Biographical entry Thompson, Sir Henry, Bart (1820 - 1904)
Knight Bachelor 1867; Baronet 1899; MRCS Oct 4th 1850; FRCS Nov 10th 1853; MB Lond 1853.
- 6 August 1820
- 18 April 1904
- General surgeon, Genito-urinary surgeon and Public health reformer
Born at Framlingham, Suffolk, on Aug 6th, 1820, the only son of Henry Thompson, a tradesman who kept the village shop, by his wife Susannah, daughter of Samuel Medley (1769-1857), the artist who painted the portrait group of the founders of the Medical Society of London, and was one of the founders of University College, London.
He was educated under Mr Fison, a Nonconformist minister at Wrentham, and early engaged in mercantile pursuits, as his parents, who were uncompromising Baptists, dreaded a scientific education and disliked the idea of a profession. Coming to London he was, however, apprenticed to George Bottomley, a medical practitioner at Croydon, in January, 1844, and in October he entered University College, London, to study medicine. Here he won the gold medal in anatomy in 1849, the gold medal in surgery in 1851, and took the MB degree. From June, 1850, he acted as the first House Surgeon to John Eric Erichsen (qv), who had recently been appointed Surgeon to University College Hospital. Joseph Lister (qv) was one of his dressers, and it was partly on Thompson's advice that Lister went to Edinburgh to work under James Syme.
Thompson entered into partnership with his former master, George Bottomley, at Croydon, in January, 1851, but after a few months returned to London and began to practise surgery at 35 Wimpole Street, where he lived the rest of his life. He acted for a short time as Surgeon to the St Marylebone Infirmary, but in 1863 was elected Assistant Surgeon to University College Hospital, becoming full Surgeon in 1853, Professor of Clinical Surgery in 1866, Consulting Surgeon and Emeritus Professor of Clinical Surgery on his retirement in 1874.
Thompson determined to devote himself particularly to genito-urinary surgery and visited Paris in July, 1858, to study the subject under Jean Civiale (1792-1867), who was the first to remove a vesical calculus by lithotrity. Beginning life thus as a pupil of Civiale, Thompson adopted his methods and at first crushed stones at repeated intervals, leaving it to nature to void the fragments, until in 1866 J T Clover (qv) invented the rubber evacuator and evacuating tubes. When Henry Jacob Bigelow (1818-1890) recommended crushing at a single sitting and removal of the fragments by operative measures, Clover's apparatus came into general use. He also began to advocate the discredited operation of suprapubic cystotomy about 1886, and it has since come into general use. He was thus a pioneer in the removal of tumours from the urinary bladder.
Thompson's successful crushing operations at University College soon attracted attention, and in 1863 he operated upon Leopold I, King of the Belgians, completing the work Civiale had begun eighteen months previously. In July and December, 1872, Thompson treated Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, at Camden Place, Chislehurst. He performed the operation of lithotrity upon him under chloroform on Jan 2nd, 1873, and again on Jan 7th. A third sitting was arranged for midday on Jan 9th, but the Emperor died of uraemia at 10.45 am, an hour and a quarter before the operation was to have begun.
Thompson's attainments and interests were exceptionally versatile. He was not only pre-eminent in his own branch of surgery, but his zeal for hygiene made him a pioneer in the cause of cremation. He was also an authority on diet, a devoted student of astronomy, an excellent artist, a collector of china, and a man of letters.
He first drew attention to cremation by an article in the Contemporary Review in 1874. Experiments had then been made recently in Italy, but it was not until 1874, and chiefly by Thompson's energy, that a Cremation Society was founded in England. From that time onwards he was its President and did all in his power to promote the practice both here and on the Continent. A crematorium was built at Woking in 1879: its employment was forbidden by the Home Secretary and it was not used until March, 1885. The Government had in the meantime brought a test case against a man who had cremated his child in Wales, and Sir James Stephen decided that the practice was not illegal if no nuisance was caused. In 1902 Thompson took a leading part in the formation of a company which erected the crematorium, under the guidance of Mr Eassie, CE, at Golder's Green near Hampstead Heath, then an outskirt of London.
Astronomy occupied much of Thompson's leisure, and he built an observatory at Molesey, where he had a country house. He presented some fine instruments to the Greenwich Observatory, the last being a telescope twice the size of any previously in use. It was manufactured at Dublin by Sir Howard Grubb, and was erected in 1897.
