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Biographical entry Seddon, Sir Herbert John (1903 - 1977)

Kt 1964; CMG 1951; Officer of the Order of Cedar of Lebanon 1966; MRCS 1925; FRCS 1928; MB, BS London 1928; DM Oxford 1940; Docteur hon causa Grenoble 1959; Hon FACS 1964; Hon MD Malta 1964; Hon LLD Glasgow 1965; LRCP 1925.

13 July 1903
21 December 1977
Orthopaedic surgeon


Herbert John Seddon was born on 13 July 1903 in Derby, the elder son of John Seddon, who worked in the Union Cold Storage Company, and of Ellen (née Thornton). He spent his childhood in Manchester and was educated at the William Hulme Grammar School from whence he entered St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College. He qualified with the Conjoint Diploma in 1925 and graduated in 1928 with honours and the University Gold Medal, passing his Final Fellowship in the same year. His first house surgeon appointment was with Sir Holburt Waring and Harold Wilson; he was then orthopaedic house surgeon with Reginald Elmslie. In 1930 he was appointed instructor in surgery to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He there met Mary Lytle, an art graduate, whom he married at Marquette in the following year.

Seddon returned home with his newly-wed wife to take up the appointment of resident surgeon at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Stanmore, in succession to John Barnett who had been the first to hold that post. There he spent eight pioneering years, developing the comparatively new hospital and the workshops for training cripples in various trades. Most of the patients were children suffering from bone and joint infections, but poliomyelitis was a growing problem of epidemic proportion in the summer of 1938. It was during this pre-war period at Stanmore that he made valuable contributions on the nature of Pott's paraplegia.

In 1939 he was appointed Nuffield Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Oxford. There he undertook his work on peripheral nerve injuries which came to be accepted worldwide. The war years were very lonely for him as his wife and two children had been sent to the USA for the duration, but, fortunately, his parents were able to live with him at that time. He also became heavily concerned with epidemic poliomyelitis in Malta and Mauritius, making valuable observations on the mode of infection and developing a technique for simple splint design and manufacture. Initially a Fellow, he became an Honorary Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, in 1966.

The Institute of Orthopaedics in London had been created in 1946; two years later Seddon became director of studies and subsequently the first Professor of Orthopaedics in the University of London. He was now able to develop laboratories where he could convince others of the value of basic research, possibly his greatest contribution to surgery, and to exercise his prowess in postgraduate teaching, but his shrewd and active mind was inevitably harnessed to other activities as well. He became a member of the Medical Research Council for four years and was a member of the Advisory Medical Council of the Colonial Office, leading to extensive tours of Africa for which he was appointed CMG in 1951. He was awarded the Robert Jones Medal and gave the Robert Jones lecture in 1960, and he was honorary secretary and later President of the British Orthopaedic Association. He received the accolade of Knight Bachelor in 1964.

On retirement from the Institute his many years of scrupulous assessment and recording gave birth to a brilliant monograph, The surgical disorders of the peripheral nerves. He also planned and implemented the Medical Research Council's investigation into tuberculosis of the vertebral column. This most valuable piece of clinical research was carried out at centres in Bulawayo, Hong Kong, Korea and South Africa. For his advisory work to the Lebanese Army, he was appointed Officer of the Order of Cedar of Lebanon. His published work numbered more than one hundred papers, mainly on tuberculosis, poliomyelitis and peripheral nerve injuries. In addition to his own book on the peripheral nerves he also wrote one on Pott's paraplegia with D W Griffiths and R Roaf.

Outside his surgical work he had many other interests. He was a keen climber in his younger days, an enthusiasm which he transmitted to his daughter who married a member of an Everest team. He was a keen gardener, and expert photographer and, comparatively late in life, he took to oil painting at which he evinced considerable ability. He also dedicated himself to his duties as a lay reader in the Church of England at St John's, Stanmore, where he organised a Lent programme of speakers and gave many excellent sermons. Though outwardly serious he could be the centre of wit at a dinner party. He died on 21 December 1977 in Edgware General Hospital, after a short illness; he was survived by his wife Mary, and by his son and daughter.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Brit med J 1978, 1, 41 and 309; The Times 29 December 1977].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England