- A dictionary of medical eponyms

Thomas Spencer Wells

Born  1818
Died  1897

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English surgeon, born February 3, 1818, St. Albans, Hertfordshire; died January 31, 1897, Cape Antibes near Cannes, France.

Biography of Thomas Spencer Wells

Sir Thomas Spencer Wells was interested in natural science already as a child. He received his early education at St. Alban's School and for a period he enjoyed the education by Sadler, a surgeon practising in Barnsley, Yorkshire. In 1835 he lived with a physician in Leeds, where he attended the lectures of Thomas Pridgin Teale (1801-1868) in the local infirmary, while also serving as an assistant to a local surgeon. In 1837 to 1838, in Trinity College in Dublin, he was a pupil of Robert James Graves (1797-1853), William Stokes (1804-1878), Sir Philip Crampton (1777-1858), Thomas Edward Beattie (1801-1872), Robert Harrison (1796-1858), James Apjohn (1796-1886), and Arthur Jacob (1790-1874). During 1839-1840 he worked in the St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, under Joseph Henry Green (1791-1863), Benjamin Travers (1783-1858), and Frederick Tyrell (1793-1843).

Wells became a member of the Royal College of Surgeon in 1841 and soon afterwards entered the Royal Navy as assistant surgeon, serving preferably in the Mediterranean. For six years he was posted to the Naval Hospital on Malta. In 1848 he was appointed surgeon. The same year he was sent to Paris by the admiralty in order to study war injury pathology under François Magendie (1783-1855) and Claude Bernard (1813-1878) in Paris hospitals, and to report on this. Towards the end of 1848 he visited the hospitals of Rome, at the time when the liberation hero Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) and a group of volunteers attacked the city.

After leaving service, Wells established his own practice in London in 1853, devoting most of his time to obstetrics and ophthalmic surgery. In 1854 became physician at the Samaritan Free Hospital for Women, a small hospital devoted to women’s diseases. In this period he was strongly influenced by the gynaecologist Isaac Baker Brown (1812-1863) who advocated ovariotomy, a daring and controversial procedure in the pre-antiseptic area.

Wells was perhaps the greatest of the pioneer ovariotomists. In April 1854, Wells and Thomas William Nunn (born 1825) assisted Baker Brown in eight cases of ovariotomy, but the final results were not satisfactory, with two healings from nine operations. Wells performed his first ovariotomy in 1857, with fatal result. The next year, however, he succeeded, repeating his success several times.

His success occasioned other surgeons to try the procedure again, among them Baker Brown. He also inspired others to try the operation for the first time, among them William Tyler Smith and Thomas Keith (1827-1895). Wells, while gaining experience, soon succeeded in improving his operative methods to such a degree that other surgeons, both British and foreign, not only came to study his work, but also sent him their patients. In 1881 he reported on the first 1000 cases of ovariotomy to the Royal Medical and Surgical Society. In the last 100 cases mortality was just 11 percent. Wells was one of the earliest surgeons to make use of anaesthetics in operation.

Upon the outbreak of the Crimean War, on the occasion of the Ministry of War, Wells was envoyed as an army surgeon to the British Civil Hospitals in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey) and later at Renkoi on the Dardanelles, returning to London in 1856.

Wells lectured at the Grosvenor School of Medicine, which in 1865 became the medical school of St. George's Hospital, and in 1877 he was appointed Hunterian Professor of Surgery and Pathology at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. In 1878 he resigned his active post at the Samaritan Hospital and became consulting surgeon.

Wells was Hunterian orator in 1883 and that year he was elected president of the Royal College. From 1863 to 1896 he was surgeon to Queen Victoria's household. He was knighted as a baronet in 1883. In 1886 he was president of the congress of the Sanitary Institute of Great Britain.

Wells died as a result of a second attack of apoplexy while on a short journey to Cap d'Antibes on January 31 1897. He sustained his first attack two years previously, resulting in a mild paralysis which affected his speech until his death. He was an ardent advocate of cremation.

Wells was the publisher of the Medical Times and Gazette, London, 1856-1862.


