Browse Fellows


www Lives

Biographical entry Owen, Edmund Blackett (1847 - 1915)

MRCS May 19th 1868; FRCS Dec 12th 1872; Hon LLD Aberdeen; Hon DSc Sheffield; MB Lond 1872.

7 April 1847
23 July 1915
General surgeon


Born on April 7th, 1847, the third son of William Buy Owen, then practising at Finchingfield, Essex, but originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where his father, Daniel Owen, had settled towards the end of the eighteenth century. Edmund Blackett Owen's mother had been a Miss Mary Blackett, and he was the third of eight children, of whom five were sons. William Buy Owen, his father, moved to London in 1860, and bought a practice in Cleveland Square, Hyde Park.

After leaving school at Bishop's Stortford in 1862, Edmund Owen became a student at St Mary's Hospital in 1863, the intention being that he should in time join his father in practice. He was, however, attracted first by anatomy and then by surgery. In 1868 he was Resident Medical Officer at St Mary's, and he afterwards studied in Paris. From 1868-1875 he was Demonstrator of Anatomy at St Mary's, and in 1876 was appointed Lecturer on Anatomy. In 1888 he changed that position for the Lectureship in Surgery. In June, 1871, he was elected Surgeon to Out-patients, became full Surgeon in 1882, and Consulting Surgeon on his retirement after twenty years in 1902. In 1896 he resigned the Lectureship in Surgery.

His career at the Royal College of Surgeons was distinguished and most useful. He was a Member of Council from 1897-1913, holding his seat after re-election, and was Vice-President in 1905-1906 and 1906-1907. In 1906 he delivered the Bradshaw Lecture on "Cancer: its Treatment by Modern Methods"; in 1911 he delivered the Hunterian Oration.

Owen's reputation as a teacher stood so high that he was often appointed to examinerships. In 1883 he was placed on the Board of Examiners in Anatomy and Physiology at the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1884 he joined the Board of Examiners in Anatomy and Physiology for the Fellowship, and from 1889-1899 was a Member of the Court of Examiners. In 1884, also, he was elected Examiner in Anatomy for the Second Examination of the Conjoint Board. He was likewise at different periods Examiner in Surgery to the Universities of Cambridge, London, and Durham.

He held a great number of offices. He was at one time or another Member of the Medical Board of the University of Wales, Orator of the Medical Society in 1897, President in 1899, President of the Harveian Society in 1887, Member of Council of Queen Victoria's Jubilee Nurses Institute, Member of the Committee of the Cancer Research Fund, President of the North-West London Boy Scouts Association. He was also, at the time of his death, Consulting Surgeon to the Paddington Green Children's Hospital, the Royal Masonic Institute for Girls, and Hon Surgeon to the Royal Society of Musicians.

Owen was most successful in his treatment of children, and was for many years on the staff of the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, having become Assistant Surgeon there in 1877, full Surgeon in 1883, and Consulting Surgeon on his retirement in 1898.

His work for the British Medical Association was of constantly increasing value. He joined the Association at an early stage of his career, and in 1883 was Secretary of the Section of Surgery at the Liverpool Meeting. In 1885 he was Vice-President of the Section of Surgery at the Cardiff Meeting, and President of the Section at the Swansea Meeting in 1903. He was President of the Section of Diseases of Children at the Portsmouth Meeting in 1899, and gave an address on the "Ununited Fractures in Childhood". At the Sheffield Meeting in 1908 he delivered the Popular Lecture on "Dust and Disease", in which he referred to the work of Pasteur and Lister, to trade diseases, and to the close relation of smoke and dust. It was a brilliant address, very well received. But undoubtedly his greatest service to the Association was rendered during the controversies which attended its reorganization in 1900 and the following years. As was inevitable, the proposals excited a good deal of feeling, and it was with great satisfaction that all friends of the Association heard that Edmund Owen had accepted the office of Chairman of the Constitution Committee. It was felt that he was a man whose impartial judgement and genial temperament made him well suited to compose differences, and in accepting the office he was doubtless influenced by the strong patriotic principles with which he was imbued, and his deep belief in the unity of the British Empire. He completed this part of his work for the Association by presenting the report of the Constitution Committee in a witty speech at the Cheltenham Meeting in 1901, and his presentation of its report went far to convince many members of the Association that the new constitution should have a trial. The interest he was known to take in the Overseas Branches led to Owen's election to be Chairman of the Colonial Committee appointed by the Association in 1902, and in 1907 his popularity and the high opinion held of his business capacity and devotion to the interests of the Association led to his election to be Chairman of Council, an office which he held until 1910.

After the outbreak of the European War, Owen performed thoroughly congenial duties as Surgeon-in-Chief to the St John Ambulance Brigade. He smoothed over difficulties which had for some years existed between the St John Ambulance Association and the Red Cross Society, and in the autumn of 1914, when a Joint Committee was formed with offices in Pall Mall, worked amicably with Sir Frederick Treves in the selection of the medical personnel and the organization and training of the orderlies. "Nothing is too good for our sick and wounded soldiers and sailors", he wrote to the British Medical Journal (1914, ii, 949 - "Amateur War Nurses"), and in the same letter stated that it had been made as impossible for an untrained nurse to obtain work under the British Red Cross Society as it would be for an unqualified practitioner to get his name upon the Medical Register. Doubtless Sir Frederick Treves had brought this excellent state of things about, for it was he who, in describing his experiences during the South African War, had so pointedly complained of the 'plague of women', the fashionable amateur nurses, with which the Medical Department was then afflicted. Owen added that a certain number of women from the Voluntary Aid Detachments (the 'VADs') of the two societies were being employed to help in the work of the ward, the kitchen, and store-room, and that they had been given the title not of 'nurse', or even of 'probationer', but of 'woman orderly'.

