Syme, James (DNB00)

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SYME, JAMES (1799–1870), surgeon, second son of John Syme of Cartmore and Lochore in Fifeshire, was born in Edinburgh on 7 Nov. 1799. He received his chief education at the high school, Edinburgh, and even during his boyhood showed a strong predilection for anatomical pursuits and chemistry. One result of his researches was the discovery, at the age of seventeen, of the method afterwards patented by Charles Mackintosh [q. v.] of applying caoutchouc in solution to the preparation of waterproof cloth. In 1815 he proceeded to Edinburgh University, and became a pupil of Dr. John Barclay [q. v.], the great anatomist. He never attended a course of lectures on surgery, but in 1818 he was given by Robert Liston [q. v.] the charge of his dissecting rooms as demonstrator. In 1820 he obtained the post of superintendent of the Edinburgh Fever Hospital, and in 1821 became a member of the London College of Surgeons. In the summer of 1822 he visited Paris for the sake of prosecuting anatomy and operative surgery. In 1823, on the retirement of Liston, Syme began a regular course of lectures on anatomy, and became a fellow of the College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. In 1824 he paid a visit to the German medical schools, and in 1825 he added a course of lectures on surgery to those of anatomy; but he soon abandoned anatomy for surgery. In 1829, disappointed at not receiving an infirmary appointment for which he had applied, he started a private surgical hospital at Minto House, where he inaugurated that system of clinical instruction which was destined to shed lustre on the Edinburgh school. In 1833 he was appointed by the crown professor of clinical surgery in Edinburgh University, and the managers of the infirmary were compelled to afford him accommodation for carrying on his lectures. In the following year, Liston proceeded to London, and Syme remained without a rival in Scotland. In 1838 he was appointed surgeon in ordinary to the queen in Scotland. On the death of Liston in 1847, Syme accepted the invitation to succeed him as professor of clinical surgery in University College, London. He went to London in February 1848, but, owing to misunderstandings with regard to the conditions of the appointment, he resigned in May, and in July returned to his chair in Edinburgh, which had not been filled up. He was on his return elected to be president of the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Edinburgh. Between 1850 and 1855 Syme, in addition to his practice and teaching, actively interested himself in medical reform—a subject which attracted him to the last. His fame as a teacher, no less than as a surgeon, continued to rise till he became generally recognised as the greatest living authority in surgery. He was elected chairman of the jury on surgical instruments at the international exhibition of 1861. In 1867 he visited Dublin, and received the honorary degree of M.D. In 1868 Thomas Carlyle underwent an operation in his house at Millbank. In 1869 Syme was made M.D. of Bonn, and D.C.L. of Oxford. He was still in full work as professor, and fighting the ‘battle of the sites’ for the new infirmary, in which his view proved successful. On 6 April 1869 he had a bad attack of hemiplegia; this put a stop to his proposed election as president of the medical council, of which he had been representative for Edinburgh and Aberdeen universities for ten years, and in July he resigned his chair and position of surgeon to the infirmary. A testimonial was initiated by his former pupils, and resulted in the foundation of the ‘Syme surgical fellowship.’ During the autumn and winter he continued to see patients at his consulting rooms, but in the spring the disease returned once more, and he died at Millbank, near Edinburgh, on 26 June 1870. He was buried at St. John's episcopal church, of which he had long been a member.

To enumerate all the contributions, writes Sir Joseph (now Lord) Lister, made by Syme during his career to the science and art of surgery is out of the question. His early papers on the nature of inflammation; the views expressed in his ‘Principles of Surgery’ on ‘disturbance of the balance of action’ in the system in relation to the cause and the cure of disease; his beautiful experiments demonstrating the function of the periosteum in the repair of bone; his plan of leaving wounds open till all oozing of blood had ceased, adopted by, and often attributed to, Liston; his constitutional treatment of senile gangrene; his treatment of callous and specific ulcers by blistering; the introduction into Britain of excision of the elbow in spite of powerful opposition; the amputation—which bears his name—at the ankle joint, and which has superseded in most cases amputation of the leg; his improvements in plastic surgery, and more especially in the repair of the lower lip; his discoveries in diseases of the rectum, previously an obscure subject; his treatment of stricture of the urethra by external division, and his bold and original methods of grappling with some of the most formidable kinds of aneurysm; his additions to the mechanical instruments and appliances of his art—such are some of his many labours, and will serve to illustrate their great variety and extent.

As a practical surgeon Syme presented a remarkable combination of qualities—soundness of pathological knowledge, skill in diagnosis, rapidity and clearness of judgment, fertility in resource as an operator combined with simplicity of method, skill, and celerity of execution, fearless courage, and singleness of purpose. His character was ably summed up by Dr. John Brown as ‘Verax, capax, perspicax, sagax, efficax, tenax.’ Syme was twice married: first, to the daughter of Robert Willis, a Leith merchant. She died on 17 Nov. 1840, survived by two daughters, one of whom married Professor (now Lord) Lister, his successor in the chair. Syme was married a second time, in 1841, to Jemima Burn, by whom he was survived, with a son.

The following are Syme's principal works: 1. ‘On the Excision of Diseased Joints,’ 8vo, Edinburgh, 1831. 2. ‘The Principles of Surgery,’ 8vo, Edinburgh, 1832 [the fifth and last edition in 1863 is smaller than the first]. 3. ‘Researches on the Function and Powers of the Periosteum,’ 8vo, Edinburgh, 1837. 4. ‘On Diseases of the Rectum,’ 8vo, Edinburgh, 1838 [supplement, 8vo, Edinburgh, 1851]. 5. ‘Contributions to the Pathology and Practice of Surgery,’ 8vo, Edinburgh, 1848. 6. ‘On Stricture of the Urethra and Fistula in Perineo,’ 8vo, Edinburgh, 1849. 7. ‘Observations in Clinical Surgery,’ 8vo, Edinburgh, 1861. 8. ‘Excision of the Scapula,’ 8vo, Edinburgh, 1864.

[Memorials of James Syme by R. Paterson, M.D., 1874 (with two portraits and a complete list of Syme's published works and papers); obituary notices in Edinburgh Medical Journal, 1870 (by Dr. Joseph Bell), Scotsman, 28 June 1870 (by Professor—now Lord—Lister), Pall Mall Gazette, 28 June 1870, Edinburgh Courant, 27 June 1870; Grant's Hist. of Edinburgh University.]

G. S-h.