Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wells, Thomas Spencer

WELLS, Sir THOMAS SPENCER (1818–1897), first baronet, surgeon, eldest son of William Wells, a builder, by his wife Harriet, daughter of William Wright of Bermondsey, was born at St. Albans, Hertfordshire, on 3 Feb. 1818. He soon showed a marked interest in natural science, and was therefore sent as a pupil, without being formally apprenticed, to Michael Thomas Sadler, a general practitioner at Barnsley in Yorkshire. He afterwards lived for a year with one of the parish surgeons at Leeds, attended the lectures of Hey and Teale, and saw much practice in the Leeds infirmary. In 1836 he proceeded to Trinity College, Dublin, where his knowledge of surgery was still farther advanced by the great Irish surgeons, Whitley Stokes [see under Stokes, William], Sir Philip Crampton [q. v.], and Arthur Jacob [q. v.] In 1839 he entered as a student at St. Thomas's Hospital in London to complete his professional education under Joseph Henry Green [q. v.], Benjamin Travers [q. v.], and Frederick Tyrrell [q. v.] Here, at the end of his first session, he was awarded the prize for the most complete and detailed account of the post-mortem examinations made in the hospital during the time of his attendance.

He was admitted a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England on 26 April 1841. He then joined the navy as an assistant surgeon, and served for six years in the naval hospital at Malta. He combined a civil practice with his more purely naval duties, and acquired so good a reputation as a surgeon that he was admitted to the higher grade of fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England on 26 Aug. 1844. His term of service at Malta being completed, he left the navy in 1848. He then proceeded to Paris to study pathology under Magendie, and to see the gunshot wounds which filled the hospitals after the struggle in June 1848. He afterwards accompanied the Marquis of Northampton on a journey to Egypt, and made some valuable observations on malarial fever. Wells returned to London in 1853, where, settling in practice at 30 Brook Street, he devoted himself at first to ophthalmic surgery. In 1854 he was elected surgeon to the Samaritan Free Hospital for women and children, then occupying 27 Orchard Street, Portman Square, but now situated in the Marylebone Road. The hospital had been established for seven years, but was little more than a dispensary, as it had no accommodation for in-patients. At the same time he was editor of the ‘Medical Times and Gazette,’ and in 1857 he became lecturer upon surgery at the Grosvenor Place school of medicine, which eight years later was merged in the medical school of St. George's Hospital.

Wells temporarily abandoned his work in London soon after the beginning of the Crimean war, and proceeded first to Smyrna, where he was attached as surgeon to the British civil hospital, and afterwards to Renkioi in the Dardanelles. He returned to London in 1856, and resumed his work at the Samaritan Hospital.

In his youth Wells did an unusual amount of midwifery, but he never thought seriously about ovariotomy until one day in 1848, when he discussed the matter at Paris with Dr. Waters of Chester. Both surgeons came to the conclusion that, as surgery then stood, ovariotomy was an unjustifiable operation. In April 1854 Wells and Thomas Nunn of the Middlesex Hospital assisted Baker Brown at his eighth ovariotomy. This was the first time that Wells had seen the operation, and he admitted afterwards that the fatal result discouraged him. The patient died, and after another fatal operation—the ninth—Baker Brown himself ceased to operate upon these cases from March 1856 until October 1858, when Wells's success encouraged him to recommence. Wells performed his first operation in 1858, and, though it ended in the death of the patient, he was not disheartened. He devoted himself assiduously to perfect the technique of ovariotomy, and the remainder of his life is practically a history of the operation from its earliest and imperfect stage, through its polemical period to the position it now occupies as a well-recognised and most serviceable operation, still capable of improvement, but advantageous alike to the individual, the family, and the state. It has saved many valuable lives at home and abroad. It has opened up the whole field of abdominal surgery, and it has thereby revolutionised surgical practice throughout the world.

Wells completed his first successful ovariotomy in February 1858, but it was not until 1864 that the operation was generally accepted by the medical profession. This acceptance was due chiefly to the wise manner in which Wells conducted his earlier operations. He persistently invited men of authority to see him operate. He published series after series of cases, giving full descriptions of the unsuccessful as well as of the successful operations, until in 1880 he had performed his thousandth ovariotomy. For exactly twenty years he operated at the Samaritan Free Hospital, where he resigned the office of surgeon in 1878, and was appointed consulting surgeon. Throughout the whole of this time he constantly modified his methods of operation, and always in the direction of greater simplicity. The hospital never contained more than twenty beds, and of these no more than four or five were available for purposes of ovariotomy.

