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Biographical entry Cope, Sir Vincent Zachary (1881 - 1974)

Kt 1953; MRCS and FRCS 1909; BA London 1899; MB BS 1905; MD 1907; MS 1909.

14 February 1881
26 December 1974
General surgeon and Writer


Vincent Zachary Cope, surgeon, author, historian and poet was born in Hull, on 14 February 1881; John Hunter's birthday, a coincidence which must have given him much pleasure later in life. He was the youngest of the ten children of Thomas John Cope, a Methodist minister, and his wife Celia Anne Crowle. They had four other sons, one of whom, Gilbert, also became a doctor, and an MRCS. The family moved to London in 1890, where Cope spent the rest of his long life, except for his military service. He was educated at Westminster School, where as head boy in 1899 he was awarded the gold medal, and the next year gained an entrance scholarship to St Mary's Hospital Medical School, soon coming under the influence of Augustus Desire Waller, the inventor of the electrocardiograph, and Almroth Wright, the first clinical immunologist. Other close contemporaries include Alexander Fleming, whose own surgical aspirations, it is said, were checked by Cope's brilliance and energy; Bernard Spilsbury, Charles Wilson, (later Lord Moran), Aleck Bourne, C. Aubrey Pannett, John Freeman and Leonard Colebrook. In 1905 Cope qualified MB BS (Hons), with distinction in surgery and in forensic medicine, and became house physician to Dr David Lees, a deeply religious man, author of a book The abdominal inflammations which may have influenced him towards a lifelong interest which was later to bring world fame. Lees advised him to 'Be a physician first, then a surgeon'. Cope rose through the junior appointments, and was elected assistant surgeon in 1911. The following year he joined the staff of the Bolingbroke Hospital. He was a popular clinical bedside teacher, much missed when he joined the RAMC in 1914 in the 3rd London General Hospital. In 1916 he went to Mesopotamia where he was until 1919, for much of the time in Baghdad, being mentioned in despatches. Concern for the troops with dysentery, stimulated him to write his first book Surgical aspects of dysentery published in 1921, his masterpiece, The early diagnosis of the acute abdomen followed in 1922. This unique contribution went to fourteen editions during the next 50 years of his lifetime and by 1983, there were two more. The secret of its success lay in the simplicity of his clinical observations based on his own experience, recorded in lucid, and lively prose, he was then 41 years of age.

Cope's first wife, Dora Newth, whom he married in his qualifying year, died in 1922, there were no children of this marriage. In 1923 he found happiness again with his second wife, Alice Mary Watts, who bore him a daughter. He liked to live close to his work, first near Hampstead Heath, and after his wife's death in 1944, at Chiltern Court, Baker Street, like H G Wells and Arnold Bennett. This need to be near the centre of activities explains his close familiarity with early abdominal cases; for he was within walking distance of St Mary's. He could also walk to the Royal Society of Medicine, where, long after his retirement he was often to be seen researching in the Library, and the nearby Medical Society of London, at which he was successively Lettsomian Lecturer (1933), President (1939) and Orator (1944).

In the years between the wars, besides his dedicated clinical teaching and operative work, he was a member of the Court of Examiners, later being elected to Council in 1940. He is well depicted in the painting by Henry Can, at the College: leaning back, and looking up in the serious, good humoured way that endeared him to colleagues, students and patients alike.

He was a small man, quieter and calmer than many and used a wooden stool upon which to stand and operate, known as Mr Cope's box.

His happy knack of compiling light verse with a serious message led him to write The acute abdomen in rhyme under the pen name Zeta. His speech to the Council Dining Club was likewise delivered in verse.

The outbreak of the second world war kept him in harness beyond his retirement age, serving the group of hospitals based on St Mary's. When at last he could retire, he was editor of the volumes on surgery and pathology in the medical history of the second world war. As Vice- President of the College he gave the Bradshaw Lecture in 1949. Other works from this later period were his biographies of Florence Nightingale (1958), and Cheselden (1953); The history of St Mary's Medical School (1954) and The history of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (1959). He was knighted in 1953.

Though his later years were clouded by his failing sight, his Oxford family supported his reading and writing, keeping him in touch with surgery and surgeons everywhere, especially those whose own careers he had helped. He died peacefully on 26 December 1974, soon after the last Christmas in which he was able to send his annual poetic greeting to the staff and patients of his ward at St Mary's. The Zachary Cope Memorial Lecture keeps alive his interest in abdominal surgical disease at the College.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Brit med J 1975, 1, 93; Lancet 1975, 1, 115].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England