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Biographical entry Souttar, Sir Henry Sessions (1875 - 1964)

Kt 1949; CBE 1919; MRCS 10 May 1906; FRCS 9 December 1909; Hon FRACS 1935; Hon FACS 1954; Hon FFARCS 1958; Hon MD Dublin 1933; LRCP 1906; BM BCh Oxford 1906; MCh 1912; DM 1926.

14 December 1875
12 November 1964
General surgeon


Born on 14 December 1875 son of Robinson Souttar DCL, Member of Parliament for Dumfriesshire from 1895 to 1900, he was educated at Oxford High School and Queen's College, Oxford where he took a double first in mathematics and also studied engineering. He was a keen athlete and particularly fond of rowing. In later years he was an outstanding member of the London Rowing Club.

He became a clinical student at the London Hospital in 1903 and qualified in 1906. He held most of the house appointments including that of resident accoucheur, passing the final FRCS in 1909. In 1910 he was appointed a demonstrator of anatomy and surgical registrar, proceeding to the degree of MCh in 1912. In this year he was appointed to the staff of the West London Hospital, and three years later became assistant surgeon to the London Hospital.

On the outbreak of the 1914-18 war he was appointed Surgeon-in-Chief to the Belgian Field Hospital at Antwerp; his book A Surgeon in Belgium describes his experiences at the siege of Antwerp. When his field ambulance was withdrawn to Fumes on the Flanders coast, he was able to carry out a great deal of excellent surgical work. It was for these services that the Order of the Crown of Belgium was conferred on him by the King of the Belgians in 1917. On his return to England he served as senior surgeon at the Red Cross Hospital at Netley, and later as deputy consulting surgeon, Southern Command. He was created CBE in 1919.

Souttar settled down to the routine of civilian surgical practice after the war, and gained a great reputation as teacher, clinician, fearless operator, writer, examiner, and as a wise medical politician. Of great historic interest is an operation which he performed on 16 May 1925 in the London Hospital without antibiotic cover or any modem means of anaesthesia. The patient was a girl of 15 suffering from mitral stenosis, whose heart he opened to dilate the mitral valve. This was the first time such an operation had been performed, and it was 22 years before the operation was repeated.

His mathematical knowledge and engineering skill enabled him to devise many surgical instruments including the atraumatic intestinal needle, an oesophageal tube, a steam cautery, a craniotome, and an introducer for inserting radon seeds. His early education and the influence of his father-in-law, who was professor of physics at Oxford, had provided him with a thorough grounding in the principles of physics and gave him special interest in the physics of radium. He became chairman of the Radium Technical Committee of the Royal Colleges and consulting surgeon to the Radium Beam Therapy Research Institute. When radium was first discovered he went to Paris to meet the Curies, and also met Madame Curie during his war work in Belgium. He wrote much on this subject. Souttar was also an artist, and his textbook The Art of Surgery was illustrated by his own excellent explanatory line-drawings.

Souttar was a member of Council of the College 1933-49 and served as Vice-President 1943-44, Bradshaw lecturer 1943, and Hunterian Orator 1949. He was chairman of the Central Medical War Committee and of the Medical Planning Commission, and in 1945 was elected President of the British Medical Association in succession to Lord Dawson of Penn. It was on the suggestion of Souttar that the Royal College of Surgeons decided to form Faculties in certain specialties: the Faculty of Dental Surgery was founded in 1947 and the Faculty of Anaesthetists in 1948, and Souttar received the rare honour of being elected an Honorary Fellow of both. He was knighted in 1949.

Henry Souttar was endowed with an active brain, good looks, and a tall striking frame. In his seventies he constructed a planetarium for himself and was a prime mover in founding the London planetarium. He was a musician, played the piano every morning before breakfast and also played the violin. During the 1914-18 war while stationed at Netley in the RAMC he wrote the music for a topical play The Mixture as Before by E W Twining to amuse the patients, and acted in it with Lionel Norbury and other members of the medical staff. He was a cheerful good-natured man, abstemious, not a smoker, a faithful friend, and a popular member of the Athenaeum where he lunched nearly every day.

Souttar flew to India in 1933 with J H T Challis his anaesthetist and a London Hospital nurse Miss M A Bradford to perform an urgent operation on a woman relative of the Maharajah of Nepal. He was possibly the first surgeon to make so long a flight to an operation, for the journey lasted five or six days each way.

He married on 3 August 1904 Catherine Edith daughter of Robert Bellamy Clifton FRS (1836-1921), Dr Lee's Professor of Experimental Philosophy at Oxford from 1865 to 1916. Lady Souttar died on 4 January 1959; they had celebrated their golden wedding in 1954. He married secondly in 1963 Amy Bessie widow of Harry Douglas Wigdahl, who survived him with the son and daughter of his first marriage; his daughter Elizabeth Souttar was ordained a Deaconess and was prominent in diocesan work in London.

He practised at 149 Harley Street and died on 12 November 1964 aged nearly 89 at his home 9 Cambridge Gate, Regent's Park. The funeral service was held on 17 November in St Marylebone Church, where he had been Rector's Warden for many years, and the lesson was read by Sir Russell Brock PRCS. His daughter and his widow presented a collection of his papers to the College library.


A Surgeon in Belgium London, Arnold 1915.
The Art of Surgery Heinemann 1929; 4th edition, 2 volumes, 1940.
Radium and Cancer Bale 1932, 64 pages; revised edition: Heinemann 1934, 387 pages.
Physics and the surgeon Oxford, Blackwell 1948.
Editor: Textbook of British surgery Heinemann, 4 volumes, 1956-59.
The gastroscope and its uses, with T Thompson. Brit med J 1909, 2, 485.
Calcified ovarian fibroma obstructing labour. Proc Roy Soc Med 1913, 6, Obstet & Gynaec section p 335.
Division of right antero-lateral tract of the cord for relief of pain in tabetic cases. Proc Roy Soc Med 1915, 9, Neurological section p 38.
Injuries of the peripheral nerves, with E W Twining. Brit J Surg 1918, 6, 279-314.
The surgical treatment of mitral stenosis. Brit med J 1928, 2, 419.
Treatment of carcinoma of the oesophagus: 100 personal cases and 18 post-mortem reports. Brit J Surg 1927, 15, 76-94.
New methods of surgical access to the brain. (Hunterian lectures) Brit med J 1928, 1, 89.
On fields of radiation from radon seeds. Brit J Radiol 1931, 4, 681.
The Medical Service. Sunday Times 5 December 1943.
Physics and the surgeon. (Bradshaw lecture) Brit med J 1943, 2, 737.
John Hunter the observer (Hunterian Oration) Ann Roy Coll Surg Engl 1949, 4, 127.
Observation, its meaning and importance (Annual Oration 1950) Trans Med Soc Lond 1948-50 (1951), 66, 399.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 13 November 1964, p 15 c with portrait; Lancet 1964, 2, 1127 by Sir Zachary Cope and Sir Russell Brock, with portrait; Brit med J 1964, 2, 1335 with portrait and appreciation by A M A Moore; Ann Roy Coll Surg Engl 1965, 36, 60 by H Osmond-Clarke, with portrait; Brit Heart J 1965, 27, 453 by M Campbell; .Lond Clin med J 1965, 6, 35 by A M A Moore; portrait in R Nissen Erlebtes 1955 page 50; personal knowledge].

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