Tait, Robert Lawson (DNB01)

TAIT, ROBERT LAWSON (1846–1899), surgeon, born at 45 Frederick Street, Edinburgh, on 1 May 1845, was son of Archibald Campbell Tait of Dryden, then a guild brother of Heriot's Hospital, and Isabella Stewart Lawson of Leven. From the age of seven LawsonTait was educated at Heriot's Hospital school. He became a student of medicine at the university of Edinburgh and in the extramural school, where he worked under the immediate superintendence of Alexander McKenzie Edwards, the favourite pupil of Sir William Fergusson [q. v.] In 1866 he was admitted a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and he acted for a time as assistant to Sir Henry Littlejohn and Sir James Young Simpson [q. v.] He was also profoundly influenced by the example of James Syme [q. v.], whose habits of cleanliness in his surgical work were in contrast with the methods and results of most of his contemporaries. During this time he gave particular attention to biology and histology.

Tait was appointed house-surgeon to the Wakefield Hospital in 1867, a post he held for three years, and it was here that he performed his first ovariotomy on 29 July 1868, in the earlier months of his twenty-forth year. He performed a similar operation on five occasions before he removed to Birmingham in 1870; but this experience does not seem to have directed his attention to the work of his life, for in September 1870 he took the practice of Mr. Thomas Partridge and settled in Birmingham at the corner of Burbury Street, Lozell's Road. He was admitted a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England on 25 Jan. 1870, and later in the same year he was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. In Birmingham he soon made a name for himself as a bold surgeon, an aggressive enemy, and an original thinker. He was a lecturer on physiology at the Midland Institute from 1871 to 1879, where his teaching of the Darwinian theory of evolution excited from time to time much public opposition. He was elected, after examination, a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England on 8 June 1871, and in the following month he was appointed surgeon to the newly founded Hospital for Diseases of Women, a post he held until 1893, when he was elected a member of the consulting staff. In 1873 he was awarded the Hastings gold medal of the British Medical Association for his essay on 'Diseases of the Ovaries,' and in 1890 he received the Cullen and Liston triennial prize at Edinburgh for his services to medicine, especially in connection with his work on the gall-bladder. This prize, which was afterwards exhibited in the art gallery at Birmingham, consisted of a silver bowl of seventeenth-century London workmanship. In 1872 he performed two operations of historic importance, for on 2 Feb. he removed an ovary for suppurative disease, and on 1 Aug. he extirpated the uterine appendages to arrest the growth of a bleeding myoma. In 1873 he performed his first hysterectomy for myoma of the uterus, following with but slight modification the technique of Koeberlè, and in June 1876 he removed a naematosalpinx, and thus made the profession familiar with the pathology of this condition. In 1878 Tait began to express doubts as to the value of the Listerian precautions then adopted by most operating surgeons, and thus became a leader in the school of 'aseptic' as opposed to 'antiseptic' surgery. In 1879 he did his first cholecystotomy, an operation which marked the beginning of the rational surgery of the gall tract. On 17 Jan. 1883 he first performed the operation for ruptured tubal pregnancy and saved the patient. A series of thirty-five cases with but two deaths speedily followed, and the operation took its place as a recognised method of treating a desperate condition.

In 1874 Lawson Tait was instrumental in organising the Birmingham Medical Institute, of which he was an original member, and in 1887 he was one of the founders of the British Gynaecological Society, serving as its president in 1885. In 1887 he became professor of gynaecology at Queen's College, and in 1890 he was bailiff of the Mason College. He was instrumental in 1892 in causing the medical school of Queen's College to be transferred to Mason College, and thus smoothed the way for the foundation of the university of Birmingham.

Tait performed many of the duties of a citizen m Birmingham. Elected a member of the city council in 1866 as a representative of the Bordesley division, he became chairman of the health committee and a member of the asylums committee. He contested the Bordesley division of the city in the Gladstonian interest in 1886, but was easily defeated by Mr. Jesse Ceilings. In the British Medical Association Tait was a member of the council, president of the Birmingham branch and also of the Worcestershire and Herefordshire branch, and in 1890 he delivered the address on surgery when the association held its annual meeting in Birmingham. He was president of the Medical Defence Union and raised the society to a position of considerable importance. In 1876 he was president of the Birmingham Natural History Society,and in 1884 he was president of the Birmingham Philosophical Society. He was also professor of anatomy at the Royal Society of Artists and Birmingham School of Design. He was too a founder of the Midland Union of Natural History Societies, and was largely concerned in the establishment of coffee-houses in Birmingham.

The university of the State of New York conferred on him, honoris causa, the degree of M.D. in 1886, and in 1889 he received a similar tribute from the St. Louis College of Physicians and Surgeons, while in 1888 the Union University of New York conferred upon him the degree of LL.D. At the time of his death he was an honorary fellow of the American Gynæcological Society and of the American Association of Obstetricians and Gynæcologists.

The last five years of Tait's life were marked by almost continuous ill-health, which caused him to relinquish much of his operative work for the repose of Llandudno, where he purchased a house. Here he died of uræmia on 13 June 1899. His body was cremated at Liverpool, the ashes being afterwards interred in Gogarth's cave, an ancient burial-place in the grounds of his Welsh home. He married, in 1871, Sybil Anne, a daughter of William Stewart, solicitor of Wakefield, Yorkshire, but he had no children.

Lawson Tait was a frequent contributor to the press, lay as well as medical. He had a sound antiquarian knowledge; he was an excellent companion, a good raconteur, and an admirable public speaker. He enjoyed being in a minority, and this led him to champion many lost causes. As a surgeon he simplified and perfected the technique and greatly enlarged the scope of abdominal surgery. The pioneers in this department of surgery had almost limited themselves to the diseases of the ovaries and uterus; but Tait's consummate operative skill, coupled with his power of generalisation, enabled him to extend the range of uterine surgery and to apply its principles, until now nearly every abdominal organ can be successfully explored and treated by the surgeon.

He published: 1. 'The Pathology and Treatment of Diseases of the Ovaries' (the Hastings prize essay, 1873), 1874; 4th edit. 1882. 2. 'An Essay on Hospital Mortality, based on the Statistics of the Hospitals of Great Britain for Fifteen Years,' London, 1877, 8vo. 3. 'Diseases of Women,' London, 1877, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1886. An American edition was published in New York in 1879 and at Philadelphia in 1889, and the work was translated into French by Dr. Olivier in 1886 and by Dr. Betrix in 1891. 4. 'The Uselessness of Vivisection upon Animals as a Method of Scientific Research,' Birmingham, 1882, 8vo; reissued in America in 1883, and translated into German, Dresden, 1883, 8vo. 5. 'Lectures on Ectopic Pregnancy and Pelvic Hæmatocele,' Birmingham, 1888, 8vo.

[Lancet and British Medical Journal, vol. i. 1899; The Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. xviii. 1892 and xxxii. 875, 1899; Contemporary Medical Men, edited by John Leyland, vol. ii. 1888; private information.]

D’A. P.