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Walter George Spencer

(1858-1940), Surgeon

Sitter in 1 portrait

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Walter George Spencer, by Elliott & Fry - NPG x99663

Walter George Spencer

by Elliott & Fry
half-plate glass negative, 1950
NPG x99663


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Dr Rhys Hamilton

08 November 2018, 21:35

Additional transcription of the Autobiography of my Grandfather Dr Rhys Bevan John who was taught by Walter George Spencer as a Medical Student at Westminster Hospital.---The following describes my Grandfathers interactions with him over some medical cases and may be of interest. I have included it in its entirety but feel free to cut it or edit it--

---It was one of my duties as a house surgeon to go round the wards with the dressers trying to impart what little I knew to those who, presumably, knew even less.
Coming across a beautiful case of what I had diagnosed as a Schirrus Carcinoma of the breast, I opened up my vials of knowledge and proudly poured forth the contents. "You'll please notice gentlemen"-I began in my most impressive tones, "that this Schirrus is almost a textbook case. It is, as you see, situated in the upper outer quadrant of the breast, has drawn in the nipple, and, dimpled the skin, It is stony hard to the touch and is adherent both to skin and the deep tissue. The axillary glands are enlarged--The age incidence is a common one--Now all of you feel it for yourselves and make sure and make sure you have got the salient points." This was duly done and we proceeded to the next case.
On the next Wednesday, Mr Spencer did his round of the wards, accompanied as usual by his team of students.
I produced my list and, after a rapid glance at the notes, he went over the the cases to confirm the diagnoses. "Oh!-- Whats this?"-he exclaimed as he looked at my 'typical Schirrus'--"That's not a Schirrus..."---I blushed but, deferring to his superior knowledge, presumed to ask, amidst much tittering, "Whys is it not a Schirrus, Sir?--It has all the classical signs."
"Oh, I don't know. But it is not a Schirrus--after a cursory fingering of the breast--but had her down down for operation all the same.
This I most certainly did and as soon as the mass had been excised, nipped up to the Pathological Lab. where the venerable 'Daddy' Hebb resided and asked. "Would you examine this tissue and let me have your report, Sir?"-- The old man fingered it a moment. "Schirrus!"-he replied laconically. "I'll let you have my report in a few days. I smiled to myself.
When the examination was completed, I approached Dr Hebb with a grin.
"Scirrus, Sir?'
"God bless the boy--who told you it was a Schirrus? boy, is a very definite mastitis..... My jaw fell. "Mastitis, Sir?"--"Well--Look at the slides!" One feel was enough. Sure enough it was no cancer but an extremely fibrotic Mastitis.
When Mr Spencer next visited the ward I told him of how I had doubted his diagnosis and had had some slides made of the tumour removed.
"Do you mind telling me, Sir, how you knew it was not a malignant growth before you excised it?"--For a moment the old man communed within himself--then--turning up his eyes to heaven--and intoning his answer like a friend at prayers.
"Well--when you have looked at breast tumours for forty or fifty years, you too will know--but I'm afraid I can give you no other explanation...."
Singularly enough, history did repeat itself in my own case about 35 years later when I was able to confound two much abler Consultants by that peculiar knowledge that comes only with experience and insisted on a clear case of Mastitis which on operation proved to be correct and not a Schirrus!
Mr Stewart was a cautious lecturer. Very rarely was he able to be as emphatic as she was over my 'Schirrus' --Most of his statements were qualified with such phrases as 'Broadly speaking'--or 'more or less' which provoked a waggish student named Hughes to remark, after dining with the Spencer family,
that he 'Old Man' had introduced him saying "Broadly speaking, my wife and -er--um-- more or less my daughter." As the wife was truly broad of beam, the shaft went home, but the calumny about the daughter needed no rebutting--it passed for a witticism with no basis of fact. For some time I enjoyed the Old Man's favour as an Anaesthetist. This rather went to my head until, one day, he pushed me off the chair where I was somewhat slowly going under, seized a towel and a bottle of Chloroform, deluged the patient, half suffocated him with fumes and remarked.--"I used to think you were a good anaesthetist but I see now you are as slow as the rest of them. Speed, not safety, were his criteria. His knowledge of Surgery--he was joint author with Gask af a famous Handbook was only rivalled by his history of Westminster Hospital. He loved to tell of the 'bad old days' when there was a treasured frock coat, glossy with pus and blood that had been handed down from one Senior Surgeon to another at the Hospital and which was invariably worn at all major operations. Though not so spectacular as Stoneham, his influence on the students was very profound. -------

Dr Rhys Hamilton

08 November 2018, 20:12

Words in ((((---))) are mine--My name is Dr Rhys Hamilton-My Grandfather was Dr Rhys Bevan John
Referring to Walter George Spencer he tells us he was a senior surgeon at Westminster Hospital (the old one) when my grandfather was a medical student in the early 20th century. He (my grandfather) describes him in his autobiography which I am am currently transcribing- as--
"Possessed of that stern courage which all surgeons must possess, yet he always approached his patients with the upturned eyes and supplicating manner of an officiating priest. Profoundly learned, his surgical technique bore no comparison with Stoneham's swift sure strokes --(((Stoneham was another surgeon teaching him at Westminster))))--Yet his powers of diagnosis were uncanny --would that his technique were half so good.! --He belonged to that transition from pre- Listerian to Listerian Surgery. ((((This refers to Lister and his techniques for avoiding infection pre antibiotics)))) It was one of my tasks to see that he did not catch his head or turn up his trousers after he had 'Scrubbed up' for an operation!
In his heart of hearts I believe he despised these innovations as 'finicking'. Sometimes he frankly rebelled and, rubber gloves notwithstanding, would pluck at his moustache or smooth his hair. Sepsis was, accordingly, a common occurrence on his wards. As a diagnostician his acumen approached wizardry.
((((My Grandfather then goes on for a couple of handwritten pages to give some examples of some cases and other personal info about him --If you would like me to send these (once transcribed--I am happy to do so!))))

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