Browse Fellows


www Lives

Biographical entry Gant, Frederick James (1825 - 1905)

MRCS May 18th 1849; FRCS May 30th 1861.

December 1825
London, UK
6 June 1905
London, UK
General surgeon and Pathologist


Born in Acton Place, Kingsland Road, NE, in December, 1825, and, as he has set on record in his Autobiography, "two months before I was due." His father was Lieut-Colonel John Castle Gant, of the King's Own 2nd Light Infantry. Young Gant, an only child, was puny and weakly, and as a little boy was sent to Eastbourne, where there were as yet only two houses, and then to Hastings, where he acquired a deep love of nature, and eventually more than average strength.

He was educated at King's College School, London, was for a time assistant to a chemist in Shoreditch, and received his professional training at University College, where, in the medical department, he was entered as house pupil to Richard Quain. He took honours in several of the classes, and was then appointed Assistant Curator of the Museum of Anatomy and Pathology under Professor William Sharpey. After qualifying Gant was for a time in straightened circumstances owing to the financial failure of his father, but as his prospects brightened he took rooms at 13 Old Cavendish Street and in 1852 began to practise as a consulting surgeon. He lectured on physiology, and then on anatomy, in the Hunterian School of Medicine, Bedford Square. When this institution was closed he migrated with the students to the Royal Free Hospital, which was at first unable to obtain recognition as a teaching school from the Royal College of Surgeons, owing to the ill equipment of its museum, The students therefore, about fifty in number, were transferred to the Middlesex Hospital in 1854, and Gant remained as Surgeon at the Royal Free Hospital, having been appointed Assistant Surgeon in 1853.

During the last year of the Crimean War he was a Civil Staff Surgeon to Military Hospitals and served both in the Crimea and at Scutari, returning home via Athens and Rome in May, 1856. For his services he received the Crimean Medal and Clasp. In the following year he was struck with the sights of monstrous obesity tending to suffocation at the Smithfield Club Cattle Show. He purchased at various butchers' shambles, where the prize beasts were subsequently slaughtered, their hearts, livers, etc., demonstrated that the tissues had largely undergone fatty degeneration, and showed that the prizes were given for bulk and weight of fat, and not according to the quality of the meat. For this report he received letters of thanks from the Prince Consort, the Duke of Richmond, and other leading exhibitors and breeders.

Gant was actively connected with the Royal Free Hospital for some thirty-seven years, and took an important part in its development. The museum grew under his hands and he acted as the Pathologist.

In 1878 the London School of Medicine for Women became associated with the Royal Free Hospital for clinical instruction, and from that date till his retirement Gant lectured to the students on clinical surgery. In 1890 he resigned his position as Senior Surgeon to the Royal Free Hospital, and among the addresses presented to him was a very cordial one from the women students, whose higher medical education he had not originally advocated.

He was President of the Medical Society of London in 1881, having been Orator in 1872 and Lettsomian Lecturer on "Excisional Surgery of the Joints" in 1871. He was at one time Vice-President and Member of Council of the Royal Medico-Chirurgical Society, and was a member of the Harveian and Clinical Societies.

A man of most varied interests, Gant became associated with two famous pedestrians. These were E Payson Weston, the Canadian, who in 1876 walked 500, 550, and once even 600 miles in six days; and William Gale, from Wales, who, walking a quarter of a mile in every ten minutes or quarter of an hour during successive days and nights, covered 1000, 1500, or even more miles on different occasions in 1877 and 1881. He looked after these athletes during their performances. "Whenever asked by 'ped' or 'patron' I readily gave my professional services," he says in his Autobiography, "or when symptoms of a breakdown might occur, about the third day in a long-distance walk, or the patient got into foot difficulties."

Gale, a man of 50, smaller than Weston in stature, performed in the open air at Lillie Bridge, and Gant often accompanied him for one or two hours at night, when a lantern was carried alongside the walkers. Gale was a bookbinder and presented Gant with a bound copy of Thomas à Kempis, whose austere teaching possibly appealed to the man of endurance.

At the College Gant was to the last a well-known figure in his long old-fashioned coat of some blue material, and yellow or light-coloured widely-opened waistcoat and trousers of the same hue. He wore the thick whiskers and short-cut moustache of the old Crimean officers, and his manners were of the agreeable old-world order.

Gant obtained leave from Sir William Fergusson, the President in 1870, to attend the oral examinations in surgery for the Membership and Fellowship of the College. He noted the questions asked and the pathological specimens shown, and in 1874 published a Guide to the Examinations at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. In this Guide he gave the full College Museum descriptions of the specimens which students were expected to identify, with a detailed account of the questions asked during the examinations. Professor Flower, then Conservator of the Museum, wrote to the medical papers pointing out that Gant's Guide gave more information than was desirable. The method of examination was modified and the Guide is now of historical value, as it shows the scope of surgical knowledge expected of a student at the time it was published. Incidentally it did not render Gant a persona grata with the College authorities.

No mention of this episode is made by Gant in his Autobiography, though his numerous works, various interests, and romantic beginnings from the day when he was beaten with a vine stick at a dancing school are entertainingly discussed in this ill-written but fascinating little book, which longo intervallo reminds one of David Copperfield. Gant possessed the poet's temperament, though he wrote no poetry. His prose is melancholy, but his book is arresting, if only because it lays bare the workings of a strangely vivid and passionate spirit - prone to take offence and to misunderstand, but evidently keenly sensitive and affectionate. He was a bitter enemy of the Council and mishandled College History to his heart's content whenever possible, especially as it touched the Fellows. He was an early supporter of the Association of Members, and a Member of its Committee.

