The Life Saving Awards Research Society
Journal No.61
THE ROYAL HUMANE SOCIETY SILVER MEDAL TO
SIR BENJAMIN COLLINS BRODIE (1783 – 1862)
by Ian Midgley
‘.... On Monday night, a young woman, between 17 and 18, threw herself into the river
near Harnham Mill, where it is supposed she might have lain upwards of ten minutes,
when William Dear, although it was perfectly dark, jumped in, caught hold of her, and,
by much exertion, at last brought her out, and carried her to the miller’s house. She
was declared by the spectators to be totally dead. Mr Brodie (a pupil now walking St.
George’s Hospital, being on a visit to his mother), and Mr Bickingsale, apothecary,
employed the usual means of resuscitation recommended by the R.H.S. which, after
some time, brought about languid symptoms of life; although the unfortunate woman
had received a violent blow on the head, from the pier of the bridge (as it is supposed
in throwing herself in). By medical attention, she is now perfectly restored to life and
health’. (Communication from William Collins Esq to Mr B. Hawes, appearing in the
RHS Annual Report of 1805).
Royal Humane Society, large silver medal (successful), (R.H.S. Do. Brodie vitam ob restitvtam dono dat
1805), within a glazed silver frame upon which is engraved, ‘Go and do thou likewise’, fitted with swivel ring
suspension.
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Journal No.61
The Life Saving Awards Research Society
Little could this 21 year old medical student have realised in his first lifesaving act that
he was destined to become one of the most distinguished physicians of the 19th
century, as the following short biography shows.
Born 1783 the fourth child of the Rev. Peter Bellinger Brodie, Rector of Winterslow,
Wiltshire, he joined the medical profession without any special liking or bent for it. At
the age of 18 he went up to London, devoting himself from the first to the study of
anatomy. In 1801 and 1802 he attended the lectures of James Wilson at the Hunterian
School in Great Windmill Street, where he worked hard at dissection. In 1803 Brodie
became a pupil of Sir Everard Home at St. George’s Hospital, and was successively
appointed House Surgeon and Demonstrator to the Anatomical School, after which he
was Home’s assistant in his private operations and researches in comparative
anatomy, and he did much work for him at the Royal College of Surgeons Museum.
Brodie still diligently pursued his anatomical studies at the Windmill Street School,
where he first demonstrated for, and then lectured conjointly with, James Wilson until
1812. In 1808, before he was twenty-five, he was elected Assistant Surgeon at St.
George’s, thus relieving Home of some part of his duties. Brodie remained in this
position fourteen years, and his “regular attendance at the hospital was an immense
improvement, in the interests both of the patients and the students, on the practice
obtaining in the metropolitan hospitals of that day.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1810.
In 1809 Brodie entered upon private practice, and in 1822 became full Surgeon at St.
George’s Hospital, from which time forward his career was one of ever-increasing
success.
He became a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1805, a Fellow in 1843, and
from 1819 to 1823 he was Professor of Anatomy, Physiology, and Surgery at the
College. He lectured upon the Organs of Digestion, Respiration, and Circulation, and
on the Nervous System, the most interesting of his discourses being upon “Death from
Drowning?.
One of the more curious methods of resuscitation at this time was investigated by
Brodie in 1811. This strange method was the old Red Indian method of fumigation,
forcing tobacco fumes into the intestines through the rectum. Brodie discovered by
experiments on animals that it was more likely to kill than cure. Notwithstanding his
considered judgment, many continued to believe right through the nineteenth century
that the introduction of irritants into the rectum worked, and the Royal Humane Society
advocated the use of hartsthorn (ammonia water) and mustard. In 1815 James Curry
invented a surgical instrument for this very purpose, a kind of large syringe. One later
writer described it as a forerunner of the grease gun!
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The Life Saving Awards Research Society
Journal No.61
While Professor at the College, Brodie became Surgeon to George IV, and attended
him during his last illness, when he went every night to Windsor, slept there, and
returned to London in the morning. “His habit was to go into the king’s room at about
six o’clock, and sit talking with him for an hour or two before leaving for town.? The
king became warmly attached to him.
He was Surgeon to William IV, and in
1834, he was made a Baronet.
He retired from St. George’s Hospital in
1840, but for some time continued his
activity at the College, which owes to him
the institution of the Order of Fellows.
The object of this institution, he
maintained, was to ensure the
introduction into the profession of a
certain number of young men who might
be qualified to maintain its scientific
character, and would be fully equal to its
higher duties as hospital surgeons,
teachers, and improvers of physiological,
pathological, and surgical science
afterwards. The Fellowship may be said
to have been largely instrumental in
raising the college to what it now is – “the
exemplar of surgical education to the
whole kingdom.
Brodie was the first President of the General Medical Council, having been elected in
1858. Within a week after receiving this honour he became President of the Royal
Society, an office which he filled with great dignity and wisdom till 1861; he died in
1862
References:
Royal Humane Society, Annual Report 1805
Plarr, Victor, Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of England , Vol. 1,
1930;
Pearson, Ronald, Lifesaving, the story of the RLSS, the first 100 years .
Dix Noonan Webb, Auction Catalogue, Dec 2006
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