Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Guthrie, George James

GUTHRIE, GEORGE JAMES (1785–1856), surgeon, descended from an old Forfarshire family, one of whose members settled in Wexford, was born in London on 1 May 1785. Having been early apprenticed to a surgeon, and served as assistant in the York Hospital, Guthrie passed the examination for the membership of the Royal College of Surgeons on 5 Feb. 1801, when not yet sixteen. In March 1801 he was appointed by his friend Rush, then inspector-general and member of the army medical board, assistant surgeon to the 29th regiment. After serving five years with his regiment in Canada he was ordered to the Peninsula, where he remained (except for an interval in 1810) from 1808 till 1814, taking principal charge of the wounded at many important battles, and gaining the Duke of Wellington's especial commendation. A graphic description of his Peninsular experiences, in which Guthrie often displayed the qualities of a soldier as well as of a surgeon, is given in the 'Lancet' for 1850, i. 726-38. After the battle of Salamanca he introduced the practice of making long incisions through the skin to relieve diffused erysipelas. In 1814 he retired on half-pay, and on returning to London diligently attended the surgical lectures of Bell and Brodie at the Windmill Street school, and Abernethy at St. Bartholomew's. He found that his experience had enabled him to make considerable improvements in practical surgery. He had a further opportunity after Waterloo, when he successfully amputated a man's leg at the hip joint, divided the muscles of the calf to tie the main artery, and extracted a ball from a man's bladder. Each of these operations was a novelty, and the cases excited much interest. After the war the patients were sent to the York Hospital, then situated where one end of Eaton Square now stands, and Guthrie gave lectures and took charge for two years of two wards in which illustrative cases were treated and exhibited. Here Guthrie was the first in England who used a lithotrite for crushing a stone in the bladder. At this time the Duke of York offered him knighthood, which he declined owing to want of means. Guthrie gave lectures on surgery from October 1816 for nearly thirty years, which were open gratuitously to all the officers of the army, navy, and East India Company. In December 1816 he founded an infirmary for diseases of the eye, afterwards the Royal Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital at Charing Cross, to which he was chief surgeon. An incautious remark in one of his lectures led to attacks upon him in the 'Lancet' (J. F. Clarke, Autobiography, p. 259, and Lancet, 1850, i. 734). Guthrie entered an action for libel, which he afterwards withdrew, Mr. Wakley, the proprietor of the 'Lancet,' subsequently apologising, and becoming Guthrie's firm friend. He was elected assistant surgeon to the Westminster Hospital in 1823, and full surgeon in 1827; he resigned in 1843 to make way for his son, Charles Guthrie, as assistant surgeon. In 1824 he became a member of the council of the Royal College of Surgeons, of which he was president in 1833, 1841, and 1854. He was professor of anatomy and surgery from 1828 to 1831, and lectured on the principal subjects in which he had made improvements. As a councillor he succeeded in carrying numerous reforms in the college procedure and in its requirements from candidates for its diplomas; but he strongly opposed the charter of 1843. He died in London on 1 May 1856, and was buried at Kensal Green. He was twice married; by his first wife, Margaret Paterson, daughter of the lieutenant-governor of Prince Edward's Island, he had two sons and one daughter; the eldest son, the Rev. Lowry Guthrie. died before him; the younger, Charles Gardiner Guthrie, became a capable surgeon, but died in 1859, aged 42. He wrote 'Lectures on Ophthalmic Surgery,' and numerous papers on diseases of the eye (Lancet, 1859, iii. 203).

Guthrie had an active and robust frame, and keen, energetic features, with remarkably piercing black eyes. He was shrewd, quick, and sometimes inconsiderate in speech. His Hunterian oration in 1830, delivered without note, halt, or mistake, was a notable success. His somewhat brusque military manner concealed much kind-heartedness, and though dreaded as an examiner, he never rejected a candidate by his unsupported vote. His lectures were very popular, being interspersed with many anecdotes and illustrative cases. As an operator his coolness and delicacy of hand were of the highest order. His writings begin with 'Observations and Cases of Gunshot Wounds,' published in the fourth volume of the 'New Medical and Physical Journal,' 1811, in which he insisted on the necessity of tying both ends of a wounded artery. His celebrated work on gunshot wounds, published at the end of 1814, dealt especially with wounds of the limbs requiring amputation, and advocated immediate operation on the battle-field. The third edition, 1827, was enlarged, and entitled 'On Gunshot Wounds, on Inflammation, Erysipelas, and Mortification, on Injuries of Nerves, and on Wounds of the Extremities requiring the different operations of Amputation.' This work was translated into German in 1821. In 1819 he published a 'Treatise on Operations for the formation of an Artificial Pupil,' which was included in 1823 in his 'Lectures on the Operative Surgery of the Eye.' In 1834 he wrote a pamphlet 'On the Certainty and Safety with which the Operation of the Extraction of a Cataract may be performed.' In 1830 he published 'The Diseases and Injuries of Arteries,' delivered at the College of Surgeons in 1829, expounding especially the collateral circulation by which the life of a limb is maintained after the main artery has been tied. This was followed by works on 'Inguinal and Femoral Hernia,' 1833; 'The Anatomy and Diseases of the Neck of the Bladder and of the Urethra,' 1834; 'The Anatomy and Diseases of the Urinary and Sexual Organs,' 1836; 'Injuries of the Head affecting the Brain,' 1842; 'On Wounds and Injuries of the Arteries of the Human Body, with the Treatment and Operations required for their Cure,' 1846, and finally by a compendium of his former works, with new comments, issued in 1853 as 'Commentaries on the Surgery of the War,' 1808-15, termed a fifth edition; a sixth edition, with comments on the surgery of the Crimean war, appeared in 1855. The last two of these works are most interesting and graphic, and of much value as comments on military arrangements. His Hunterian oration was printed in the 'Lancet' for 1830. Many of his lectures and papers are published in various medical journals. He contributed three papers to the 'Transactions of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society,' the most important of which (viii. 550) was his 'Observations on the Treatment of Syphilitic Diseases without Mercury.' He also published a 'Letter to the Home Secretary on the Report of the Select Committee on Anatomy,' 1829 (second edition, 1837), and 'Remarks on the Anatomy Bill,' 1832.

[Pettigrew's Medical Portrait Gallery, iv. 1840; Lancet, 1850 i. 726-36 (with portrait), 1856 i. 519; J. F. Clarke's Autobiographical Recollections of the Medical Profession, pp. 257-60, 292.]

G. T. B.