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George Guthrie (1785-1856)

George Guthrie

George Guthrie was born in London on 1st May 1785. His Scottish grandfather had served with the army at the Battle of the Boyne. His father succeeded his maternal uncle, a retired naval surgeon, as a manage of a business for the sale of lead plaister. At the age of 13 years Guthrie accidentally came to the attention of John Rush, Inspector of Regimental Hospitals, who had him apprenticed to Dr Phillips, a surgeon in Pall Mall. As a teenager he attended the Windmill Street School of Medicine.

From June 1800 to March 1801 he served as Hospital Mate at the York Hospital Chelsea. In February 1801, Thomas Keate issued an order that all hospital mates must be members of the newly formed Royal College of Surgeons. As a result, Guthrie presented himself for examination the day after the order was issued and was examined by Keate himself. He made such a favourable impression that despite being on 16 years old he was immediately posted to the 29th Regiment. Guthrie accompanied the regiment to North America as assistant surgeon where he remained until 1807. On his return to England he was ordered out to the Peninsula where he served until 1814, earning a special commendation from the Duke of Wellington. He acted as the Principle Medical Officer at the Battle of Albuera where, one evening, he was responsible for the treatment of over 3000 wounded soldiers. In 1812 he was appointed as Deputy Inspector of Hospitals, but the medical board back in London refused to confirm his appointment on the ground of his youth.

At the end of the campaign he was placed on half pay and returned to private practice in London. He attended the lectures of Charles Bell and Benjamin Brodie at the Windmill Street School of Medicine. In 1815, after treating he injured from the Battle of Waterloo, he returned to London and was placed in charge of two clinical wards at the York Hospital. He discharged this duty for almost two years during which he was amongst the first in England to use lithotrity. He also began a course of lectures which was continued gratuitously to all medical officers of the public service for the next 20 years. In 1816, Guthrie was instrumental in establishing an Infirmary for diseases of the eye which later became the Royal Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital, long situated on King William Street, Strand, next to Charing Cross Hospital. In 1823 he was elected Assistant Surgeon to the Westminster Hospital, becoming full surgeon in 1827. He resigned this office in 1843 to make way for his son. At the Royal College ofTreatise on Gunshot Wounds of the Extremities (1813) Surgeons, Guthrie was a Member of Council form 1824 to 1856, a Member of the Court of Examiners from 1828 to 1856, Chairman of the Midwifery Board in 1853, Hunterian Orator in 1839 and President in 1833, 1841, and 1854. He was Hunterian Professor of Anatomy, Physiology and Surgery from 1828 to 1832. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1827. At the College of Surgeons he was in favour of reform and did much to secure the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act.

He was described as a man of active and robust frame, keen and energetic in appearance with remarkably piercing black eyes. Often outspoken, behind his military brusqueness was a much kindness of heart. He was a very popular lecturer, his lectures being full of anecdotes and illustrative cases. His unrivalled experience in military surgery, gained during the later years of the Peninsula War, was at the most receptive period of his life. It enabled him to advance the science and practice of surgery more than any other army surgeon had done since the days of Richard Wiseman. Before his time it was usual to treat gunshot wounds of the thigh by placing the limb on the side. Guthrie introduced the straight splint. He differed from John Hunter in the treatment of gunshot wounds requiring amputation. Hunter was in favour of a secondary operation whereas Guthrie advocated immediate removal of the limb. After the Battle of Albuera he introduced the practice of tying both ends of a wounded artery at the seat of the injury. Guthrie also advocated the destruction with mineral acids of the diseased tissues in cases of 'hospital gangrene'. His Treatise on Gunshot Wounds of the Extremities  was published in 1813 and contains detailed and graphic accounts of the management of war wounds. Guthrie married twice and had two sons and one daughter. He died suddenly on his birthday in 1856 and is buried at Kensal Green.

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