the legend runs, petitioned the Council of University College for leave to purify the air in the dissecting-rooms with tobacco smoke. The petition was granted, and Ellis at once sent in his resignation, only withdrawing it when he had received assurances that he should never again be asked to tolerate the accursed thing. When he subsequently caught a comfortable party of smokers round a stove, his anger was memorable.

He was secretive as to his place of residence, and students out-of-doors were wont cautiously to shadow him on his way home, but he always apparently succeeded in giving his followers the slip. The popular myth was to the effect that he kept two ménages. In the afternoons he used to go round to each individual dissector and would show his approval of a hard worker by patting him on the shoulder with hands "too visibly subdued to that they worked in" - a mark of approval not always properly appreciated. He spent most of his time in the dissecting-room, looking in after his midday lecture and sniffing the air as though to gain an appetite for lunch. To the specially privileged he would sometimes unbend, the hard face wrinkling every now and then into kindly smiles. He would reveal unsuspected depths of knowledge and feeling, and would tell stories of the old resurrectionists, some of whom he had known, or would show a love of literature in discussing the Elizabethan poets.

He was an expounder rather than a discoverer in anatomy, a rigorous verifier and systematizer of what was already known. He discovered the corrugator ani muscle, a fact commemorated in a student's epitaph composed in his memory:-
"Here lies, beloved by few, and feared by many,
Georgy, discoverer of the corrugator ani."
After his retirement Professor Ellis built himself a house in his native place, and lived quietly there with his sister. He devoted himself to the cultivation of his garden and was a successful apple-grower. He also taught the older boys of the parish in a night school, for he hated to be idle.

With Viner Ellis passed away almost the last of the great teachers who had first made the Medical School of University College famous. He died at his residence, Severn Bank, Minsterworth, Gloucestershire, on April 25th, 1900.

He was several times Examiner in Anatomy at the University of London, but refused to join the Court of Examiners of the Royal College of Surgeons, who in his day were required to test the knowledge of candidates in surgery as well as in anatomy.

In addition to the Demonstrations of Anatomy, Ellis published:-
Illustrations of Dissections in a Series of Original Coloured Plates the Size of Life,
representing the Dissection of the Human Body,
fol., London, 1867; 2nd ed., 2 vols., 8vo, New York, 1882. This is as much a classic as the Demonstrations.
The drawings were finely executed from nature on stone by G H FORD. They were from Ellis's dissections.
He wrote the greater part of the description of the nerves in his and Sharpey's edition of Jones Quain's Elements of Anatomy, 6th ed., 1856.
He also contributed several papers on scientific subjects to the Lond. Med. Gaz.

The Royal College of Surgeons of England