Sue Young Histories

Thomas Spencer Wells 1818 - 1897

January 27, 2010

Sir Thomas Spencer Wells 1818 - 1897, MRCS in 1841, FRCS in 1844, 1st Baronet, Surgeon of the Samaritan Free Hospital for Women, Hunterian Professor of Surgery and Pathology at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Editor of the Medical Times and Gazette, President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Surgeon to Queen Victoria’s household,

At a time when orthodox physicians were proclaiming they would not be seen even talking to a homeopath,  Spencer Wells was a ’secret’ patient of homeopath James Manby Gully, (note that Queen Victoria was also a patient of James Manby Gully),

Ralph Barnes Grindrod, an allopathic physician who worked in Malvern nearby to James Manby Gully’s establishment, wrote to the British Medical Journal on 12.10.1861 to express his surprise to see allopathic physicians turn up for treatment at James Manby Gully’s establishment, and to consult with James Manby Gully over ‘difficult cases‘, and to bring and send their own patients to see James Manby Gully, all the while protesting against homeopathy…

Ralph Barnes Grindrod mentions the following allopaths by nameBooth Eddison, the President of the British Medical Association (a patient of James Manby Gully’s), Benjamin Vallance of Brighton (President of the Medico Chirurgical Society, Surgeon at the Sussex County Hospital), T Spencer Wells, John Addington Symonds of Bristol (Vice President and President of the British Medical Association), Robert Lee and Sutherland (?George Granville William Sutherland Leveson Gower 3rd Duke of Sutherland) – and he says there were a great many more….

In reponse to Ralph Barnes Grindrod’s published letter Spencer Wells replied in the British Medical Journal dated 19.10.1861, to explain. Spencer Wells was extremely ill in 1851 with right sided pneumonia, and he was attended by three eminent orthodox physicians who tried every conceivable treatment to no avail (see Anon, British Medical Journal, (British Medical Association, (19.10.1861). Page 423). After some weeks, two of his physicians advised him to consult James Manby Gully, as no air entered his right lung below the 2nd rib and the lung was almost completely filled with ’low aplastic exudation’ such that that it ’did not much matter what I did’ - indeed he could ’please himself’.

So Spencer Wells went to see James Manby Gully in Malvern, and James Manby Gully told him to live in the open air, eat nothing but bread and lean meat, drink nothing but water and avoid all wine, beer, spirits tea, coffee and tobacco, and to be rubbed three times a day with wet towels by a bath man until ‘the skin was in a glow’. After a time, Spencer Wells was also given hot air baths and cold douches.

Within six weeks, Spencer Wells left James Manby Gully’s establishment well enough to climb hills and ride his horse, but he suffered a set back and returned to James Manby Gully as an outpatient, and shortly thereafter he was completely well, and he has remained well ever since.

Spencer Wells asks the readers of the _British Medical Journal_why he should think twice about referring his patients on to James Manby Gully after his own cure, and he boldly admits that he has subsequently sent many patients to James Manby Gully’s establishment.

In 1858, he published a book on Gout wherein he devoted and entire chapter to the Water Cure, and that he has been proud to recommend James Manby Gully to several of his colleagues, but he adds without irony that he has ’never supported homeopathy’ nor has he ’met in consultation with a homeopath’ nor ’attended a patient with a homeopath‘…

Spencer Wells wrote to the British Medical Journal again on 19.10.1861, wherein he admits that he knows James Manby Gully and that he sends patients to him, though he goes to great lengths to disparage homeopathy and to assert that he does not consult with homeopaths.

In this article, Spencer Wells admits that he has known James Manby Gully ‘for many years’, and admits that James Manby Gully is an erudite, well educated and acadmic physician who has translated, edited and written several books.

Spencer Wells admits that he has sent many patients to James Manby Gully and corresponded with him by letter over many of his cases, and that only once had they discussed homeopathy - namely that James Manby Gully told him that due to such infinitesimal doses, it was perfectly safe to administer belladonna, strychnine, and ‘various other powerful remedies’, without any harm to the patient, a fact Spencer Wells said he concurred with without hesitation, and that he believed that every allopath would also concede this point.

Spencer Wells made it clear in his article that he will continue to regard James Manby Gully as an ‘accomplished physician’, an accomplished hydrotherapist, but that he is ultimately not sure that James Manby Gully really is a homeopath, rather that James Manby Gully regards homeopathy ‘very much as the rest of us do’ (a statement that completely disreguards the fact that James Manby Gully was a member of the British Homeopathic Society, a member of the Hahnemann Publishing Society, and very active in the homeopathic community in Britain).

The Editor of the British Medical Journal wrote an brief comment in this same issue on 19.10.1861_, _to the effect that Spencer Wells has fully explained his involvement with James Manby Gully, who could not be a homeopath as the Editor has never yet heard of any ’accomplished physician figuring as a homeopath in Britain’ and that he would ’deeply regret to find that such a thing was possible‘.

The Editor affirms that Spencer Wells has acquitted himself of any stain of associating with homeopaths, and it is also ‘impossible’ that Ralph Barnes Grindrod has had any ’dealings with a homeopath’, and since the original article (on 12.10.1861), no one has come forward to contradict this position.

Interestingly, Ralph Barnes Grindrod, in his subsequent letter to The British Medical Journal on 26.10.1861, states quite clearly of Spencer Wells ’that the almost pervading influence of homeopathy in this place (Malvern) is mainly attributable to such individuals as Spencer Wells and others whom I have mentioned in my previous comunication’, and also to ’those eminent Metropolitan physicians, still alive, who advised Spencer Wells and others to place themselves under the care of a homeopathic physician‘.

From Thomas Spencer Wells was born at St Albans, Hertfordshire and received his early education at St Albans School (then located in the Lady Chapel of the Abbey).

After a short time as a pupil of a surgeon in Barnsley (Yorkshire), he studied medicine at Leeds, Trinity College Dublin, St Thomas’ Hospital (becoming a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) in 1841 and a Fellow (FRCS) in 1844), and later in Paris, France.

He served as a naval surgeon in Malta, and then established his own practice in London in 1853. In 1854, and from 1856 to 78, he was Surgeon of the Samaritan Free Hospital for Women, London (serving in between as an army surgeon in the Crimean War).

He also lectured at the Grosvenor School of Medicine (which later became the medical school of St George’s Hospital). In 1877 was appointed Hunterian Professor of Surgery and Pathology at the Royal College of Surgeons of England (of which he was elected President in 1883  -(created a Baronet by Queen Victoria in 1883). From 1863 to 1896 he was Surgeon to Queen Victoria’s household.

Wells specialized in obstetrics and ophthalmic surgery. He is recognized as a pioneer in abdominal surgery and is notable for having perfected ovariotomy. He was also one the earliest surgeons to make use of anaesthetics in operations. He published a number of important medical books and articles.

He died after an attack of apoplexy on 31 January, 1897 and is buried in Brompton Cemetery.


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