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Biographical entry Willett, Alfred (1837 - 1913)

MRCS July 15th 1859; FRCS June 13th 1862.

3 January 1837
20 June 1913
Turner's Hill, Sussex
General surgeon and Orthopaedic surgeon


Born on Jan 3rd, 1837, the second son of William Catt, of West House, Portland Place, Brighton, who was well known in business circles in Brighton, his mother being Elizabeth, the fourth daughter of William Verrall, of Southover, Lewes; both came of old Sussex families. William Catt, by royal licence and under the terms of his sister's will, took the name of Willett in 1863, and Alfred Catt became from that time Alfred Willett.

Alfred Catt, or Willett, was educated at Tonbridge School under the headmastership of the Rev Edward Welldon, father of Bishop Welldon, entering Judde's House at Christmas Term, 1847, and leaving in 1848. Thomas Smith (qv) was a schoolfellow. He studied for a time at King's College, London, and was offered an appointment in a bank with the promise of a lucrative commercial career. Preferring the medical profession, he was articled to George Lowden, who practised in Brighton, and became a pupil at the Sussex County Hospital, where he remained for three years and often took charge in the absence of the House Surgeon. He showed himself at this period a good athlete and was especially proficient at single-stick, swimming, and fives.

He entered St Bartholomew's Hospital in October, 1857, was House Surgeon to Eusebius Arthur Lloyd (qv) in 1860; was appointed Surgical Registrar in 1863; Warden of the College, where he succeeded Dr James Andrew, in 1865-1867; Assistant Surgeon, Sept 12th, 1865; Assistant Surgeon in charge of the Orthopaedic Department, 1867-1880; Surgeon, Nov 26th, 1879; Lecturer on Surgery jointly with Howard Marsh (qv), 1889-1895; and Consulting Surgeon in 1901.

At the Royal College of Surgeons Willett served as a Member of the Council from 1887-1903; was Bradshaw Lecturer in 1897, when he took as his subject "The Correction of Certain Deformities by Operative Measures upon Bones"; and Vice-President in 1894 and 1897. He steadfastly declined to be put in nomination for the Presidency, partly because he was no orator, and partly because he was not in complete harmony with the majority of the Council on the question of the right of the Members to the franchise.

He held many important appointments where his honesty of purpose and business capacity were of the greatest value. He was President of the Royal Medico-Chirurgical Society in 1902; Surgeon to St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics; to Queen Charlotte's Lying-in Hospital; to the Evelina Hospital for Children; to the Sea-Bathing Hospital at Margate; and to the Metropolitan Convalescent Institution. He was also a Member of Council and of the Distribution Committee of King Edward's Hospital Fund and of the Hospital Sunday Fund.

He married in 1867 Rose E Burrows, only daughter of Sir George Burrows, MD, FRS, and a granddaughter, through her mother, of John Abernethy, by whom he had five sons and two daughters. One son, John Abernethy Willett, MD Oxon, was Surgeon to the Samaritan Free Hospital.

He died on June 20th, 1918, at Wyndham Croft, Turner's Hill, Sussex, where he had lived for some years in retirement.

A bust was executed by Hope Pinker for his forty-four house surgeons when he retired from the active staff of the Hospital in 1901. A photograph of it appears as a full-page illustration in the St Bartholomew's Hospital Journal (1913, xx, facing page 181). A silver medal was prepared from the bust by Mr Boucher; it is known as 'The Willett Medal' and is given annually to him who gains the highest marks in operative surgery at the Brackenbury Surgical Examination at St Bartholomew's Hospital. Both are fair but not striking likenesses.

Willett had a sound, practical business mind, and the medical school of St Bartholomew's owes much to the services he rendered it whilst acting as its Treasurer from 1897-1901. He found the finances of the school in a state of great confusion, but within a year he was able to produce such a balance sheet as would have done credit to any business. He was perfectly upright and totally free from any feeling of envy or hatred. For this reason he was usually chosen by his colleagues to settle any difference between them or to communicate any particularly distasteful piece of information. He was chiefly instrumental in securing the appointment of a fifth Physician and a fifth Surgeon at the Hospital, and his business acumen was shown by the satisfactory terms on which he secured, in conjunction with William Bruce Clarke (qv) and Sir Anthony Bowlby (qv), the land at Winchmore Hill for the purposes of a Students' Club and Recreation Ground.

As a man Willett was conspicuous for his good looks. He stood over six feet in height, held himself well, was straight-limbed and strongly built, dark and with an attractive manner, quite self-reliant, but always kindly and considerate. He was for the most part silent, for he had difficulty in expressing himself in words.

As a surgeon he was a fine example of the transitional period through which he lived. Trained in the most advanced surgical methods of the old school, he studied Lister's methods with an open mind and endeavoured to follow them, in spite of the depreciation of these methods by his colleagues, so far as could be done without personal observation. In the early eighties the only systematic abdominal operations done in the Hospital Willett carried out in co-operation with Dr Matthews Duncan. In operating he was slow but very thorough. His long experience as Surgeon to the Orthopaedic Department led him to be especially interested in the treatment of deformities, and in this he exercised infinite patience and obtained correspondingly good results. His cousin was Edgar William Willett (qv).

Except for a few scattered papers Willett wrote nothing.

Sources used to compile this entry: [St Bart's Hosp Jour, 1913, xx, 181, with full-page illustration of Pinker's bust. St Bart's Hosp Rep, 1913, xlix, 1. Norman Moore's History of St Bartholomew's Hospital, ii, 685. Personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England