Thompson doubtless inherited his artistic faculties from Samuel Medley, his maternal grandfather, but his original talent was fostered by study under Edward Elmore, RA, and Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, RA. He exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, 1870, annually from 1872-1878, and again in 1881, 1883, and 1885. Two of his pictures were afterwards shown in the Paris Salon, and to this exhibition he contributed a landscape in 1891. He was also an eminent collector of china and acquired many fine specimens of old white and blue Nankin. A catalogue illustrated by the owner and James McNeill Whistler was issued in 1878, and the collection was sold at Christie's on June 1st, 1880.
Besides numerous articles in magazines Thompson wrote two novels under the name of 'Pen Oliver'. Charlie Kingston's Aunt, published in 1885, presents the life of some fifty years earlier. All But, a Chronicle of Laxenford (1886) is illustrated by twenty full-page drawings by the author, in one of which he portrayed himself as he was in 1885.
Cultured society had great attractions for Thompson. As a host he was famous for his 'octaves', which were dinners of eight courses for eight people at eight o'clock. They were commenced in 1872, and the last, which was the 301st, was given shortly before his death. The guests were as carefully chosen as the food, and for a quarter of a century the most famous persons in the worlds of art, letters, science, politics, diplomacy, and fashion met at his table in Wimpole Street. King Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, dined there once, and his son, King George V, when Prince of Wales, attended Thompson's 300th octave. There is a portrait group of one of the octaves in the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, No 116, with the original studies by W J Solomon, RA.
Thompson received the honour of knight bachelor in 1867 and was created a baronet on Feb 20th, 1899.
He married on Dec 16th, 1861, Kate Fanny, daughter of George Loder, of Bath. Lady Thompson was well known as a pianist. She was paralysed for some years, but survived her husband, dying on Aug 30th, 1904, leaving a son, Henry Francis Herbert, and two daughters.
Sir Henry Thompson died at 35 Wimpole Street, W, on April 18th, 1904, and was cremated at Golder's Green.
A three-quarter-length portrait painted by Sir J E Millais, RA, in 1881 hangs in the Tate Gallery. There is a bust by F W Pomeroy, RA, in the Crematorium at Golder's Green. A cartoon portrait by Ape in Vanity Fair (1874) is subscribed 'Cremation'. There are numerous photographs in the College Collection, and an excellent one in University College, Gower Street.
The Pathology and Treatment of Stricture of the Urethra both in the Male and Female, 8vo, London, 1854; 4th ed, London and Philadelphia, 1885. Translated into German, München, 1888.
The Enlarged Prostate, its Pathology and Treatment, 8vo, London, 1858; 6th ed, London and Philadelphia, 1886. Translated into German, Erlangen, 1867.
Practical Lithotomy and Lithotrity, 8vo, London, 1868; 3rd ed, 1880. Translated into German, Kassel and Berlin, 1882.
Clinical Lectures on Diseases of the Urinary Organs, 8vo, London, 1868; 8th ed, 1888. Translated into French, 1874, and again in 1889. Translated into German, Berlin, 1877.
On Tumours of the Bladder, 1884.
Lectures on some Important Points connected with the Surgery of the Urinary Organs, 8vo, London, 1884.
On the Suprapubic Operation of Opening the Bladder for the Stone and for Tumours, 8vo, London, 1886.
Traité pratique des Maladies des Voies urinaires, a collected edition of Thompson's surgical works, was published in Paris in 1880.
Cremation, 16mo, London, 1874; 4th ed, 1901.
Modern Cremation, its History and Practice, 12mo, London, 1889; 4th ed, 1901. Thompson was also part-author of the article on cremation in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (9th ed).
Food and Feeding, 8vo, London, 1880; 12th ed, enlarged, 1910.
Diet in Relation to Age and Activity, 1886; 4th ed, 1903; revised edition, 1910.
Sources used to compile this entry: [Lancet, 1904, i, 1163, with a good portrait, and 1445. Brit Med Jour, 1904, i, 991, with portrait. The Times, 1873, Jan 10, p 6, a. Dict Nat Biog, sub nomine et auct ibi cit. Lancet, 1913, i, 824, with eulogy of J T Clover [qv]. Additional information kindly given by G Buckston Browne, FRCS].
The Royal College of Surgeons of England
Created: 5 December 2012