FEATURE - 11TH AUGUST 2017
Harley Street may have global fame, but the parallel stretch of Wimpole Street has its own fascinating medical past. We take a stroll around the former residences of doctors who committed regicide, charmed deadly snakes and denounced the vices of female patients
Words: Tom Hughes
Harley Street has long been recognised as a premier centre of medicine. For more than a century, a whisper in a darkened hallway that Sir This or Lord That was on his way from Harley Street was often enough to reassure everyone that “the guv’nor” might yet survive. If, however, anxious relatives were told that someone from Wimpole Street had been summoned, they might justifiably respond: “What good is a bloody poet going to do?”
Wimpole Street has been forever entwined in the oft-told tale of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. But it also has a long and interesting medical pedigree of its own. And in the few minutes it takes to walk up and down the street, you’ll find the former premises of—among others—a regicide, a snake-handler and the world’s foremost syphilologist.
The stroll begins at 1 Wimpole Street, the imposing headquarters of the Royal Society of Medicine. Moving northwards, at number 6 you’ll find a blue plaque for Sir Frederick Treves, the doctor who rescued—in a way—John Merrick, the Elephant Man. Sir Frederick also became something of a crank on the subject of women’s clothing: he railed against high-heels, tight corsets and low cut-dresses.
Platoon of physicians
Sir Thomas Barlow practised at number 10. He was among a platoon of physicians summoned to the final hours of Queen Victoria. He also treated a brace of dukes and at least one Archbishop of Canterbury. A teetotaller, Barlow married a nurse matron and lived to be nearly 100. Dr Augustus Pepper was at number 13. This pathologist was called in on a number of high profile murders including the case of Dr Crippen.
Just a few doors up at number 16 was another pathologist, Dr Thomas Horrocks Openshaw, a man known to all Ripperologists. In that terrible autumn of 1888, Openshaw was asked to examine a portion of kidney that had been posted to one of the investigators. In an accompanying note, ‘Jack’ claimed it was a souvenir from one of his victims, Catherine Eddowes. Openshaw confirmed that the slice came from a left human kidney, but could not say whether male or female. ‘Jack’ then sent a letter to Openshaw congratulating him—with atrocious spelling—on his findings and vowing: “I wil be on the job soon and send you another bit of innerds.
First brain surgery
At number 19 you’ll find the residence of the man usually credited with carrying out the first brain surgery. In 1884, Dr Rickman John Godlee operated on a tumour—the patient “having expressed a strong desire to have it removed”. The unhappy patient survived for 28 days.
The former occupants of number 30 are interesting, if not for their medical achievements. From all appearances, Dr George Vivian Poore and Dr Marcus Beck shared a partnership, both medical and personal. Dr Poore was a public health activist who authored monographs on writer’s cramp.
Dr Beck was a surgeon. In addition to 30 Wimpole Street the two shared a country house in Isleworth. Dr Barlow, from up the street, said that the happy bachelors were known to all as ‘David and Jonathan’. That’s a biblical reference, not very much unlike ‘David and Elton’.
Lord Dawson of Penn, one of the controversial giants of Edwardian medicine, lived and practiced at number 32. Bertrand Edward Dawson received his peerage in 1920 from his patient, King George V. Dawson was credited with saving the king’s life at least once. And when the end finally came in 1936, he issued the memorable press bulletin: “The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close.”
Dawson’s secret diaries were opened many years later. Only then was it discovered that he had decided to end the King’s life himself. Since his nurse wouldn’t do it, he injected 0.75g of morphine followed by a gram of cocaine into the patient’s jugular vein. Dawson wrote that he did it not for reasons of mercy, but so that the announcement of the King’s passing would be in the morning Times and not, should the monarch linger, be left to the déclassé evening papers.
Next, we come to number 35, the former residence of Sir Henry Thompson, who earned that delightful Victorian title of ‘polymath’. He was into everything, including treating kidney stones, and numbered among his patients the King of Belgium and the exiled Napoleon III. The latter survived the operation by just four days but, we are assured, for reasons unrelated to Sir Henry’s ministrations. Sir Henry was a renowned host and invitations were eagerly sought for his ‘Octaves’—eight people for an eight-course dinner, arriving promptly at eight.
Now cross the street and turn back south. Look for number 53, where Sir Joseph Fayrer once lived. A naval surgeon by training, he found himself in India where he took it upon himself to become an expert in poisonous reptiles. His masterwork, Thanatophidia, complete with painstakingly drawn coloured plates, is said to have “made generations of British even more fearful of snakes”.
Kraits to cobras, they scared not the doughty doctor—although he had one very close call while inspecting a cobra’s tail. The snake’s head was secured in a box. But the native assistant neglected to hold down the lid and “the cobra suddenly put his head out to see what Sir Joseph Fayrer was doing with his tail. Luckily it was more pleased than offended with the liberties which were being taken with its tail, but it was unpleasant for Sir Joseph Fayrer to find his face almost touching the cobra’s mouth.”
Bled from the feet
At number 57 was one Dr Alfred Wiltshire, a physician unremarkable but for his published belief that men experience “vicarious menstruation”, citing one fellow surgeon (unidentified) who bled from his genitalia once every three weeks. While Dr Wiltshire’s paper was generally ridiculed, one supporter said it was indeed true and he recommended that men who suffer from it should be bled regularly from their feet.
At number 69 we find the eye specialist Dr Robert Brudenell Carter. What was it with Victorian eye doctors? Did they not have enough to keep them busy? Arthur Conan Doyle was so bored he concocted Sherlock Holmes. But Carter decided to range far from his field to opine On the Pathology and Treatment of Hysteria. Therein he claimed that women had learned to fake hysteria or otherwise used it to get their way.
Carter even suggested that doctors were contributing to a growing ‘moral evil’: “I have seen young unmarried women reduced by the constant use of the speculum to the mental and moral condition of prostitutes; seeking to give themselves the same indulgence by the practice of solitary vice; and asking every medical practitioner to institute an examination of the sexual organs.”
Hasten along now to number 84 and Sir Frederick Mott, a man known to both peers and posterity as the world’s foremost syphilologist: a doctor who specialises in the treatment of syphilis. Mott was a tireless campaigner for sexual hygiene and sexual education. In the 1920s he claimed that the equivalent of two army corps were invalided during the first world war because of venereal disease, adding the question to anyone listening: “What do you have to say to that?”
The last stop is at number 85, the home and surgery of Dr Octavius Sturges, a physician known to countless lawyers, though not for any issues of malpractice. Dr Sturges was a plaintiff in a landmark ‘party wall’ case. He decided to build a new surgery in his back garden. One wall abutted against a wall of the property around the corner at 30 Wigmore Street. There, for the last 60 years, Frederick Horatio Bridgman, and his father before him, had operated a confectionary business. And against their back wall they’d been using three massive mortar and pestle contrivances to grind the ingredients.
Dr Sturges soon grew tired of what he called a “thunderous noise”. He filed suit. And despite Bridgman’s understandable protestation that they’d been crushing their nuts there for 60 years, his business was ruled a nuisance. The Bridgmans were forced to move on and a new legal precedent was set.
So, after this exhausting walk you’ll doubtless be seeking a quiet café for a coffee and a cake, of which the area boasts plenty. Be thankful for Dr Sturges that there are no thundering mortars at work out in the back to disturb you.