James Spence – Surgeon – 1812-1882

James Spence, Surgeon, (1812–1882), son of James Spence, a merchant of Edinburgh, by his third wife, was born on 31 March 1812 in South Bridge Street, Edinburgh. He was educated in Galashiels, at a large boarding-school, and afterwards at the high school, Edinburgh. He entered the university of Edinburgh in 1825, and began to study medicine for the purpose of qualifying as an army surgeon.

His medical studies were interrupted, and he was apprenticed to Messrs. Scott & Orr, an eminent firm of chemists, then carrying on business in Prince’s Street, Edinburgh. He succeeded, however, in completing his medical education at the university and in the extramural school, and in 1832 he received the diploma of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, having previously spent sometime in Paris studying anatomy and surgery. As soon as he was qualified he made two voyages to Calcutta in 1833 as surgeon to an East Indiaman. He afterwards returned to Edinburgh, where he had a severe attack of typhus fever. There he began to teach anatomy as the university demonstrator under Professor Alexander Monro tertius [q. v.], and in this occupation he continued for seven years.

He resigned his post in 1842, and joined Drs. Handyside and Lonsdale in the extramural school of anatomy at 1 Surgeons’ Square, to act as demonstrator in place of Dr. Allen Thomson [q. v.], who had been appointed to the chair of physiology in the university. There Spence took part in the lecture-room course of demonstrations on regional anatomy, as well as in the dissecting-room teaching. His teaching was greatly appreciated in the school, at that time the chief school of anatomy in Edinburgh. He was a remarkably dexterous dissector, and some of his beautiful preparations of the vascular system are still preserved in the university.

Spence, who was in surgical practice while teaching anatomy, left the dissecting-room in 1846, and gave lectures on his favourite parts of surgery. In 1849, on becoming a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, he lectured systematically on surgery, at first at High Schools Yards, adjoining the royal infirmary, where Robert Liston [q. v.] and James Miller [q. v.] had lectured, and, on the death of Richard Mackenzie in 1854, at the school at Surgeons’ Hall. In 1864, on the death of Professor James Miller, he was appointed professor of surgery in the university. He had been appointed assistant surgeon to the Royal Infirmary in 1850, full surgeon in 1854, clinical lecturer in 1856, and he continued, as professor of surgery, to act as surgeon at the infirmary till his death. He was appointed surgeon in ordinary to the queen in Scotland in 1865, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1867 and 1868, and member of the general medical council in 1881, representing there the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

He died at 21 Ainslie Place, Edinburgh, on 6 June 1882, and was buried in the Grange cemetery, Edinburgh. A three-quarter length in oils was painted by James Irvine. It was etched by Durand of Paris, and a replica is in the possession of the Royal College of Surgeons at Edinburgh. The portrait was presented to Professor Spence on 18 July 1881, in the name of the medical profession of Great Britain, Ireland, and the Colonies.

He married, in 1847, the daughter of Thomas Fair of Buenos Ayres, by whom he had six sons and three daughters.

Spence must be reckoned among the great operating surgeons who have rendered Edinburgh famous throughout the world. Like Liston, Fergusson, and Syme, he had so intimate a knowledge of anatomy that every step in a difficult operation was foreseen. He was especially happy in his treatment of tracheotomy, herniotomy, urinary diseases, and amputations, yet he was essentially a conservative surgeon, and, like his great contemporary, Sir William Scovell Savory [q. v.], he maintained that, in skilled hands, the simple methods of the older school were preferable to, and gave as good results as, the more complicated system adopted by the disciples of the antiseptic school of Lister. After the death of James Syme in 1870 Spence became the leading consulting and operating surgeon, and occupied that position until his death.

He published: ‘Lectures on Surgery,’ plates, 4 pts. in 2 vols. 8vo, 1868–9–71; 2nd edit. 1875; 3rd edit. 1882. This is the work upon which Spence’s reputation as a writer chiefly rests. He also contributed many papers upon anatomical and surgical subjects to various Scottish, English, and Irish scientific journals.

[Obituary notices in the Edinburgh Medical Journal, 1882, xxviii. 89–96, British Medical Journal, 1882, i. 928, Lancet, 1882, i. 1011; private information from Mrs. Spence and Professor Struthers, F.R.S.]

Source: Dictionary of National Biography, volume 53, page 336.