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Biographical entry Wardrop, James (1782 - 1869)

MRCS March 8th 1814; FRCS Dec 11th 1843 one of the original 300 Fellows; FRCS Edin June 19th 1804; MD St Andrews 1834.

14 August 1782
13 February 1869
General surgeon and Ophthalmic surgeon


The youngest child of James Wardrop (1738-1830) by his wife Marjory, daughter of Andrew Marjoribanks of Marjoribanks. He was born on Aug 14th, 1782, at Torbane Hall, a small property owned by his forefathers for many generations. It adjoined the parish celebrated as the birthplace of the Hunters and Baillies, and was close to Bathgate, where Sir James Y Simpson was afterwards born.

Wardrop was sent to the Edinburgh High School a few weeks after his seventh birthday, and in 1797 was apprenticed to his uncle, Andrew Wardrop, a surgeon of some eminence in Edinburgh. He assisted John Barclay (1758-1826) the anatomist, and was appointed House Surgeon to the Edinburgh Infirmary at the age of 19. He came to London in 1801, attended the lectures of Abernethy, Cline, and Cooper, and followed the practice of the United Borough Hospitals and at St George's. He proceeded to Paris, and on May 6th, 1803, evaded the police when English residents in France were treated as prisoners-of-war and escaped to Vienna, where Beer's teaching first interested him in ophthalmic surgery.

He returned to Edinburgh in 1804 and began to practise surgery, devoting himself more especially to the pathology and diseases of the eye; but, finding there was no immediate opening, he set out for London on April 18th, 1808, first taking rooms in York Street and shortly afterwards renting No 9 Charles Street, St James's Square, where he lived till his death.

He was admitted a Member of the College of Surgeons of England on March 8th, 1814, with only a formal examination, the Master, Sir Everard Home, saying that his published works were quite sufficient to entitle him to the diploma.

In September, 1818, Wardrop was appointed Surgeon Extraordinary to the Prince Regent, and in 1823, when His Majesty visited Scotland as King George IV, Wardrop attended him on the journey. He was made Surgeon in Ordinary to the King in 1828 on the elevation of Sir Astley Cooper to the post of Serjeant Surgeon, and declined a baronetcy shortly afterwards.

Wardrop, siding with William Lawrence (qv) on the question of medical reform in 1826-1827 and being an active supporter of the liberal policy advocated by Thomas Wakley in the Lancet, incurred the displeasure of the leading members of the profession, and during the fatal illness of George IV he was not summoned to attend him. Wardrop took the matter to heart, and revenged himself in the Lancet by publishing a series of "Intercepted Letters". They purported to contain confidential details of passing events communicated by Sir Henry Halford, Sir Benjamin Collins Brodie, and William MacMichael, Librarian of the Royal College of Physicians. They were scurrilous, well written, and amusing. The secret of authorship was well kept, but when it leaked out Wardrop lost most of his practice and became an Ishmaelite. He had also quarrelled with Robert Liston (qv).

Earlier in life Wardrop had practised for many years among the poor by giving advice chiefly at his own house; in 1826, in conjunction with William Willocks Sleigh, the father of Serjeant Sleigh, he founded a hospital in Nutford Place, Edgware Road, called the West London Hospital of Surgery. It was not only a charitable institution, but members of the medical profession might attend the practice without payment. A concours was held one day a week, at which important operations were done and discussion took place as to the particular method adopted in each case. The hospital was carried on at a considerable cost, which was mainly defrayed by Wardrop, who reluctantly closed it at the end of ten years. In 1826, in conjunction with William Lawrence, he lectured on surgery at the Aldersgate School of Medicine, and when Lawrence transferred himself to St Bartholomew's Hospital, Wardrop for a few sessions gave the lectures alone. He joined the Hunterian or Great Windmill Street School of Medicine as a Lecturer on Surgery about 1835.

He married in 1813 Margaret, daughter of Colonel George Dalrymple, a lineal descendant of the Earl of Stair, by whom he had four sons and a daughter. He died at his house in Charles Street, St James's Square, on Feb 13th, 1869.

A half-length portrait in oils by Geddes was in the possession of his daughter, Mrs Shirley. It was engraved by J Thomson, and a copy of the engraving is prefixed to Pettigrew's account of Wardrop in the Medical Portrait Gallery. There is also a lithograph in the Young collection at the College. The likeness is said to be 'poor'. A three-quarter-length in oils by Robert Frain, painted much later in life than the previous one, was in the possession of his son, Hew D H Wardrop.

James Wardrop possessed great abilities and was an original thinker and actor. He was the first surgeon in England to remove a tumour of the lower jaw by excising a portion, and this places him high in the list of contemporary operating surgeons at a particularly brilliant period of English operative surgery. His modification of Brasdor's operation by his original distal ligature for the case of aneurysm long made his name familiar to surgeons. As a lecturer he was somewhat tame and discursive, and like Robert Liston he was not a good teacher. He was accurate in diagnosis, and though he did not love to operate, he knew when an operation should be performed. In person he was tall and thin; he walked quickly and dressed in an old-fashioned way, wearing a spencer when the weather was cold with "a little bit of an apology" for a cape over it. In repose his features had a half-melancholy, half-grotesque expression, but they were deficient in intellectual power, and one of his eyes, which were large, was a 'wall eye'. He had considerable social gifts, was an assiduous collector of gossip, and told stories and anecdotes well, but in language so coarse that he often shocked his hearers even in Regency times. He is described as being original, suggestive, and rapid in thought, but crotchety, obstinate, and slow to acknowledge an error.

On Aneurism and its Cure by a New Operation, 8vo, London, 1828; new ed, 1835 translated into German, Weimar, 1829. This is the work upon which the reputation of Wardrop as a surgeon mainly rests. It brought into practical use a modification of Brasdor's operation for the cure of aneurysm by distal ligature of the affected vessel - that is to say, by tying it on the side of the swelling farthest from the heart.
Observations on Fungus Haematodes, 8vo, Edinburgh, 1809; translated into German, Leipzig, 1817; into Dutch, Amsterdam, 1819.
Essays on the Morbid Anatomy of the Human Eye, 2 vols., 8vo, Edinburgh, 1808-18; 2nd ed, London, 1810-20; another edition, also called the second, was issued in 2 vols, London, 1834.
An Essay on Diseases of the Eye of the Horse and on their Treatment, 8vo, London, 1819.
On Blood-letting, 12mo, London, 1835; issued in Philadelphia, 1857, 8vo; translated into German, Leipzig, 1840; into Italian, Pisa, 1839. This was originally part of his controversy with Robert Liston.
On the Nature and Treatment of Diseases of the Heart, London, 1837. Part I only appeared at this time. The whole work was published in 1851, 8vo, London, and a new edition at Edinburgh in 1859.
The most interesting amongst his minor contributions are:-
History of James Mitchell, a Boy Born Deaf and Blind, with an Account of the Operation Performed for the Recovery of his Sight, London, 1814.
Case of a Lady Born Blind who Received Sight at an Advanced Age, London, 1826. Wardrop also edited the works of Matthew Baillie and prefixed a biographical sketch, 2 vols, 8vo, London, 1825.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Pettigrew's Medical Portrait Gallery, ii, with autographed portrait. J F Clarke's Autobiographical Recollections of the Medical Profession, 1874, 336. Dict Nat Biog, sub nomine et auct ibi cit].

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