Thomas Spencer Wells (1818-1897)

Sir Thomas Spencer Wells, 1st Baronet MRCS [1841], FRCS [1844] (3 February 1818 – 31 January 1897) was Surgeon of the Samaritan Free Hospital for Women, Hunterian Professor of Surgery and Pathology at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Editor of the Medical Times and Gazette, President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Surgeon to Queen Victoria‘s household,

At a time when orthodox physicians were proclaiming they would not be seen even talking to a homeopath,  Spencer Wells was a “secret” patient of homeopath James Manby Gully, who also counted Queen Victoria as a patient.

Thomas Spencer Wells was born at St Albans, Hertfordshire and received his early education at St Albans School (then located in the Lady Chapel of the Abbey).

After a short time as a pupil of a surgeon in Barnsley (Yorkshire), he studied medicine at Leeds, Trinity College Dublin, St Thomas’ Hospital (becoming a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) in 1841 and a Fellow (FRCS) in 1844), and later in Paris, France.

He served as a naval surgeon in Malta, and then established his own practice in London in 1853. In 1854, and from 1856 to 78, he was Surgeon of the Samaritan Free Hospital for Women, London (serving in between as an army surgeon in the Crimean War).

He also lectured at the Grosvenor School of Medicine (which later became the medical school of St George’s Hospital). In 1877 he was appointed Hunterian Professor of Surgery and Pathology at the Royal College of Surgeons of England (of which he was elected President in 1883) and was created a Baronet by Queen Victoria in 1883. From 1863 to 1896 he was Surgeon to Queen Victoria‘s household.

Wells specialized in obstetrics and ophthalmic surgery. He is recognized as a pioneer in abdominal surgery and is notable for having perfected ovariotomy. He was also one the earliest surgeons to make use of anaesthetics in operations. He published a number of important medical books and articles.

Ralph Barnes Grindrod, an allopathic physician who worked in Malvern, Worcestershire, near to James Manby Gully’s hydropathic establishment, wrote to the British Medical Journal in October 1861 to express his surprise at seeing allopathic physicians turning up for treatment at Gully’s establishment, and to consult with Gully over “difficult cases,” and to bring and send their own patients to see James Manby Gully, all the while protesting against homeopathy.

In addition to Spencer Wells, Grindrod mentioned the following allopaths by name who visited Gully:– Booth Eddison, the President of the British Medical Association (another patient of James Manby Gully), Benjamin Vallance of Brighton (President of the Medico Chirurgical Society, Surgeon at the Sussex County Hospital), John Addington Symonds of Bristol (Vice President and President of the British Medical Association), Robert Lee (Regius Professor of Midwifery at the University of Glasgow), and Sutherland (possibly Dr. Alexander Robert Sutherland) – and he observed that there were a great many more.

In response to Grindrod‘s published letter, Spencer Wells replied in the British Medical Journal in the following issue, 19 October 1861, to explain. Spencer Wells was extremely ill in 1851 with right sided pneumonia, and he was attended by three eminent orthodox physicians who tried every conceivable treatment to no avail. After some weeks, two of his physicians advised him to consult James Manby Gully, as no air entered his right lung below the 2nd rib and the lung was almost completely filled with ‘low aplastic exudation‘ such that that it ‘did not much matter what I did‘ – indeed he could ‘please himself’.

So, Spencer Wells went to see James Manby Gully in Malvern. Gully told him to live in the open air, eat nothing but bread and lean meat, drink nothing but water and avoid all wine, beer, spirits tea, coffee and tobacco, and to be rubbed three times a day with wet towels by a bath man until ‘the skin was in a glow‘. After a time, Spencer Wells was also given hot air baths and cold douches.

Within six weeks, Spencer Wells left James Manby Gully‘s establishment well enough to climb hills and ride his horse, but he suffered a set back and returned to Gully as an outpatient, and shortly thereafter he was completely recovered, and remained well ever since.

Spencer Wells asked the readers of the British Medical Journal why he should think twice about referring his patients on to James Manby Gully after his own cure, and he boldly admitted that he had subsequently sent many patients to Gully‘s establishment.

In 1854, Spencer Wells published a book on Gout wherein he devoted an entire chapter to the Water Cure, and that he was proud to recommend James Manby Gully to several of his colleagues, but he added without irony that he had “never supported homeopathy” nor has he “met in consultation with a homeopath” nor “attended a patient with a homeopath.”

Nevertheless, Spencer Wells admitted in the British Medical Journal that he knew James Manby Gully, and that he sent patients to him, though he went to great lengths to disparage homeopathy. He acknowledged that he corresponded with Gully by letter over many of his cases, but that only once had they discussed homeopathy. This was when, according to Spencer Wells, Gully told him that due to such infinitesimal doses, it was perfectly safe to administer belladonna, strychnine, and “various other powerful remedies,” without any harm to the patient, a fact Spencer Wells said he concurred with without hesitation, and that he believed that every allopath would also concede this point.

Spencer Wells made it clear in his article that he continued to regard James Manby Gully as an “accomplished physician” and  hydrotherapist, but that he was ultimately not sure that Gully really was a homeopath, rather that Gully regarded homeopathy “very much as the rest of us do,” a statement that completely disregarded the fact that James Manby Gully was a member of the British Homeopathic Society, a member of the Hahnemann Publishing Society, and very active in the homeopathic community in Britain.

The Editor of the British Medical Journal wrote an brief comment in this same issue to the effect that Spencer Wells had fully explained his involvement with James Manby Gully, who could not be a homeopath as the Editor has never yet heard of any “accomplished physician figuring as a homeopath in Britain” and that he would “deeply regret to find that such a thing was possible.”

The Editor affirmed that Spencer Wells had acquitted himself of any stain of associating with homeopaths, and that it was also “impossible” that Ralph Barnes Grindrod has had any “dealings with a homeopath,” and since the original article of 12 October 1861, no one had come forward to contradict this position.

Unconvinced, Ralph Barnes Grindrod, in his subsequent letter to The British Medical Journal on 26 October, 1861, stated quite clearly of Spencer Wells “that the almost pervading influence of homeopathy in this place (Malvern) is mainly attributable to such individuals as Spencer Wells and others whom I have mentioned in my previous comunication,” and also to “those eminent Metropolitan physicians, still alive, who advised Spencer Wells and others to place themselves under the care of a homeopathic physician.”

Thomas Spencer Wells died in France after an attack of apoplexy on 31 January, 1897, three days short of his seventy-ninth birthday. He is buried in Brompton Cemetery.