Wells filled all the principal offices at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Elected a member of the council in 1871, he was chosen Hunterian professor in 1877, vice-president in 1879, and president in 1883. He delivered the Hunterian oration in 1883, the Morton lecture on cancer in 1888, and the Bradshaw lecture in 1890. He was made an honorary fellow of the King's and Queen's College of Ireland, and a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland in 1886. The universities of Leyden and Bologna conferred upon him the honorary degree of M.D. when they celebrated respectively the third and eighth centenaries of their existence, and he was also an M.D. of the university of Charkof. He was a knight commander of the Norwegian order of St. Olaf, and on 11 May 1883 her majesty conferred upon him the honour of a baronetcy of the United Kingdom. From 1863 to 1896 he acted as surgeon to the queen's household.

Wells died at Cap d'Antibes, near Cannes, on Sunday, 31 Jan. 1897. His remains were cremated at Woking, the ashes being interred in the Brompton cemetery.

He married, in 1853, Elizabeth Lucas (d. 1886), daughter of James Wright, solicitor, of New Inn and of Sydenham, by whom he left five daughters and one son, Arthur Spencer Wells, private secretary to the chancellor of the exchequer, 1893–5.

Wells was the originator of modern abdominal surgery. He found ovariotomy a discredited operation, but even before the introduction of antiseptics his success was sufficient to render its performance justifiable. Coupled with the improved surgical methods introduced by Lister, the principles governing the operation of ovariotomy have been applied to all the other abdominal viscera; the uterus, the kidneys, the liver, the spleen, and the intestines are now subjected to surgical interference with the happiest results. Yet Wells had at first no easy battle to fight. The whole weight of surgical opinion was against him. His perseverance, his transparent honesty, his absolute sincerity, and his power of argument at last overcame all opposition, and he lived to see his operation approved, adopted, and fruitful beyond all expectation.

His operations were models of surgical procedure. He worked in absolute silence; he took the greatest care in the selection of his instruments, and he submitted his assistants to a firm discipline which proved of the highest value to them in after life. At the conclusion of every operation he superintended the cleaning and drying of each instrument, and packed it into its case in the most orderly manner.

In addition to his purely surgical work, Wells was an ardent advocate of cremation, and it was chiefly due to his efforts and to those of Sir Henry Thompson that this means of disposing of the dead was brought into early use in England.

Almost to the last Wells had the appearance of a healthy, vigorous, country gentleman, with much of the frankness and bonhomie of a sailor. He was an excellent rider, driver, and judge of horseflesh. Besides his London residence, he owned a house and fine gardens at Golder's Hill, Hampstead, purchased for public recreation in 1898.

A half-length oil painting by Lehman, executed in 1884, represented Wells sitting in the robes of the president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. It was bequeathed to the Royal College of Surgeons. A bust executed in 1879 by Oscar Liebreich is in the possession of Sir A. S. Wells. Wells published: 1. ‘The scale of Medicines with which Merchant Vessels are to be furnished by command of the Privy Council for Trade. … With observations on the means of preserving the health and increasing the comforts of seamen,’ London, 1851, 12mo; 2nd ed. 1861, 8vo. 2. ‘Practical Observations on Gout and its Complications,’ London, 1854, 8vo. 3. ‘Cancer Cures and Cancer Curers,’ London, 1860, 8vo. 4. ‘Diseases of the Ovaries: their Diagnosis and Treatment,’ 8vo, London, vol. i. 1865, vol. ii. 1872; also published in America, and translated into German, Leipzig, 1866 and 1874. 5. ‘Notebook for Cases of Ovarian and other Abdominal Tumours,’ London, 1865, 8vo; 2nd ed. 1868; 7th ed. 1887; translated into Italian, Milan, 1882, 12mo. 6. ‘On Ovarian and Uterine Tumours: their Diagnosis and Treatment,’ London, 1882, 8vo; translated into Italian, Milan, 1882, 8vo. 7. ‘Diagnosis and Surgical Treatment of Abdominal Tumours,’ London, 1885, 8vo; translated into French, Paris, 1886, 8vo.

[Autobiographical details in the Revival of Ovariotomy and its Influence on Modern Surgery, London, 1884; obituary notices in the British Medical Journal, 1897, i. 368, and in the Revue de Gynécologie et de Chirurgie abdominale, 1897; additional information kindly given by Sir Arthur S. Wells, bart.]

D’A. P.