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Biographical entry Mayo-Robson, Sir Arthur William (1853 - 1933)

KBE 1919; CB 1916; CVO 1911; KB 1908; MRCS 21 July 1874; FRCS 11 December 1879; Hon DSc Leeds 1904.

17 April 1853
Filey, Yorkshire
12 October 1933
General surgeon


Arthur William Mayo Robson was born on 17 April 1853 at Filey in Yorkshire, where his father John Bonnington Robson was a chemist; he assumed the double surname in middle age. He was educated at Wesley College, Sheffield, and passed from there to the Leeds School of Medicine, where from 1870 he had a remarkable prize-winning record. He was medallist in medicine, surgery, forensic medicine, midwifery, anatomy, physiology, practical chemistry, and materia medica; he won the Thorpe scholarship in forensic medicine, the Hardwicke prize for medicine, and the surgical clinical prize. He qualified as an MRCS in 1874 before the days of the Conjoint Board, and was appointed demonstrator of anatomy at Leeds; in 1876 he was promoted to the lectureship, a position he held for the next ten years. He took the Fellowship in 1879, and in 1882 was elected, with A F McGill as his colleague, to the newly-made office of assistant surgeon to the General Infirmary at Leeds, where he became surgeon in 1884. He was lecturer on pathology from 1886, and teacher of operative surgery from 1888; then from 1890 to 1899 he was professor of surgery at the Yorkshire College, Victoria University, the forerunner of the University of Leeds. His surgical reputation by this time had become so great that he determined to move to London; this he did in 1902, resigning his professorial chair at Leeds and receiving the complimentary title of emeritus professor of surgery. The move was not altogether satisfactory for he lost some of his north country connexion, while in such a large centre as London a surgeon however distinguished, who is unconnected with any of the great hospitals, can hardly achieve the absolute pre-eminence which Mayo-Robson had rightly enjoyed at Leeds.

When war broke out in 1914 Mayo-Robson, who had joined the territorial force on its formation in 1908, went to France with a field ambulance, but was soon detached at the request of the French authorities to organize a hospital on British lines for them. Later he served in Gallipoli and Egypt, with the rank of temporary colonel, Army Medical Service, was twice mentioned in despatches, and was created a Companion of the Order of the Bath (military division) in 1916 and a Knight Com¬mander of the Order of the British Empire in 1919; he had already been knighted in 1908, and was made a Companion of the Royal Victorian Order in 1911; he was nominated a chevalier in the French Légion d'Honneur in 1921.

On his return home from Egypt, Mayo-Robson became a member of the consultative medical council at the War Office, and was appointed consulting surgeon to the King Edward VII Hospital at Windsor and to the Dreadnought Hospital at Greenwich. But he now gradually retired from practice, and settled at Seale in Surrey. He had always been a keen sportsman and an excellent shot; from time to time he visited Africa and other parts of the world for big game shooting; during one of his expeditions, when shooting buffalo near Nairobi, he was accidentally shot in both thighs by his carrier.

At the Royal College of Surgeons Mayo-Robson was three times a Hunterian professor of surgery: in 1897 he lectured on Diseases of the gall-bladder and bile ducts, in 1900 on The surgery of the stomach, and in 1904 on The pathology and surgery of the pancreas. He was a member of the Council from 1893 to 1910, delivered the Bradshaw lecture in 1904, and was a vice-president in 1902-03 and 1904-05. He was honorary president of the section of surgery at the International Medical Congresses held at Paris in 1900 and at Lisbon in 1906; he was president of the Leeds and West Riding Medico-Chirurgical Society in 1896, and of the British Gynaecological Society in 1896-97.

