Browse Fellows


www Lives

Biographical entry Fayrer, Sir Joseph (1824 - 1907)

CSI 1868; KCSI 1876; Baronet 1896; MRCS July 9th 1847; FRCS (by election) April 18th 1878; MD Rome 1849; MD Edin 1859; FRCP Lond 1872; FRS 1877; LLD Edin 1878; LLD St Andrews 1890.

6 December 1824
Plymouth, UK
21 May 1907
Falmouth, UK
General surgeon


Born at Plymouth on Dec 6th, 1824, the second of the six sons and two daughters of Commander Robert John Fayrer, RN. One of his brothers was George Fayrer (qv). He was a pupil of the Rev R Wallace at Dalrymple, and was sent afterwards to a private school at Liverpool. He studied engineering for a short time, and accompanied his father in 1840 as a midshipman on a voyage to the West Indies, and again in 1843 to Bermuda. He entered Charing Cross Hospital as a medical student in October, 1844, where William Guyer Hunter and Thomas Henry Huxley were also students, and was appointed House Surgeon at the Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital in 1846.

He received a Commission in the Medical Service of the Royal Navy on Aug 4th, 1847, but soon resigned to travel through Europe with Lord Mount Edgcumbe. He arrived at Rome in April, 1848, and after studying at the University graduated MD in 1849.

He became Assistant Surgeon in the Indian Army on the Bengal side on June 29th, 1850, and spent the next forty-five years of his life in close connection with the Indian Medical Service. His successful service as a field assistant surgeon with the Burma field force during the Pegu War in 1852 led Lord Dalhousie to appoint him Residency Surgeon at Lucknow in July, 1853, and Hon Assistant Resident on Sept 8th, 1854. Two years later -March 20th, 1856 - he was appointed Civil Surgeon at Lucknow and Superintendent of charitable institutions, and on the annexation of Oudh, he was placed in charge of the deposed king's stud of horses, elephants, camels, and wild animals. Fayrer's house was used during the Mutiny both as a hospital and as a fortress, and he played a prominent part in the Siege of Lucknow from June 30th until the relief on Nov 17th, 1857. He came to England on furlough in 1858, and studied at Edinburgh, where he graduated MD in March, 1859.

On his return to India he was appointed Professor of Surgery at the Medical College, Calcutta, and in January, 1867, he was made President of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and in that capacity proposed the scheme for a Zoological Society and gardens in Calcutta which was afterwards adopted, the gardens being opened by King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, in 1875.

He was decorated CSI in 1868; in 1869 he was appointed Surgeon in Calcutta to the Viceroy, Lord Mayo, and in 1870 he accompanied HRH the Duke of Edinburgh on his tour through North-West India.

He returned to England in 1872, was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London, and carried out a series of important researches on snake-poison in conjunction with Sir T Lauder Brunton. In 1873 he became President of the Medical Board at the India Office, and on Dec 8th he retired from the Indian Medical Service with the rank of Deputy Surgeon General and a good service pension in addition to his superannuation allowance.

He was selected in 1875 to accompany the Prince of Wales, afterwards King Edward VII, on his tour through India, and was promoted KCSI at Allahabad on March 7th, 1876, being shortly afterwards gazetted Hon Physician to the Prince, with whom he ever afterwards maintained a cordial intimacy. He was elected FRS on June 7th, 1877, and served on the Council in 1895. He was President of the Epidemiological Society in 1879. He was made a baronet on Jan 11th, 1896, and on his retirement lived at Falmouth, where he died on May 21st, 1907.

He married on Oct 4th, 1855, at Lucknow, Bethia Mary, eldest daughter of Brigadier-General Andrew Spens, and by her had six sons and two daughters. His eldest son died in 1904, and the title was inherited by Lieut-Colonel Joseph Fayrer, CBE, RAMC. Many honours were bestowed upon Fayrer in addition to those already mentioned. He was LLD Edin, 1878; LLD St Andrews, 1890; Doctor of Philosophy of Padua; Knight of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem; and Physician Extraordinary as well as Hon Physician (Military) to King Edward VII.

Sir Joseph Fayrer owed his success in life to many qualities. He was a genial straightforward doctor who knew his work on the professional side; an excellent administrator; careful and tactful in all matters brought before him; a hard worker; and an admirable experimenter, more especially in connection with the subject of snake poisoning. If the science of histology had been rather more advanced, there is little doubt that he would have discovered the relationship of the Filaria sanguinis hominis to elephantiasis arabum.

His portrait by Sydney P Hall hangs in the Royal Medical College at Netley, and there are several small portraits of him in the Collection at the Royal College of Surgeons, one of which is dated 1891.

Sir Joseph and Major F D S Fayrer, IMS, presented their father's medical library, including the manuscript of Recollections of My Life, to the Royal Army Medical College at Millbank in 1916.

Fayrer's great work, Thanatophidia of India, was published by the Government in folio in 1872. It is profusely illustrated with coloured plates from life, and embodies the evidence upon which is based the treatment of snake-bite by permanganate of potassium.
His histological search for the Filaria sanguinis hominis appeared in the Pathological Society's Transactions, 1879, xxx, 488.
A Life of Inspector-General Sir James Ranald Martin, 1897.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict. Nat. Biog., Supplement 2, sub nomine et suet. Ibi cit. Indian Med. Record, 1894, vi, 886, with a full-plate autograph crayon drawing, which is an excellent likeness. Crawford's History of the Indian Medical Service, passim. Recollections of my Life, 8vo, Edinburgh and London, 1908].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England