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Sir Felix Semon

Born  1849
Died  1921

Related eponyms

British otolaryngologist, 1849-1921.

Biography of Sir Felix Semon

Semon was the son of a Berlin stockbroker and a nephew of the physician Julius Semon (born 1819). His brother was Richard Wolfgang Semon (1859-1918), professor of anatomy at Jena and Munich.

Felix Semon commenced his medical studies at Heidelberg, but these were interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 in which he served as a volunteer. Whilst camped outside Paris he composed a military march which was used by his regiment of Uhlans when they marched into Berlin after peace had been declared. Semon graduated in MD from Berlin in 1872 and subsequently studied in Vienna and Paris, being attracted into the area of ear, nose and throat by the recent introduction of the laryngoscope.

In 1874 Semon settled in London, becoming a physician at the Golden Square Throat Hospital and, in 1882, physician for diseases of the throat at St. Thomas’s Hospital. He became a member of the Royal College of Physicians at London, in 1888 laryngologist to the National Hospital for Epilepsy, Queen Square.

Semon worked in the Brown Institute with Victor Horsley (1857-1917) and made a number of important contributions. As early as in 1883 Semon advocated the view that post-thyroidectomy cachexia strumipriva, myxoedema, and cretinism were all due to loss of function of the thyroid. His contention, at first criticized, was later fully endorsed by the report of the committee set up by the Clinical Society of London to investigate the subject of myxoedema.

He and Horsley showed that it was difficult, if not impossible, to produce laryngeal paralysis from a one-sided cortical lesion. He showed that adductor paralysis of the larynx was usually due to either psychosomatic states, myasthenia or some other muscle disorder and that organic diseases of the nerves usually caused abductor paralysis although this was sometimes associated with adductor paresis as well. He developed the modern operation of laryngofissure for early cancer of the larynx.

He introduced the treatment of vocal rest for laryngeal tuberculosis which was soon used in most sanatoriums throughout the world. In 1893 he founded the Laryngological Society of London and in 1894 the German emperor gave him the title of Royal Prussian Professor. In 1897 he was knighted and in 1901 was appointed Physician Extra-Ordinary to King Edward VII. His wife was a fine vocalist whom he used to accompany, and he also was a keen hunter and angler. He retired from professional life in 1909 and died in 1921.

Semon is remembered for having supported the German physicians in the unfortunate international conflict between German and English physicians in the case of the disease and death of emperor Friedrich III of Germany. In the middle of this conflict was the English physician Sir Morell Mackenzie (1837-1892), who misdiagnozed what proved to be a fatal cancer. However, Semon occasioned the German edition of Sir Morell Mackenzie’s Diseases of the throat and nose (2 volumes, 1880-1884) as Die Krankheiten des Halses und der Nase.

Semon in 1884 founded the Internationales Centralblatt für Laryngologie, and in 1893 the London Society for Laryngology. In his honor the University of London established a foundation for the establishment of a Semon Lectureship.


  • Clinical remarks on the proclivity of the abductor fibres of the the recurrent laryngeal nerve to become affected sooner than the adductor fibres, or even exclusively, in cases of undoubted central or peripheral injury or disease of the roots or trunks of the pneumogastric, spinal accessory, or recurrent nerves. Archives of Laryngology, New York 1881, 2: 197-222. Rosenbach-Semon law.
  • A typical case of myxoedema. British Medical Journal, 1883, 2: 1072.
  • Die Frage des Überganges gutartiger Kehlkopfgeschwülste in bösartige.
    Berlin, 1889.
  • Some thoughts on the principles of local treatment in diseases of the upper air passages. London, 1902.
  • Autobiography, edited by H. C. Semon and Th. H. McIntyre, London, 1926.

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