  • Report of cases treated in the Royal Naval Hospital Malta in 1843 and 1844.
    The Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, 1846, 65: 1.
  • Case of hydrophobia following the bite of a cat. Employment of ether vapour and belladonna. The Malta Times, August 24, 1847: 3.
  • On the radical cure of reducible inguinal hermia.
    Medico-Chirurgical Transactions, London, 1858.
    The Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, 1858.
  • Three cases of tetanus in which "woorara" was used.
    Proceedings. Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society of London, 1859, 3: 142-157.
  • Cases of tetanus treated by woorara. Med.-Chir. Proc., 1860.
  • Cancer cures and cancer curers. London, 1860.
  • Bronchotomy. In: William B. Costello (1800-1867: The Cyclopaedia of Practical Surgery, including an etymological and critical terminology. 4 volumes, London, 1844-1861.
  • Diseases of bone. In: The Cyclopaedia of Practical Surgery.
  • Encephalocele. In: The Cyclopaedia of Practical Surgery.
  • Burns. In: Samuel Cooper (1789-1848): Surgical Dictionary, 1861.
  • Harelip. In: Samuel Cooper. Surgical Dictionary, 1861.
  • Diseases of the ovaries, their diagnosis and treatment. 1865, 1872
    New York, 1873; German translation, Leipzig, 1866, 1874. Italian, Milano, 1882.
  • Note book for cases of Ovarian and Other Abdominal Tumours".
    1865. Went through seven editions.
  • Cure of vaginal fistulae. St. Thomas’s Hospital Reports, London, 1870.
  • Relation of puerperal fever to infective diseases and pyaemia.
    Transactions of the Obstetrical Society of London, 1875.
  • Lectures on diagnosis and surgical treatment of abdominal tumours.
    Medical Times and Gazette, London, 1878.
    German translation in [Volkmann’s] Sammlung klinischer Vorträge, Leipzig, 1878, No. 148-150.
  • Ovarian and uterine tumours.
    1882. Philadelphia, 1882. Italian translation, Milano, 1883.
  • Note book for cases of abdominal tumours.
    London, 1865; 2nd edition, 1868; 6th edition, 1881; 7th edition, 1887. Italian translation, Milano, 1882.
  • Hunterian oration 1883. Medical Times and Gazette, London, 1883.
  • Diagnosis and Surgical Treatment of Abdominal Tumours. London, 1885.
    Philadelphia, 1885. German translation, Vienna, 1886. French, Paris, 1886.
  • The Morton Lecture on Cancer and Cancerous Diseases. London, 1889.
    German translation in Sammlung klinischer Vorträge, Leipzig, 1889, 103: 3193-3232.
  • Die Operationen von Gebärmuttergeschwülsten, die Oophorectomie und die Castration der Frauen bei Geistes- und Nervenkrankheiten.
    German translation in Sammlung klinischer Vorträge, Leipzig, Neue Folge 1891, 32: 287-288.
    French translation in: Annales de gynécologie et d'obstétrique, 1891: 36.
    Original in: British Medical Journal, London, 1890, 32: 1465-1468.
  • Modern abdominal Chirurgy.
    Bradshaw Lecture, British Medical Journal, 1890, 2: 1413-1416.
    Wodd’s Med. Surg Monography N. Y., 1891, 11: 285-313.
    German translation in Sammlung klinischer Vorträge, Leipzig, 1891, 31: 185-210.
  • Cremation or Burial?
    In Sir H. Thompson: Cremation. 3rd edition, London, 1884: 39-49.
    Sir Henry Thompson (1820-1904), Surgeon to Queen Victoria, was the first to recommend the practice of cremation on health grounds. In 1874 he founded The Cremation Society of England.
  • List of Sir Thomas Spencer Wells published Writings arranged chronologically.
    Transactions of the Obstetrical Society of London, 1899, 40: 91-101.
  • B. Brahma, M. Singh:
    What lies behind a name? (Sir Thomas Spencer Wells 1818-1897).
    NATNews, July 1981, 18 (7):15.
  • F. M. Forster:
    A case of ovariotomy instruments sent by Thomas Spencer Wells to Richard Thomas Tracy.
    The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the British Commonwealth, October 1965, 75 (5): 810-815.
  • J. A. Shepherd:
    Spencer Wells - Surgeon RN.
    Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 1970, 63: 306-308.
  • C. Savona-Ventura:
    The naval career of Sir Thomas Spencer Wells in the Mediterranean: 1842-1853.
    Maltese Medical Journal, 1999, 10(2):41-46.

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