Browse Fellows


www Lives

Biographical entry Gask, George Ernest (1875 - 1951)

CMG 1919; DSO 1917; MRCS 2 August 1898; FRCS 20 June 1901; LRCP 1898; Hon Oxford 1940; Hon FACS 1918; JP Co Buckingham; Officer, Legion of Honour 1937.

1 August 1875
16 January 1951
General surgeon


Born on 1 August 1875, the fourth and youngest son of Henry and Elizabeth Gask, he was educated at Dulwich College. He studied at Lausanne, Freiburg, and Baden before entering St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College in 1893. He qualified in 1898, and was appointed house surgeon to John Langton. He held the usual posts of demonstrator of pathology and surgical registrar, and in 1907 was elected assistant surgeon under D'Arcy Power. By 1914 he was recognized as an excellent consultant and teacher, and well-known as an expert mountaineer and alpinist. He was particularly interested in the surgery of the chest, at that time a new specialty. The outbreak of war in August 1914 found him ready and equipped to play a distinguished part in the RAMC. He went to France in 1916, was four times mentioned in despatches, and won the DSO in 1917. He was appointed consulting surgeon to the Fourth Army in 1918, and was created CMG in 1919 for his services. He was active throughout in securing the most up-to-date surgical treatment for wounds of the chest and lungs. The West London Medico-Chirurgical Society awarded him its gold medal for his part in this work.

Gask was not only an extremely able surgeon and a man of imperturbable character, he was moved by a deep sense of mission to improve the education of younger surgeons. Though silent and reserved, he exerted considerable personal magnetism and evoked warm affection in those who knew him well. He was withal a shrewd judge of men, and determined and unhurrying in the pursuit of any goal that he set before himself. Before and during the war he prepared the way for the introduction of whole-time professorial units in the teaching hospitals, and when he was appointed the first professor of surgery in the University of London in 1919, he was ready at once to start his unit at St Bartholomew's. He was bold enough to bring (Sir) Thomas Dunhill from Melbourne as his deputy, and had as his assistants Geoffrey Keynes and R Ogier Ward. This brilliant team established the success of Gask's innovation beyond criticism. Gask served as professor till 1935, when he retired at the age of sixty and was succeeded by (Sir) James Paterson Ross. Gask instituted the exchange of duties with leading surgeons from outside his hospital, thus bringing to St Bartholomew's among others Harvey Cushing, Moynihan, (Sir) David Wilkie, G Grey Turner, and (Sir) Max Page, all Fellows of this College. He usually walked to the Hospital from his house at 4 York Gate, Regent's Park, nearly 3 miles away, arriving at 9 am.

During the period of his professorship Gask took an active part in professional activities. He was an original member of the Radium Trust, and served on the Medical Research Council 1937-41; he was one of the originators of the project for a Postgraduate Medical School in London, which he hoped to see established at one of the old undergraduate teaching hospitals, whose great traditions might thus be carried on at a new level. When the British Postgraduate Medical School was set up at the London County Council's Hammersmith Hospital he gave himself wholeheartedly to its service, as perhaps the most active member of its governing body. He took a leading part in the conduct of the British Journal of Surgery, attracting a wider membership to the general committee as the original founders gave up the work, and he himself succeeded Moynihan as chairman of the editorial committee and maintained the very high standard which the Journal had won. He examined in surgery for the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, London, and Bristol. At the College he was a member of Council 1923-39 and vice-president 1933-34, being elected in March 1933 after the sudden death of Sir Percy Sargent. He gave a Hunterian lecture in 1930, and the Vicary lecture the same year; he was Bradshaw lecturer in 1932, and gave a special Hunterian lecture in 1937, describing the lately discovered papers of John Hunter's army service in Portugal in 1762-63. He was president of the Medical Society of London in 1935. With all this busy practice and administrative work Gask found time for much writing both professional and historical. With W G Spencer he issued a revision of Walsham's Practice of surgery in 1910, which was long a popular textbook, and with J Paterson Ross he published a pioneer study of the Surgery of the sympathetic nervous system in 1937. His historical writings were reprinted in a volume which his numerous friends and admirers gave him on his seventy-fifth birthday in 1950.

Gask retired completely from all this activity in 1935 at the age of 60, settled in the country, and devoted himself to gardening. He served as a magistrate and on the rural district council. If he had not returned to full activity during the second world war, which broke out four years later, it might have been asked how a man of such great abilities, personal eminence, and successful achievement failed to win the very foremost position in his profession. Gask's very qualities were his only drawback he was ambitious not for himself but for his ideas, he was without guile and without a sense of rivalry. His calm and happy nature had the infinite patience of genius, but not its driving impetus.

