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Biographical entry Stephens, Edward (1804 - 1863)

MRCS Feb 10th 1826; FRCS Aug 14th 1845; LSA 1825; MD Leyden 1827; CD Berlin 1828.

14 September 1863
General surgeon


Born at Manchester; went to Clarke's School and the Manchester Grammar School, and was then apprenticed to his uncle, Joseph Jordan, Surgeon to the Manchester Royal Infirmary and founder of the Mount Street School of Anatomy. Here Stephens laid the foundation of his extensive knowledge of anatomy. In 1824 he was a student at Joshua Brooks's School of Anatomy in London, where he afterwards served as an Assistant Demonstrator of Anatomy, his demonstrations on the brain proving especially attractive. He was a voluminous note-keeper, and in the Library of the Manchester Medical Society are preserved two volumes in manuscript taken down from Sir Benjamin Brodie's lectures as they were delivered in 1824-1825. After qualifying, Stephens proceeded to Paris, then to Leyden, where in 1827 he took the MD with the thesis, "Dissertatio de Amaurosa functionale". The letter to his uncle, Jordan, describes the ceremonious character still prevailing there, and of the viva voce examination in Latin. He next went on to Berlin and obtained the degree of Doctor of Surgery, conferred for the first time upon an Englishman.

He then returned to Manchester, and was appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy in the Mount Street School until Jordan retired and the School was broken up. From 1830 Stephens was Surgeon to the Manchester and Salford Lying-in Hospital. Addressing the British Medical Association at Manchester in 1902, Lloyd Roberts said in eulogy of Stephens that he was one of the most dexterous men in the use of forceps, and in all midwifery operations. He had an extensive knowledge of gynaecology, especially of the diagnosis of abdominal and pelvic tumours. In 1832 he attended the patients at Knott Mill, the Jordan Street Hospital, as Cholera Medical Officer in the Manchester cholera epidemic. Stephens would go at 8.30 am, see the patients, and on his second visit at 11.30 would perhaps find the wards nearly empty, most of the patients having died in the interval. The sadness of it all affected him so that he was taken ill himself, for he had a very sensitive disposition.

In 1834 he was appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy at the Pine Street School, as well as Lecturer on Pathology and Morbid Anatomy. In one of the cadavers he found an obliterated aorta which was placed in the Owens College Museum. Another specimen preserved was that of the tanned skin of the neck bearing the mark of the rope with which the subject had been hanged, together with the trachea and oesophagus.

For a time he was Surgeon to the Zoological Gardens in Higher Broughton, which were later abolished as a nuisance to the neighbourhood. He worked there as anatomist, and amongst other things opened an abscess in a lion's mouth by tying his knife to the end of a long stick, the animal being bound down by ropes.

A dissection wound at the Pine Street School caused a dangerous fever lasting twenty-five weeks; five large abscesses were laid open, and he only recovered in a shattered state of health. In 1845 he gave the Introductory Address at the Pine Street School, which was described as "full of learning and of the fruits of practical observation, and illustrating doctrines which are applicable to the present day". His chief surgical work was at the Manchester Union Hospital, a post he held at the time of his death.

Stephens was always ready as a substitute lecturer to replace Heath on midwifery and the diseases of women and children, or Howard's course on the practice of medicine. As a scientific observer he was the most highly qualified of all his colleagues. He took notes of the temperature of patients long before much was published about the use of the clinical thermometer, his attention having been directed to the great heat exhibited by one of his patients. In 1835 he was Surgeon to the Manchester and Salford Hospital for Diseases of the Skin, but the institution soon ceased to exist.

Stephens was of middle height, slight in figure, and in later years his frame became extremely attenuated. His whole life was a continued struggle against ill health, which would have absorbed all the attention of some men and have unfitted their minds for study. His ill health, in addition to the results of the dissecting wound already noted, may have been the effect of his insanitary house. He practised at 68 Bridge Street. His name appeared on the door in succession to that of Blunstone in 1829. The house was practically one with Jordan's; there was but one yard, and the library formed the connecting-link. The top story of the two houses was occupied by the dissecting-room and museum. The sanitary arrangements in these premises in 1868, in common with those of many of the houses in the city, can only be described as terrible. There were no baths; washing arrangements were very indifferent because all water had to be carried up from the cellar kitchen; windows would not open - the dispensary had two windows, one of which, a small one, could be opened half-way - and for fresh air there were emanations from a large ashpit which was immediately underneath. There was one small privy for the use of the two houses, no water closet, and next to the back door there was a large slaughter-house.

Under such disadvantages Stephens continued patiently at work, always a student, until at length he succumbed on the day he completed his fifty-eighth year, Sept 14th, 1863. The letter mentioned above, addressed to Mr Jordan, 4 Bridge Street, is interesting:-

"Dear Uncle,
"I have undergone a very strict and very severe examination this morning by Professor Sandifort in private. I can assure you it does them honour; they give a very strict, a very proper examination. Not a word was spoken in any language but Latin, and it lasted from eleven to one precisely. I did not expect so much as this, but I can assure you it is no joke passing at Leyden. I have three other public examinations to undergo, and to defend my Thesis in Latin for an hour in the Grand Hall of the University, where I shall be obliged to mount the rostrum, dressed in a black suit, black silk stockings, and a sword by my side.
"The day before the Thesis is defended it is the custom for the student to ride up and down the town with his two Paranymphs, as they are called, and leave a dissertation with each of the Professors. But I shall endeavour to avoid this if possible, being a stranger, but Paranymphs one is obliged to have; they are young men who are to support you in defending the Thesis, all of which is conducted in Latin. After this, against the following morning, you have to prepare some anatomical dissection, such as the radial nerve and its branches. I am not afraid, I can assure you. I had no trouble with my examination with Professor Sandifort, although it was a very severe one for one who had not studied as he ought to have done.
"After the whole is finished it is the custom to give the Paranymphs and other friends a dinner or coffee. If I am successful I shall do the latter. I shall do everything as cheap as possible.
"If you have not already put the letter in the post I shall be very glad if you would send me forty pounds instead of thirty.
"I am, dear Uncle,
"Your affectionate Nephew,
"The Professor said when he had finished the examination that if I answered as well at the public examination as I had done to him he had no doubt of my success.
"Lest there should be any mistake with regard to where I lodge I will again insert.
"At L C Smits, le logement nommé l'Hotel de Ville d'Amsterdam près de la Porte Blanche, Post mark is:- "à Leiden, Holland."

Sources used to compile this entry: [Life of Dr Edward Stephens, published as part of the Life of Joseph Jordan by Dr F W Jordan, 8vo, London, 1904. The work includes a portrait of Stephens. Lancet, 1863, ii, 638. Brit Med Jour, 1902, ii, 381].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England