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Biographical entry Humphry, Sir George Murray (1820 - 1896)

Knight Bachelor 1891; MRCS Nov 19th 1841; FRCS (by election) Aug 26th 1844; MB Cantab 1852; MD 1859; LSA 1842; ScD; LLD; FRS 1859.

18 July 1820
Sudbury, Suffolk
24 September 1896
Anatomist and General surgeon


Born at Sudbury, in Suffolk, on July 18th, 1820, the third son of William Wood Humphry, barrister-at-law and distributor of stamps for the county of Suffolk. One of his brothers became a barrister; the second, the Rev W G Humphry, was for many years Vicar of St Martin's-in-the-Fields. G M Humphry was educated at the grammar schools of Sudbury and Dedham, and was apprenticed in 1836 to J G Crosse, Surgeon to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Crosse did his duty faithfully by his apprentices. They lived in his house and he taught them by example and precept, lectured to them, and made them attend the hospital with him on his regular rounds.

Humphry left Norwich in 1839 and entered St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, where he came under the influence of Dr Peter Mere Latham, Sir William Lawrence, and Sir James Paget. He passed the 1st MB examination at the University of London, winning the Gold Medal in Anatomy and Physiology, but never presented himself for the final examination. He was admitted a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons on Nov 19th, 1841, and on May 12th, 1842, he became a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries, which was then looked upon as the superior and indispensable qualification by all public bodies.

Three of the surgeons to Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, resigned their offices in 1842, and on Oct 31st 'Mr Humphry' was placed third out of the six candidates who applied for election in their place. This appointment made Humphry the youngest hospital surgeon in England. He immediately began to use the hospital to the best advantage, with the deliberate design of making a school of Medicine in Cambridge. Small as was the material - 70 in-patients and, about 120, out-patients per annum - he yet contrived to give three clinical lectures a week and some bedside teaching for all who chose to attend. This teaching he continued until 1841, when he was invited to act as deputy for the Rev Dr William Clark, who had been appointed Professor of Anatomy in 1817. He accepted the invitation and gave lectures and demonstrations upon human anatomy from 1847-1866. Dr Clark retired in 1866 and Humphry was elected Professor of Human and Comparative Anatomy in his place. He held the office until 1883, when he resigned it for the newly founded, but unpaid, Professorship of Surgery.

Humphry made himself a member of the University of Cambridge by matriculating as a fellow commoner from Downing College in 1847, graduating MB in 1852 and MD in 1859. In 1849 he added to his anatomical duties a course of twenty-eight lectures on surgery which were published in the Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal for 1849 and 1850. Both in these lectures and in his anatomical demonstrations he was helped by the specimens which the university had bought in 1836 from James Macartney (1770-1843), Professor of Anatomy and Chirurgery in the University of Dublin, for an annuity of £100 for ten years. The museum was sent by sailing vessel to London and thence by waggons to Cambridge, and was so well packed that not a single jar was broken. In 1869 Humphry succeeded Sir George Paget as the representative of the University of Cambridge on the General Medical Council. He delivered the Rede Lecture before the university in 1880, taking "Man - Past, Present, and Future" as his subject. He served on the Council of the Senate, was an honorary Fellow of Downing, and in 1884 was elected a professorial Fellow of King's College. The election gave him very great pleasure, and it was his delight to take his numerous week-end visitors to service in the Chapel.

At the Royal College of Surgeons he filled all the offices which his physical strength and his devotion to the University of Cambridge permitted. Elected a Fellow on Aug 26th, 1844, when he was still a year below the statutory age, he served as a Member of the Council from 1864-1884; was Arris and Gale Lecturer on Anatomy and Physiology from 1872-1873; a member of the Court of Examiners from 1877-1887; and Hunterian Orator in 1879. He declined to allow himself to be nominated for the offices of Vice-President or President. As Arris and Gale Lecturer he dealt with "Human Myology" in the first course, and the "Varieties in the Muscles of Man" in his second course.