Immediately war broke out in September 1939, Gask was invited act temporarily as a surgeon at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, and a took part in the work of the rapidly expanding Oxford medical school. He was made a member of the high table at Christ Church, where his scholarly and friendly nature was warmly appreciated, and he admitted MA by decree of the University. He had been elected emeritus professor of surgery in the University of London when he retired in 1935 and consulting surgeon and a governor of St Bartholomew's. As the war went on he added to his duties at Oxford, becoming adviser in surgery for the region (Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire) under the Ministry of Health's Emergency Medical Service, and also working for the Nuffield Provincial Hospitals Trust and for the Bucks and Oxon region hospitals Council.

Gask married in 1913 Ada Alexandra, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Crombie, CB MD of the Indian Medical Service. He died on 16 January 1951, aged 75, at his home Hatchmans, Hambleden Henley-on-Thames, survived by his wife and their son, Dr John Gask. He had suffered for some months from coronary thrombosis. The funeral at Hambleden was conducted by the Dean of Christ Church, and the memorial service was held at St Bartholomew-the-Less on 1 February. He left £1,000 to St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College.

Gask practised a technique of extreme gentleness in the handling of tissues, at a time when the importance of this was barely appreciated, and later developed and taught the "no-touch" technique, the tissues being moved entirely by forceps. He was never ruffled even in the most trying circumstances, and an unexpected crisis made him pause for reflection rather than rush ahead. He believed in learning from the work of other surgeons, was an early member of Moynihan's Chirurgical Club for visiting surgical clinics in Britain, and for many years organized the very successful European tours of the Surgical Pilgrims. Earlier he had been a regular visitor to Switzerland for climbing and was honorary secretary of the Alpine Club. Many foreign honours came to him: he was an honorary Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, of the Académie de Chirurgie in Paris and the Société chirurgicale at Lyons, and a corresponding member of the Roman Academy of Surgery. He was decorated with the Legion of Honour (Officier) in 1937. The British Journal of Surgery for July 1950 (vol 38, no 149) was dedicated to him in honour of his seventy-fifth birthday. It contains a good photograph and an unsigned appreciation by Geoffrey Keynes. Gask was a man of splendid physique and fine appearance.

Principal publications:-

The practice of surgery. 10th edition of W J Walsham's Surgery, its theory and practice, by W G Spencer and G E Gask, London, 1910; 11th edition, Surgery, a textbook, by Gask and H. W Wilson, 1920.
Methods of treating wounds of the chest, Lettsomian Lectures. Trans Med Soc Lond 1921, 44, 161.
A contribution to the study of the treatment of epithelioma of the tongue by radium. Hunterian lecture, Royal College of Surgeons. Lancet, 1930, 1, 223.
Vicary's predecessors. Thomas Vicary lecture, RCS 1930. Brit J Surg 1931, 18, 479-500.
Experiences of the surgery of the sympathetic nervous system. Bradshaw lecture, RCS 1932. Brit J Surg 1933, 21, 113-130.
Surgery of the sympathetic nervous system, with J Paterson Ross. London, Bailliere, 1937. A German translation of this book was published.
Clean wounds, ancient and modem. Annual oration 1934. Trans Med Soc Lond 1934, 57, 270.
Changing surgery. Presidential address 1935. Trans Med Soc London, 1936, 59, 1.
John Hunter in the campaign in Portugal 1762-63. Special Hunterian lecture, RCS Brit J Surg 1937, 24, 640-668.
Essays in the History of Medicine. London, Butterworth 1950, with portrait photographs of Gask. This volume was prepared by a group of his friends, published by subscription, and presented to him at a small gathering in his sick-room on his seventy-fifth birthday, 1 August 1950.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 18 January 1951, p 8d, 22 January, p 8b funeral, and 2 February, p 8b, memorial service and 11 July 1951, will; Brit med J 1951, 1, 193 by R M Vick, OBE, FRCS with portrait, and eulogy by R Ogier Ward, FRCS, p 253 by G Grey Turner, FRCS and p 358 by A O B Wroughton and A P Bertwistle; Lancet, 1951, 1, 240 with appreciations by J H, R M Vick, FRCS, and A H T Robb-Smith, MD, FRCP, and p 295 by E K Martin, FRCS on his connexion with the British Journal of Surgery; Brit J Surg 1950, 38, 1, with excellent portrait and appreciation by G L Keynes; St Bart's Hosp J 1951, 55, 86-88 by "St D" (G L Keynes), with portrait; Oxford med Sch Gaz 1951, 3, 60-61 by A H T Robb-Smith; personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England