My article in Bronte Studies

My article in Bronte Studies
My article

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

William’s brother and 19th century surgery

William Smith Williams’s elder brother was my great grandfather, Richard.

As boys they lived on London’s Strand, then a busy road in a crowded new urban area. Very nearly opposite their dwelling, above their father’s wax and tallow chandler business, were the premises of John Weiss, Surgical Instrument Makers.  

One of my treasured possessions is the signed cover of a copy of the catalogue of the Great Exhibition presented to my great-grandfather by the members of the Surgical and Anatomical Committee Class X, ‘as a slight token of the services rendered by him as Secretary’. Richard managed the business of John Weiss & Son, manufacturers of surgical instruments at 62 The Strand, and, I like to think, offered his services for the exhibition.

For the exhibition, John Weiss & Son had produced a most marvellous instrument comprising 1,851 knives. This was clearly a bit of showing off. Yet, behind the scenes, advances were being made in surgery with the work of Lister and others, and the makers of instruments were taking up the challenge to keep pace. Lindsey FitzHarris has written a fascinating book on 19th surgery entitled The Butchering Art, and I draw on this to paint a picture of the world Richard Williams sought to serve. When he started out, surgery was largely a matter of dexterity. There were no anaesthetics, and so speed in operation was of the essence. There were no antiseptics and experience had also taught surgeons that the only operations, where the patient had any real chance of survival, were those as least invasive as possible, and, even then, the patient was more likely to die than live. Richard would have witnessed the opening of the Charing Cross Hospital, not far from Weiss’s premises. He may have witnessed operations, which were often public spectacles with a great deal of blood and gore. He would have been aware of the great strides made in anaesthetics in the 1840s in Edinburgh which saved patients the agony of experiencing the knife. It was a world that was progressing on many fronts and only a few years later antiseptics would begin to be used. Weiss & Son are still in business.  I imagine Richard’s son, Alfred my grandfather at age nineteen, visiting the exhibition and being inspired by all he saw. He would go on to register a number of patents during his varied career including that for a life raft for which he won a number of awards. It was an age of invention.


Richard Williams


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