Owen had rendered eminent services at one time to the French Hospital, where as Surgeon he succeeded Sir William MacCormac in December, 1901. On the occasion of the visit of President Loubet to the hospital in 1903 he was decorated with the Cross of the Legion of Honour, and he remained warmly attached to the hospital to the end of his life.

At first he took up an attitude of opposition to Listerian antiseptic methods and poured contempt on the ritual of the spray. He even went further than this, and at one of the societies, when Lister brought forward his open operation for fractured patella, Owen, with characteristic temerity, remarked in parody of a famous saying that it might be magnificent, but was not surgery.

Owen was an incisive speaker and his store of apt illustration was remarkable. His repartees were memorable, and there was nothing anywhere quite like Owen's class in the theatre at the close of operations. By informal questions, by encouragement and sympathy, by veiled irony and gentle ridicule, by humorous invective, by instructive anecdotes of professional experiences, he seemed to draw all the students unto him, and not even the most stupid of 'chronics' was afraid to go to the class again. Then there was the transparent honesty of the man, shown not least in an impulsiveness which led him to hasty conclusions, soon to be put aside, so that he would vote to-morrow against that which he had advocated to-day. You forgave, you laughed, and loved him the more.

It was on leaving his work at the joint office of the British Red Cross and St John Ambulance Brigade that Owen, while walking down St James's Street, was seized with a stroke of paralysis, which in a few days proved fatal. He was taken to Charing Cross Hospital, where he died on Friday afternoon, July 23rd, 1915, and was cremated at Golder's Green.

He had spent many delightful holidays with his daughters at his house, Malham Tarn, near Settle in Craven, Yorkshire, where he rejoiced in his garden and in fly-fishing. He lived at 64 Great Cumberland Place, Hyde Park, for many years, but latterly at 24 Berkeley Street, Portman Square. By his marriage in 1882 with Miss Annie Laura Clayton, of Brynmally, near Wrexham, Owen had four daughters, who survived him. Mrs Owen died in 1906. There is a fine portrait of him in the Council Album.

It should be added that Owen took the greatest interest in all the activities of student life at St Mary's. He warmly supported the Athletic Club, and had in his student days been a keen cricketer and football player, being Captain of the Hospital football team. He was a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club. He was also one of the founders of Sancta Maria Lodge, No 2682, of Free and Accepted Masons, constituted within the School of St Mary's, and was appointed a Past Junior Grand Deacon of England in 1899. He wrote an interesting account of a night of terrific work at the Epsom and Ewell War Hospital, when the first patients were admitted on Oct 15th, 1914.

Introductory Address delivered to the Students of St Mary's Hospital, 1874, 8vo, London, 1874.
"On the Anatomy of Genu Valgum," 8vo, Cambridge, 1879; reprinted from the Jour Anat and Physiol, 1879, xiii, 83.
"A Case of Furneaux Jordan's Amputation at the Hip-joint, in which Bone was Re-formed in the Stump," 8vo, London, 1886; reprinted from Trans Med Soc, 1886, ix, 205.
"Rickety Deformities of the Lower Extremity: their Treatment by Operation," 8vo, London, 1888; reprinted from Practitioner, 1888, xl, 261.
The Rearing of Hand-fed Infants. With an introduction by CHARLES WEST, 8vo, London, 1884. International Health Exhibition Lecture, No 37.
The Surgical Diseases of Children, 12mo, 4 plates, London, 1885; American edition, 1885; 3rd ed, 6 plates, 1897; French translation of 2nd ed, considerably added to by O LAURANT, Paris, 1891.
A Manual of Anatomy for Senior Students, 8vo, illustrated, London, 1890. This is a record of Owen's work at St Mary's, and contains matter not then found in works on surgery.
Selected Subjects in Connection with the Surgery of Infancy and Childhood, being the Lettsomian Lectures delivered at the Medical Society of London, 1890, 8vo, London, 1890.
"Post-nasal Growths, or Adenoids," 8vo, London, 1893; reprinted from Practitioner, 1893, l, 191.
"Treatment of Severe Club Foot." - Trans Med-Chic Soc, 1893, lxxvi, 89.
"A Case of Axial Rotation of the Testis," 8vo, London, 1894; reprinted from Trans Med Soc Lond, 1894, xvii, 61.
"Acute Septic Osteitis in Children and Young People," Lectures 1 and 2, 8vo, 1895; reprinted from International Clinics, 1895.
"A Distinct Variety of Hip-joint Disease in Children and Young Persons," 8vo, London, 1899; reprinted from Trans Med-Chir Soc, 1899, lxxxii, 65.
"Cleft Palate and Hare-lip: the Earlier Operation on the Palate," 12mo, illustrated, London, 1904.
Cancer: its Treatment by Modern Methods, being the Bradshaw Lecture for 1906, 8vo, London, 1907.
John Hunter and his Museum. The Hunterian Oration delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons, 1911, Feb 14, 4to. This is the typewritten copy of the Oration presented to the Library by the Orator. It is bound by Zaehnsdorf.
"Appendicitis: a Plea for Immediate Operation," 8vo, 4 illustrations, Bristol, 1914; reprinted from Brit Med Jour, 1913, i, 321, etc.
Article on "Surgery" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Lancet, 1915, ii, 255, with excellent portrait. Brit Med Jour, 1915, ii, 200, with portrait, and 279. St Mary's Hosp Gaz, 1915, xxi, 104, with portrait, and 127. The account of a night at a war hospital appears in the Lancet, 1914, ii, 1007].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England