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Biographical entry Vernon, Bowater John (1837 - 1901)

MRCS April 22nd 1862; FRCS June 9th 1864; LRCP Lond 1862.

23 October 1837
28 January 1901
Ophthalmic surgeon


Born on Oct 23rd, 1837, the second son, in a family of nine, of the Rev Henry Mark Vernon, who was for forty-four years Vicar of Westfield, near Battle, Sussex.

He was educated at Marlborough College from 1847-1856, where he had a good reputation as a scholar and fine athlete. In 1856 he became a pupil of Frederic William Jowers (qv) at the Brighton Hospital. Three years later he entered as a student at St Bartholomew's Hospital, where, after another three years, he was appointed House Surgeon for a year (1862) to Thomas Wormald (qv), and in 1863 was House Surgeon to James Paget (qv). He won the Hospital Scholarship in 1862. He was now so good an anatomist and clean and excellent a dissector that he was chosen Prosector at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1862, was elected Demonstrator of Anatomy at St Bartholomew's Hospital in 1864, and held the post for some years. His student career had been distinguished and he now directed his attention to eye work. He attended the practice of the Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital and soon became Clinical Assistant to John Cawood Wordsworth (qv), and, after the retirement of Charles Bader, Curator of the Museum and Pathologist to the institution.

These posts brought him into immediate relations with the best and most skilful ophthalmic surgeons of that day - Sir William Bowman, George Critchett (qv), J W Hulke (qv), and others of equal renown, from whom he learnt many niceties in the delicate art he practised, and became an excellent judge and critic of the operative abilities of others. Whilst admiring - as all did who witnessed them - the operations of Sir William Bowman, he highly appreciated the manipulative dexterity of Hulke, whose hand, he would say, "though large was as steady as a rock".

Vernon became an adept in the use of the ophthalmoscope not long after it had been devised by Helmholtz and had begun to attract great attention. He also witnessed new operations (such as iridectomy, the linear operation for the extraction of cataract, and various operations for the relief of lachrymal obstruction) as they were performed by master hands. It was not surprising, then, when the need for someone specially skilled in the knowledge of diseases of, and operations on, the eye began to be felt in the medical school of St Bartholomew's Hospital, that Vernon should be elected as Demonstrator of Eye Diseases in association with George Callender (qv) in 1867. The importance of the department was immediately perceived, and the Governors determined to build two eye wards, one for males and one for females, over 'Casualty' Ward. These were completed in July, 1870, and opened by the then Prince and Princess of Wales in the summer of that year. Henry Power (qv) and Vernon were appointed respectively Senior and Junior Surgeon, with twenty-six beds and a child's cot to be divided between them. The arrangement proved a fortunate one. The two surgeons worked together in the most amicable way, sometimes one, sometimes the other monopolizing the wards, whilst in cases of emergency a bed could still always be found - through the address of Miss Davies, 'Sister Eyes', to whose kindly offices, untiring assiduity, and admirable management of the wards both were always willing to admit they were deeply indebted.

The Ophthalmological Society was founded in 1880, and Vernon was an original member, but attended very few meetings, as late hours were uncongenial to him. He was for twenty-seven years Ophthalmic Surgeon to the West London Hospital, in the affairs of which he was much interested, and was Ophthalmic Surgeon on the Staff of the Great Northern Hospital.

As an ophthalmic surgeon, and as a clinical teacher, he was in all respects admirable. Constant in attendance, he rarely kept his class waiting for a moment. Considerations of light led, as a rule, to the operations which had been decided on previously being undertaken early in the afternoon. As soon as the patient had been wheeled into the operating theatre, and whilst chloroform was being administered, he would give a short history of the case, call the attention of the class to the salient points which it presented, state the different methods of treatment that had or might have been adopted, and gave the reasons for the particular operation he was about to perform; next, after a careful examination of his instruments and satisfying himself of their sharpness and cleanliness, he proceeded to operate. He was then seen at his best. Clearly recognizing what had to be done in each case, every cut was accurately limited, every closure of the scissors did what was required and no more. He was a beautiful operator, and this was the more meritorious because his wrists were often swollen with rheumatism and were tender and painful. For the most part his cases were highly successful. His talents as a teacher were not less conspicuous. As soon as the operations were over he entered the wards which adjoined the operating-room, and in each case would find something important to dwell upon, some useful bit of knowledge the thoughtful student might carry away with him. Finally, the out-patients had to be seen, which often occupied two hours more, yet at the close he was as calm and deliberate, as willing to answer questions, as if he had just entered the hospital. He was an ideal teacher. Gifted with humour and often caustic, he only visited with satire the best men in his class and let off the dull ones. He loved to be posed in discussions on the theory and practice of his art, and to his students he was magnetic.

Bowater Vernon was a master of the technique of the microscope, though his talents here were scarcely appreciated. He loved flowers, birds, and beasts, and was a keen sportsman, a day's shooting in September being his chief delight. His canaries were famous.

His death was unexpected. He had seen his patients at St Bartholomew's on Saturday, Jan 19th, 1901, was seized with some kind of cardiac spasm on the 20th, and died on the 28th. He was buried in the churchyard of Westfield, Sussex, close to the west door. A tablet to his memory was placed on the west wall of the Church of St Bartholomew-the-Less, which is within the gates of the Hospital.

"His body was committed to the grave", says Henry Power, "on the 1st February, when the guns of the warships in the Solent were proclaiming the passage of the Queen, to whom he was so intensely loyal, to her resting place at Windsor.

"He, too, has gone to his rest; and he may well have thought, in the solemn moments that precede dissolution, that he had worked honestly and truly to the best of his ability for the good of the great Hospital to which he belonged, and that he bequeathed to those who succeed him a shining example of that gentleness, courtesy, and rectitude of purpose in his relations alike with his friends upon the staff and with the patients of the Hospital, which has in the past, as we may well hope it may continue to do in the future, made St Bartholomew's so useful and so great an institution in the history of the country."

He was not tall; the head was well set on the shoulders, the complexion dark, with deep lines on the face and below the lower lip, an expressive mouth, a fine forehead, almost black hair. He gave the impression of being a delicate man, but was really strongly built, and at Marlborough had been a good cricketer. He wrote very little, as his teaching took up so much of his energy, and this is to be regretted, for he had a wide experience of cases and was well read and wrote well.

His London address was 14 Clarges Street, W. At the time of his death, among other offices, he was Senior Ophthalmic Surgeon and Lecturer on Ophthalmic Medicine and Surgery at St Bartholomew's. He married, but had no children. His younger brother, Mark, practised at Horsham.

"Congenital Myopia." - St Bart's Hosp Rep, 1866, ii, 93.
"Herpes Ophthalmicus." - Ibid, 1868, iv, 121.
"Tubercle of the Eye." - Ibid, 1871, vii, 181.
"Reports on Ophthalmology." - London Med Record, 1873 onwards.

Sources used to compile this entry: [St Bart's Hosp Jour, 1901, viii, 65, with a full-plate portrait with autograph; it is a fair likeness. Norman Moore's History of St Bartholomew's Hospital, ii, 740. St Bart's Hosp Rep, 1901, xxxvii, 1. Personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England