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Biographical entry Spencer, Walter George (1858 - 1940)

OBE 1919; MRCS 3 August 1885; FRCS 9 June 1887; MB BS London 1886; MS 1887.

27 September 1858
Little Chalfield, Wiltshire
29 October 1940
General surgeon


Born on 27 September 1858 at Little Chalfield, Wilts, the eldest son and first child of Walter Spencer, farmer, and his wife Mary Hulbert, of Lenton, Wilts. Educated at Weymouth College, he entered the medical school of St Bartholomew's Hospital in 1881 and soon made his name. He won the junior scholarship in 1882, the senior scholarship in 1884, served as house surgeon to Alfred Willett in 1885, and was awarded the Lawrence scholarship and gold medal, which enabled him to undertake research work under Sir Victor Horsley at the Brown Institute. The results were published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1891: "On the changes produced in the circulation and respiration by increase of the intracranial pressure or tension", and in 1894: "On the results of Faradaic excitation of the cerebrum in the monkey, dog, cat, and rabbit". He also spent short periods of postgraduate study in Berlin and Halle.

At the Westminster Hospital, then in Broad Sanctuary opposite to Westminster Abbey, he was elected assistant surgeon on 19 July 1887, surgeon on 20 July 1897, and consulting surgeon on 27 November 1923. In the Medical School attached to the hospital he was appointed lecturer on physiology in 1893 and lecturer on clinical surgery in 1897. He was a member of the house committee from 1895 until his death nearly half a century later.

At the Royal College of Surgeons he was awarded the Jacksonian prize in 1889 for his essay on "The pathology, diagnosis, and surgical treatment of intracranial abscess and tumour." He was a member of the Court of Examiners 1908-18 and of the Council 1915-26, serving as vice-president for two successive years, 1924-26. He was Arris and Gale lecturer in 1895, when he chose as his subject "The pathology of the lymphadenoid structure", Erasmus Wilson lecturer in 1896-97, Vicary lecturer in 1922, and Bradshaw lecturer in 1923. The Vicary lecture he devoted to "Vesalius, his delineation of the framework of the human body in the Fabrica and the Epitome". In 1920 he gave three lectures as Hunterian professor on animal experiments and surgery. It was noticed that he usually shut his eyes when he stood up to speak.

During the war he held a commission as major, RAMC(T), was surgeon to the 4th London General Hospital, and was decorated OBE. He was elected a member of the Senate of the University of London, and worked there hand and glove with his friend Sir Ernest Graham Little, MP, with whom it was his custom to take a long country walk every Sunday. He married Elizabeth Chorlton on 21 February 1891. She survived him with one son. A daughter died in March 1923, whilst holding a resident appointment at the Victoria Hospital for Children in Tite Street, Chelsea. He died at 41 Harley House, NW1, on 29 October 1940. Mrs Spencer died on 29 December 1944, aged 91.

Spencer had many interests outside surgery. He was especially interested in the organization of libraries. He worked at the London Library under Sir Charles Hagberg Wright; at the British Medical Association's library, when the Association moved from the Strand to new premises in Tavistock Square; served as honorary librarian of the Royal Society of Medicine; and was very useful during his term of office as chairman of the library committee of the Royal College of Surgeons. To the end of his life he kept himself au courant with the work going on in the world of surgery at home and abroad. Having undertaken to translate Celsus for the Loeb Library series, he produced three volumes in which he was able to use his knowledge of surgery to explain many debatable points which had puzzled previous editors. He also did excellent service as a joint editor (1930) of Plarr's Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons. He left unfinished a fuller History of the Westminster Hospital than the "outline" which he published, and at the time of his death he had collected notes for a translation of Galen's surgical writings. Using a rich Wiltshire dialect he enjoyed discussion, and his feelings were never hurt if he were left in a minority of one.

Pathology of the lymphadenoid structures, Erasmus Wilson lectures. Lancet, 1897, 1, 648, etc.
Outlines of practical surgery. London, 1898.
Animal experiments and surgery, Hunterian lectures. London, 1920.
Westminster Hospital, an outline of its history. London, 1934.
Celsus De medicina, edited and translated. Loeb Classical Library, 3 vols, 1935-38. Butlin's Diseases of the tongue, 2nd edition by Butlin and Spencer, 1900; 3rd edition by Stanford Cade and Spencer, 1931.
Walsham's Surgery, 8th edition, 1903, and 9th edition, 1906.
The practice of surgery, with G E Gask. London, 1910.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 31 October 1940, p 7f; 6 November 1940, p 7c; 7 November 1940, p 7f; Lancet, 1940, 2, 638, with portrait, an excellent likeness; Brit med J 1940, 2, 688; Nature, 1940, 146, 678; information given by Mrs Spencer and by Charles Power, secretary to the Westminster Hospital; personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England