During the last decade of his life Gant was a great sufferer, and declared in his Autobiography, "I generate uric acid as fast as Arabian trees their medicinal gum." He underwent lithotrity when very old.

His death occurred at his residence, 16 Connaught Square, W, on June 6th, 1905. He was buried in the cemetery at Richmond, Surrey, on June 10th, in the same grave as his wife (d.1899). On the tombstone he had some years before obtained leave to have inscribed these words: "To the unspeakable distress of her husband, his age and bodily affliction debar him from ever visiting her grave, at a distance of 10 miles from London."

He married in 1859 Matilda, the sixth daughter of Richard Crawshay, of Ottershaw Park, Surrey. The story of his marriage is romantically told in his Perfect Womanhood, where his wife appears as the bride (Mabel Vernon) of a struggling young practitioner. In his Autobiography he describes how he first met her in the house of her uncle, George Crawshay, of the Manor House, Colney Hatch, after the latter gentleman had offered him a lift in his carriage and taken him home to dine. Crawshay, indeed, became his first patient to the tune of £300, which enabled him to start in consulting practice. He retained his affection for his childless wife, and as an old man he would visit his friends late at night to talk of her physical charms. The lettering on the tombstone was not, therefore, a mere form of words. He was an innocent, garrulous old person of no great judgement. It is more than probable that the College incident proceeded from a real desire to help the medical student to pass his examination, and was without any ulterior motive.

The College possesses good portraits of Gant, including photographs in the Council and Fellows' Albums. He bequeathed £500 to the Royal Society of Medicine for the purchase of books. He also left a sum of money to the Medical Society of London, the interest to be spent in rebinding books in the Library. It is known as 'The Gant Bequest'.

"What has Pathological Anatomy done for Medicine and Surgery?" - Lancet, 1857, ii, 239, etc., a series of ten papers; republished as The Principles of Surgery, Clinical, Medical and Operative: an Original Analysis of Pathology systematically conducted, and a Critical Exposition of its Guidance at the Bedside and in Operations, 8vo, London, 1864.
Evil Results of Over-feeding Cattle: a New Enquiry, illustrated by coloured engravings of the Hearts, Lungs, etc., of Diseased Prize Cattle, 8vo, plates, London, 1858.
The Irritable Bladder, its Causes and Curative Treatment, 8vo, London, 1859.
The Science and Practice of Surgery, 8vo, woodcuts, London, 1871; 3rd ed., 2 vols., 1886. This was a very popular students' handbook, and was used to supplement Erichsen's Science and Art of Surgery; it contains perhaps the earliest account in a text-book of the then new Listerian methods. Gant's precepts in the matter of antiseptics are said to have been better than his practice - at any rate in those early years - 1871.
Modern Surgery as a Science and Art. The Lettsomian Oration delivered before the Medical Society of London, 8vo, London, 1872.
Mock-Nurses of the Latest Fashion, A.D. 1900, Professional Experiences, in Short Stories, and the Nursing Question, 8vo, London, 1900.
Modern Natural Theology with the Testimony of Christian Evidences, 8vo, London, 1901.
Autobiography, 12mo, London, 1905. A good portrait forms the frontispiece.
Guide to the Examinations at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, 12mo, London, 1874; 6th ed., A Guide to the Examinations by the Conjoint Board in England: and for the Diploma of Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, 12mo, London, 1889; 7th ed., revised by WILLMOTT H. EVANS, 1899.
Diseases of the Bladder, Prostate Gland and Urethra: including a Practical View of Urinary Diseases, Deposits and Calculi, 8vo, illustrated, 5th ed., London, 1884. This is the 5th ed. Of the Irritable Bladder.
The Students' Surgery: A Multum in Parvo, 8vo, London, 1890; American edition, 12mo, Philadelphia, 1890.
"Excisions of the Joints, especially Knee, Hip and Elbow; 20 Typical Cases and Results." - Med.-Chir. Trans., lvi, 213, and lxiii, 303.
"Pelvic and Parietal Tumour of Abdomen - Removal by Operation - Recovery." - Proc. Med.-Chir. Soc., 1884, N.S. I, 247.
"Excisional Surgery of the Joints," Lettsomian Lectures, Lancet, 1871, I, 638, 736.
"Lithotrity and Lithotomy." - Ibid., 1887, I, 1220.
"Infra-Trochanteric Osteotomy in Anchylosis of the Hip-joint, with Malposition of the Limb." - Brit. Med. Jour., 1879, ii, 320, 606.
"Buccal Operation for Extirpating the Tongue." - Trans. Clin. Soc., 1884, xvii, 168.
The Lord of Humanity: or the Testimony of Human Consciousness, 12mo, London, 1889; 2nd ed., with Supplement on the "Mystery of Suffering", London, 1891.
From our Dead Selves to Higher Things, 12mo, London, 1893; 2nd ed., 1895; 3rd ed., 1904.
Perfect Womanhood: A Story of the Times, 2nd ed., 8vo, London, 1896.
Its Sequel, the Latest Fruit is the Ripest, 1897; 2nd ed., 1898.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Autobiography, with portrait 8vo 1905. Brit. Med. Jour., 1923; I, 1410. Personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England