Mayo-Robson was a short, sturdy man, spectacled, bearded, and good-looking, and was endowed with abundant health and vitality. He devoted himself in early life to gynaecological surgery on the lines developed by Lawson Tait and Spencer Wells, but soon enlarged his sphere of action to abdominal surgery; he was among the first to undertake nerve-grafting; he made notable advances in the surgery of the extremities; and there was hardly a field which he did not adorn. American and other visitors frequently recorded that Mayo-Robson's clinic was the best worth attending of any in England, for his scrupulous technical accomplishment. Though he was a genial companion and a hospitable host, a strain of self-seeking precluded him from the place in professional esteem to which his talents entitled him.

Leeds was already the centre of a famous surgical tradition and he raised it to pre-eminence by his forward-looking practice, when London surgeons were in general very conservative. He had a marked influence on the younger generation of surgeons and in particular on Berkeley Moynihan, who worthily succeeded to the great position which Mayo-Robson had made for himself at Leeds. "As I look back dispassionately upon the growth of the science and art of surgery in the last fifty years," wrote Lord Moynihan, "I can truthfully say that Mayo-Robson must rank among the very greatest surgeons of all time. At one period he was, I feel sure, indisputably the greatest surgeon in Europe."

Sir Arthur's three daughters presented to the College library the collection of reprints and cuttings of his articles, covering fifty years of progressive surgery, which he had been annotating for re-publication towards the end of his life. This retrospective collection, though of greatest historical interest, would probably have proved too large for publication had he completed his editing of it. In any case his fame is safely and permanently recorded in his books, which made a considerable mark in his life-time. He published his classic book On gall-stones and treatment, in 1892, following it by Diseases of the gall-bladder and ducts, in 1897 (2nd edition with F Macrae, 1900; 3rd edition, with J Dobson, 1904), and by Gall-stones, their complications and treatment written with P J Cammidge, in 1909. Diseases of the stomach and their surgical treatment, written with Moynihan's collaboration, appeared 1901 (2nd edition, 1904), and Diseases of the pancreas and their surgical treatment, also written with Moynihan, in 1902. With Cammidge again he published The pancreas, its surgery and pathology, in 1907. His Bradshaw lecture in 1904 on Cancer and its treatment (published in 1905) followed in 1907 by a book on Cancer of the stomach. Each of these books at the time of publication was "the last word" on its subject. They represent the concentrated essence of his experience, which he continuously made available in clear and masterly contributions to the profession societies and the British and American surgical journals; he was also occasional contributor to French and German periodicals.

Mayo-Robson married in 1883 Florence, daughter of William Walk of Osmondthorpe Hall near Leeds; Lady Mayo-Robson died in 1930, survived by their three daughters; he married, secondly, in 1932, Ada Constance, daughter of F C Winby and widow of Lieutenant-Colonel A Northen, CBE, DSO; Lady Mayo-Robson died on 6 April 1947. Sir Arthur Mayo-Robson died at Seale on 12 October 1933, aged 80. It was mainly at his suggestion that Sir Arthur Schiff built and endowed the Schiff Home of Recovery at Cobham in Surrey, with 60 beds in delightful surroundings, as a mark of gratitude for recovery from a severe operation. Mayo-Robson was nominated its chairman in 1918, and filled the post for the rest of his life. He left a number of bequests to medical charities, including £1,000 to the General Infirmary at Leeds to endow an annual prize in surgery, and legacies to the Medical School of Leeds University towards an Old Students' Fellowship, to the Leeds and West Riding Medical Charitable Society, and to the Fellowship of Medicine in London. His three daughters presented a striking portrait of him by G Hall-Neale, RA, to the Leeds General Infirmary in 1932, and generously gave the Royal College of Surgeons a replica of it in 1947.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 13 October 1933, pp 18 and 19b, with portrait, 18 October, p 16e, 19 October, p17b; Lancet, 1933, 2, 948, with portrait; Brit med J 1933, 2, 761, with portrait, an excellent likeness, and eulogy by Lord Moynihan; Univ Leeds, Med Soc Mag 1934, 4, 4, eulogy by J F Dobson, with good portrait; personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England Library