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Biographical entry Key, Charles Aston (1793 - 1849)

MRCS Jan 5th 1821; FRCS Dec 11th 1843 one of the original 300 Fellows.

Born
6 October 1793
London
Died
1849
Occupation
General surgeon

Details

Born in Southwark on Oct 6th, 1793, the eldest son of Thomas Key by his first wife, Margaret Barry. His father was a general practitioner, first in the Borough and afterwards in Fenchurch Street, who took the degree of MD late in life, and carried on a lucrative obstetric practice in Lombard Street. Hewitt Key (1799-1875), Latin scholar and the first Head Master of University College School in London, was Aston Key's half-brother. The latter was educated at Buntingford Grammar School, Hertfordshire, under the Rev Samuel Dewe. Whilst at school he gave an instance of the resourcefulness which afterwards stood him in good stead as a surgeon. One of the boys, who afterwards became a well-known bookseller, undertook to eat a large apple, but on putting the whole of it into his mouth he was unable to close his jaws and was nearly suffocated. Key took a penknife out of his pocket, scooped away a large part of the middle of the apple and then, pressing the jaws together, crushed the remaining walls to the great relief of the sufferer.

He was apprenticed to his father in 1810, and entered as a pupil to the lectures of the United Hospitals in 1812 and as a pupil to the medical and surgical practice at Guy's in 1814. His apprenticeship to his father was cancelled in 1815 and a large premium was paid to make him one of the pupils of Sir Astley Cooper. He lived with Cooper during the years 1817-1818, and married in 1818 Anne, a niece of Sir Astley and sister of Bransby Cooper. He opened a dissecting-room in Maze Pond in 1819 jointly with John Morgan (qv), but as Grainger's teaching was so much better it was closed two years later. In 1820 he was appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy at St Thomas's Hospital, the Lecturer being Joseph Henry Green (qv), and held office for two years. He was appointed the first Assistant Surgeon to Guy's Hospital in 1821, the post being especially made for him, but ostensibly for the better attendance of surgical out-patients, and in January, 1824, he became full Surgeon. When Guy's separated from St Thomas's Hospital in 1825 Aston Key was appointed Lecturer on Surgery in conjunction with John Morgan. His lectures were very popular and he continued them until 1844. He was appointed Surgeon to HRH Prince Albert in 1847.

At the Royal College of Surgeons he was a Member of the Council from 1845-1849, but held no other office. He does not appear in the list of persons admitted, though it is usually stated that he was elected FRS. He died of cholera after a day's illness, survived by his wife and nine children, of whom the most distinguished was Admiral Sir Astley Cooper Key, GCB (1821-1888). Aston Key was buried in the churchyard of St Dionis, St Mary Axe. He practised first in St Thomas's Street, and afterwards in St Helen's Place, EC.

Aston Key was a fine operator at a very brilliant period of operative surgery. He had a power and dexterity with the knife which few possessed, and was never known to bungle from any ignorance of details. He had the art to invest with interest, by his exquisite execution, an operation which in other hands would appear hideous and revolting - every moment proclaiming the perfect artist. He was the first (1823) to ligature successfully the subclavian artery for the cure of an axillary aneurysm. The details of the case are recorded in the Transactions of the Royal Medico-Chirurgical Society (1827, xiii, 1), and the dissection of the arm twelve years afterwards is described in the first volume of the Guy's Hospital Reports (1836, i, 59). In 1824 he reintroduced the use of the straight staff in the operation of lithotomy, and, discarding the gorget and other aids, used a straight knife with some degree of force. He was one of the first surgeons in London to use ether as an anaesthetic. He was not well read in surgical literature, nor was he in any sense a scientific surgeon, but his lectures were well attended, for they dealt with the results of his own experience. He was amongst the first to allow of their publication in the medical press.

Dr Samuel Wilks, who knew him personally, says that when young he was smart and fond of dress; in middle age he was a tall, upright man of commanding appearance. His slightly aquiline nose, approaching to the Wellington type, added to his general imposing effect. He wore for a considerable part of the year shepherd's plaid trousers, but put on darker ones in winter. As the spring appeared the season was announced by Key's freshly washed plaids, which also became somewhat tighter every year. These made his feet look extraordinarily long, corresponding with his large hands. The latter were remarkable - big, like those of other good surgeons, but very mobile though powerful, so that it was a real pleasure to see him handle a limb for examination; it seemed to bend and move under his manipulation in a manner which gave a new aspect to the part. He wore generally a grey striped necktie or stock which threw up his head and produced two folds on his cheeks. He had a merry twinkle in his eye, with a nervous twitch in his face which became very marked when anything ruffled him, as was often the case, for his temper was not one of the sweetest, and he gave vent to it, as was the custom of the day, in strong words and oaths directed alike towards patients, pupils, subordinates, and all who came under his observation. When arriving at the hospital he walked into the colonnade with a large stride and majestic air, his class waiting for him and taking off their hats whilst he extended his left hand or forefinger for his dressers to shake. He then proceeded to the wards, pleasant in his manner but altogether dictatorial, so that an admiring class gathered round him to catch every syllable that fell from the oracle. He did not familiarly discuss subjects with the students and did little more than lay down the law, and all obeyed him. There is a portrait by George Richmond; it was engraved by Holl and published by Hogarth of the Haymarket, in June, 1851. A copy of the engraving is in the College Collection.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Lancet, 1849, ii, 300, 411. Wilks and Bettany's Biographical History of Guy's Hospital, London, 1892, 329. Dict Nat Biog, sub nomine et auct ibi cit. There is a detailed account of Aston Key's fatal attack of cholera in Brit and For Med-Chir Rev, 1849, iv, 572].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England