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Biographical entry Girdlestone, Gathorne Robert (1881 - 1950)

MRCS 13 February 1908; FRCS 14 December 1911; LRCP 1908; BA Oxford 1904; MA BM BCh 1908; DM 1945.

8 October 1881
30 December 1950
Orthopaedic surgeon


Born 8 October 1881 the third son of the Rev Robert Baker Girdlestone (1836-1923), Canon of Christ Church, and only child of his second wife, Mary Wood. Canon Girdlestone was a distinguished Biblical scholar, and in 1881 was Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford; later he lived at Wimbledon. Girdlestone was educated at Charterhouse, at New College, Oxford, of which he became a Fellow, and at St Thomas's Hospital where he held various resident appointments. He settled in practice at Oswestry, where he came under the influence of Sir Robert Jones, who regularly visited Dame Agnes Hunt's orthopaedic hospital at Baschurch near Oswestry. Girdlestone became Jones's apostle in promoting knowledge of the benefits made available by the new orthopaedic methods. Together they started the Central Council for the Care of Cripples; and their paper "The cure of crippled children", published in the British Medical Journal in 1919 described their plans and apparently Utopian ideals. Much of what they then proposed was achieved by Girdlestone in the following thirty years.

During the war from 1915 to 1919 he served in the RAMC, and was appointed through his own insistence to start an orthopaedic centre in a temporary hospital at Oxford. The Wingfield Hospital, at first under the War Office and then under the Ministry of Pensions, was in fact his personal creation. His work and enthusiasm attracted the support of Sir William Morris for the hospital, now renamed the Wingfield-Morris Hospital. Morris, who had made millions of money through his motor factories near Oxford, was subsequently created Lord Nuffield, largely on account of his wise and munificent benefactions to hospitals and medical research. These great gifts were in the first place inspired by admiration for Girdlestone's achievement and found their first notable expression in the Nuffield medical professorships at Oxford, to one of which Girdlestone was elected. He was also personally concerned, at Lord Nuffield's request, in surveying the field for orthopaedic work in South Africa, where a Nuffield Trust was founded as the result of his report. The Wingfield-Morris Hospital became the centre of a system of orthopaedic clinics extending through Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and Buckinghamshire; Girdlestone took a personal interest in the work of each clinic. He combined in an exceptional degree surgical ability, energy, enthusiasm, and administrative power; in addition he exerted a rare personal magnetism, founded on an intensely human yet deeply spiritual Christian life. His only defects, it was said, were his virtues of modesty and uprightness, which sometimes made difficulties for him in dealing with men less good than himself.

Girdlestone had a large private practice, and was consulting orthopaedic surgeon to the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, the King Edward VII Hospital, Windsor, the Royal Buckinghamshire Hospital, Aylesbury, and the Savernake Hospital, Marlborough; he was also consulting surgeon to the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Hospital at Baschurch, Oswestry, where he began his life-work, and to Bristol City Council. As Nuffield Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Oxford he was the first professor of the subject in Great Britain. The chair was created for him in 1937. He resigned his professorship and his direction of the clinical work at the Wingfield-Morris Hospital in 1940, to assume the post of orthopaedic consultant to the Army and to the Ministry of Health's Emergency Medical Service for a region stretching from Reading to Bristol. He was also consulting orthopaedic surgeon to the Ministry of Pensions. Through his vision and detailed care the new Churchill Hospital at Headington, Oxford, was built during the war by the Ministry of Health and staffed by the American Medical Mission. It became a permanent addition to Oxford's hospitals after the war. Girdlestone made time for much writing on his specialty. His book Tuberculosis of bone and joint, 1940, became a classic. He took an active part in professional societies, and was president of the orthopaedic section of the Royal Society of Medicine 1932-33, of the British Orthopaedic Association 1942, and of the Association of Surgeons 1943-44. He was a corresponding member of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgery and the American Orthopaedic Association.

Girdlestone was much beloved by his staff and patients. He inspired all with his own enthusiasm, and encouraged the disabled in the task of rebuilding their own lives. At the Wingfield-Morris Hospital he created a family spirit. He compiled a Hospital prayer-book, with a characteristically thoughtful preface, and regularly took part in a brief morning service in the chapel. His own home was an open house to his associates and patients, particularly to former child-patients. He was an excellent and keen player of many games, and reached the semi-final of the amateur golf championship at St Andrews, near the end of his life. Girdlestone married Ina, daughter of George Chatterton, JP, of Wimbledon, who survived him. Mrs Girdlestone actively helped him, especially in his work for children. They lived at the Red House, Headington and later at Fir Croft, Frilford Heath, near Abingdon. He died on 30 December 1950 aged 69. He left the ultimate residue of his fortune to the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre.


The cure of crippled children, with Sir Robert Jones. Brit med J 1919, 2, 457.
The place of operations for spinal fixation. Brit J Surg 1932, 10, 372.
The union and consolidation of a fracture. Amer J Surg 1925, 38, 129.
Arthrodesis and other operations for tuberculosis. Robert Jones Birthday Volume. Oxford, 1928.
The operative treatment of Pott's paraplegia. Brit J Surg 1931, 19, 121.
The pathology and treatment of tuberculosis of the knee-joint. Brit J Surg 1932, 19, 488.
Extensive loss of tibial diaphysis; tibiofibular grafting, with W B Foley. Brit J Surg 1933, 20, 467.
Dislocations; Fractures, fracture-dislocations. Brit Encyc med Pract 1937.
Tuberculosis of Bone and Joint. Oxford University Press, 1940; 2nd edition, 1951.
The Christ of the hospital ward, in the Rev P Stewart-Browning's A tribute to a great surgeon, with foreword by C M Chavasse, Bishop of Rochester, and portrait of Girdlestone. Tunbridge Wells, 1952, 23 pages.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 1 January 1951, p 8e, 3 January, p 8e, 5 January, p 7b, 12 January, p 9e; Brit med J 1951, 1, 93, with portrait and appreciations by Professors A D Gardner, H J Seddon, and J Trueta, and 1951, 2, 1412, will; Lancet, 1951, 1, 117, with portrait and appreciations by A Q W and J Trueta (different from his note in the Brit med J; J Bone Jt Surg 1951, 33B, 130, with portrait, by H J Seddon and Sir Harry Platt, FRCS; Oxford med Sch Gaz 1951, 3, 58, by R McC; information from Mrs Girdlestone].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England