He was elected FRS in 1859 and served on the Council of the Society from 1870-1871. He was long a member of the British Medical Association, acting first as Secretary and afterwards as President of the Huntingdon Branch. He delivered the Address on Surgery at the annual meeting at Cambridge in 1856, presided over the Section of Anatomy and Physiology at the Worcester Meeting in 1882, and was President of the whole Association at the Cambridge Meeting in 1881. He presided over the physiological section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1867, and in 1879 he gave six lectures on the architecture of the human body as a part of the Fullerian course at the Royal Institution of London. He took an active part in the formation of the Cambridge Medical Society and for some time was President. He presided at the annual meeting of the Sanitary Society of Great Britain held in London in 1882 and in Glasgow in 1883. In 1887 he was the first President of the newly-formed Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland, and he served as President of the Pathological Society of London during the years 1891-1893. He received the honour of knighthood in 1891.

He married in September, 1849, Mary, daughter of Daniel Robert McNab, surgeon, of Epping, by whom he had a daughter and a son, Alfred Paget Humphry, Senior Esquire Bedell of the University of Cambridge and Queen's Prizeman at Wimbledon in 1871. Sir George Humphry died at his residence, Grove Lodge, Cambridge, on Sept 24th, 1896, and was buried at the Mill Road Cemetery.

A terra-cotta bust by H R Hope-Pinker, RA, is in the College. A bust by Wiles was presented to Addenbrooke's Hospital by the Vice-Chancellor of the University. A portrait by W W Ouless, RA, hangs in the Fitzwilliam Museum and has been engraved. A portrait by Miss K M Humphry, painted on the occasion of Humphry's enrolment as freeman of his native town, is in the public hall at Sudbury, Suffolk. There is a small engraving in the College collection.

Beginning as a general practitioner without an introduction, poor, and with no influence, Humphry became one of the most remarkable persons in the University of Cambridge, and converted the insignificant Medical School of 1866 into one which is world-renowned. Before all things he was a scientific man and a collector. Additions to the University Museum of Anatomy and Surgical Pathology were so constantly in his thoughts that many of his holidays were spent in journeys designed expressly to secure specimens to fill its shelves. As an anatomist he was one of the earliest workers to bring human anatomy into line with the growing science of morphology. He was a good and successful surgeon, widely consulted in East Anglia. He treated wounds by what he called the open method - just covering them with a piece of gauze. He was the first in England to remove successfully a tumour from the male bladder, and one of the first to advocate the advantages of the suprapubic route. He had no amusements and was so sparing in all that concerned his own comfort, that when domestic servants were plentiful he acquiesced readily in his wife's using his kitchen as a home for the training of servants, which resulted in a weekly change of cooks in the making. In all matters of hospitality he was most liberal, and in large matters profusely generous. Having begun poor he ended rich. He was full of research and resource and generally succeeded in getting his own way, but his aims were unselfish and were always directed to the improvement of the medical profession. In person he was of medium height with brilliant and expressive eyes, and soft in voice; never physically strong, not well dressed, and looking ill, it is no matter of surprise that a candidate at the College of Surgeons once took him by the beard as he sat resting in the outer hall and shook him saying, "What's the matter with you, my man?"

A Treatise on the Human Skeleton, including the Joints, 8vo, Cambridge, 1858. An important work containing the results of original research in several directions. The excellent plates by which the book is illustrated were drawn by Mrs Humphry.
On the Coagulation of the Blood in the Venous System during Life, 8vo, Cambridge, 1859. Of this subject the author had painful personal experience, for he suffered on several occasions from severe attacks of phlebitis, and his only son died of a pulmonary embolus.
The Human Foot and the Human Hand, 12mo, Cambridge and London, 1861. Observations in Myology, 8vo, Cambridge and London, 1872.
Cambridge, the Town, University and Colleges, 12mo, Cambridge, 1850: a very excellent little guide-book.
Old Age: the results of information received respecting nearly nine hundred persons who had attained the age of eighty years, including seventy-four centenarians. Humphry started with the supposition that no one survived for a hundred years. The results of his inquiry converted him and he came to the conclusion that centenarians were for the most part of small and slender build, with good digestions.
He is widely remembered as founder and, in conjunction with Sir William Turner, editor of the Journal of Anatomy and Physiology (Cambridge and London, 1866), which afterwards became the Journal of Anatomy.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict Nat Biog, xxiii, Supplement, et auct ibi cit. Leyland's Contemporary Medical Men, Leicester, 1888, 126, with a good portrait and a bibliography. St Bart's Hosp Rep, 1896, xxxii, p xxxi. Middlesex Hosp Jour, 1912, xvi, 129. Personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England