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Biographical entry Gay, John (1812 - 1885)

MRCS July 11th 1834; FRCS Dec 11th 1843 one of the original 300 Fellows.

26 September 1812
15 September 1885
London, UK
General surgeon


Born on Sept 26th, 1812, the eldest of the seven children of John Gay, currier, of Wellington, Somerset, by his wife Mary Timewell, whom he had married on Nov 25th, 1811.

John Gay was apprenticed to Stephen Franklin Bridge (qv), a general practitioner in Wellington, whom he afterwards proposed for election to the Fellowship. He entered St Bartholomew's Hospital at the end of his apprenticeship and came under the observation of Dr P M Latham and Sir William Lawrence (qv). The teachers in the Medical School had just established a prize of books for the best student in surgery, and Gay won it in May, 1834. He settled at South Street, Finsbury Square, and, although without interest, determined to practise as a surgeon. On May 17th, 1836, he was elected Surgeon to the Free (now Royal Free) Hospital, which was then a small and struggling charity in Greville Street, Hatton Garden. The contest was severe. There were three other candidates - John Foote, junr, Alexander Ure, and P J Heatley - and of these Ure was the favourite. Gay held the post until Dec 30th, 1853, when he was dismissed by an arbitrary act of the Governors, the voting in a crowded meeting being two to one against him. The assigned reason was that he had published or allowed to be published a laudatory biography giving him credit for the rapid progress of the hospital whilst he had been one of the Surgeons. His removal gave a step to T Wakley, the son of the editor of the Lancet. Gay's place was filled by the election of C Weeden Cooke, the Assistant Surgeon, who never took his Fellowship. The affair was the cause of much excitement at the time. It was felt that Gay had been badly treated and he was given a public banquet.

He was elected Surgeon to the Great (now the Royal) Northern Hospital in 1856, where he was Senior Surgeon at the time of his death, twenty-nine years later.

He served as a Member of the Council at the Royal College of Surgeons from 1869-1877, was Lettsomian Lecturer at the Medical Society of London in 1867, and President of the Society in 1870.

He married on Oct 12th, 1860, Elizabeth Elworthy, of Wellington, Somerset, and by her had two sons - John Gay, MD, and Major-General Sir Arthur William Gay, KCMG, CB, DSO - and one daughter who remained unmarried. He died at 81 Belsize Park, Hampstead, on Sept 15th, 1885, after being paralysed for two years, and was buried at Fortune Green Cemetery, West Hampstead.

Gay was best known as a surgeon by his operation for femoral hernia, which was modified from that recommended by James Luke. It consisted in cutting along the inner side of the swelling and dividing Gimbernat's ligament without opening the sac. Sir William Fergusson (Practical Surgery, 4th ed., 1857, 717) speaks of it in terms of high praise, saying, "During the last nine years I have rarely performed any other operation for crural hernia than that which has been recommended by Mr Gay." In the existing state of surgery it was perhaps wise not to open the sac of any hernia.

Gay is described as being short of stature, active, enthusiastic, somewhat impetuous, but high-spirited and socially popular.

On Femoral Rupture, its Anatomy, Physiology, and Surgery, London, 1848.
"Indolent Ulcers and their Surgical Treatment." - Med Times and Gaz, 1858, xs vi, 398, and vii, 112; published in book form, London, 1855.
On Varicose Disease of the Lower Extremity and its Allied Disorders: Skin, Discoloration, Induration and Ulcer: being the Lettsomian Lectures, 8vo, 4 plates, London, 1868.
On Haemorrhoidal Disorder, 8vo, London, 1882.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict Nat Biog. Sub nomine et auct ibi cit. The date of his birth is given incorrectly. The obnoxious biography appears with a portrait in the Med Circular, 1853, ii, 249, and was reprinted verbatim, apparently in bravado, in the same journal, 1854, iv, 119. Gay's exculpatory letter with editorial comments may be read in the Med Circular, 1853, iii, 111, and a special supplement is devoted to the whole matter in the issue of the Med Circular for Jan 19th, 1854, 1 Additional information kindly given by John Gay, MD, his son, and by Reginald R Garratt, Esq, Secretary to the Royal Free Hospital. There is a portrait of John Gay in Photographs of Eminent Medical Men with brief Analytical Notices by Barker and Edwards, 1867, i].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England