Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cheselden, William

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CHESELDEN, WILLIAM (1688–1752), surgeon and anatomist, was born on 19 Oct. 1688 at Somerby, near Burrow-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire. It is conjectured by Nichols (Lit. Anecd. viii. 414) that he was apprenticed to a Mr. Wilkes, surgeon, of Leicester, but he was certainly in 1703 a pupil in London of William Cowper, the ceibbrated anatomist. Either then or soon after he was apprenticed to Mr. Ferne, surgeon to St. Thomas’s Hospital. Cheselden’s progress as an anatomist was rapid, for in 711 (two years after Cowper’s death) we find from his printed syllabus that he was already a lecturer on anatomy. His course consisted of thirty-five lectures, and was repeated four times in the year. In 1714 he was called to account by the Company of Barber-Surgeons for dissecting the bodies of malefactors in his own house without permission of the company, but on making his submission was excused. The lectures were accordingly continued, first in Cheselden's own house, and afterwards at St. Thomas’s Ilospital, for twenty years.

Cheselden was a candidate for the post of surgeon to St. Thomas’s on two occasions, in 1714-15, before he was successful; but on 9 July 1718 he was appointed assistant- surgeon, and on 8 April 1719 was elected without opposition one of the principal surgeons in place of William Dickenson, deceased. The newly appointed surgeon continued lecturing on anatomy, and also applied himself to operative surgery. He was perhaps led particularly to pay attention to the operation for the stone because his master, Ferne, was one of the surgeons specially licensed to perform this operation in the hospital ; this license being not granted, as a matter of course, to all the surgeons.

In 1723 Cheselden published a ‘Treatise on the High Operation for the Stone,’ in which, after describing his own method, he reprints the accounts of the operation written by several of his predecessors. Notwithstanding these candid acknowle ents, the book drew upon Cheselden a violent attack in a pamphlet entitled ‘Lithotomus Castratus’ (London, 1723, 8vo), anonvmous, but believed to have been written by John Douglas, a surgeon and rival anatomical teacher, formerly a pupil at St. Thomas’s, who had just before written a work on the same operation and performed it with success ‘Lithotomia Douglassiana, a New Method of Cutting for the Stone,’ London, 1723, 4to). The complaint was that Cheselden had plagiarised from Douglas, but the latter’s merits were so fully acknowledged in Cheselden’s preface that the attack seems uncalled for, and was probably due to some personal pique. The dispute was of the less consequence as Cheselden shortly afterwards gave up this operation, and adopted that by which he is best known. A great surgical operation is seldom the invention of one mind only. That which made Chewlden famous was based upon one invented and practised (with terrible want of success) by a friar, Frere Jacques, in Paris, and afterwards improved by Rau, a professor at Leyden, but as modified by Cheseden into his so-called ‘lateral operation for the stone’ was virtually a new invention. It was brought by him to such perfection of detail as has hardly been improved upon up to the present day, and to have invented this alone would be enough to make the name of Cheselden a landmark in the history of surgery. He executed it with extraordinary skill and brilliancy, and with a degree of success which, even with the aid of modern improvements, has hardly been surpassed. This classical operation was first performed on 27 March 1727. It soon became famous throughout Europe, and distinguished surgeons, from Paris among other places, came over (either of their own accord or in commission from some learned body) to become acquainted with Cheselden’s method. A full account of it is given in Dr. James Douglas’s ‘Appendix to the Ilistory of the Lateral Operation for the Stone, containing Mr. Cheselden's Method' (London. 1731).

In 1712 Cheselden sent a short note to the Royal Society (xxvii. 436) giving an account of some human bones of an extraordinary size contained in a Roman urn dug up at St. Albans, and in the same year was elected a fellow of the society. In the next volume (xxviii. 281) appears another short paper by him on some 'anatomical observations,' referring entirely to morbid anatomy. In 1728 he wrote a paper (Phil. Trans. xxxv. 447) which attracted universal attention, and has not been without importance in the history of psychology, 'An account of some observations made by a young gentleman who was born blind . . . and was couch'd between thirteen and fourteen years of age.' The account of this youth's singular experiences is clear and masterly, but disappointingly short, and most students of the subject have regretted that the opportunity was not seized for more detailed observations. Cheselden was not a man of the pen, and this extreme brevity is noticeable in everything he wrote. There was nothing novel in the operation itself, but in another paper in the same volume (p. 451) he describes a method of treating certain forms of blindness by the formation of an opening to serve as an 'artificial pupil.' This operation Cheselden was the west actually to perform, and he is regarded by good authorities as having thereby rendered 'immortal services' to the art of ophthalmic surgery.

Cheselden's contributions to anatomy stand next in importance to his surgical discoveries. His 'Anatomy of the Human Body ' was an extremely popular book, running to thirteen editions, it is not minute in detail, but practical, containing many physiological observations as well as points of surgery, with constant reference to experiment as the test of theory. His great work on the bones, 'Osteographia,' is one of the most splendidly illustrated works on the subject ever published; the plates not only have great artistic merit, but are extremely accurate; the text, after Cheselden's manner, is somewhat meagre. This work, though highly praised by competent authorities, was violently attacked by John Douglas, above mentioned, in a pamphlet entitled 'Animadversions on a late pompous Book called Osteographia' (London, 1786). The only notable literary work of Cheselden after this was the editing of Le Dran's 'Operations in Surgery,' translated into English by Gataker (2 vols. London, 1749), and a surgical paper in the 'Philosophical Transactions' (xliv. 33).

While thus engaged in hospital work and teaching Cheselden gained a large practice and became known to many eminent persons of his time. He was intimate with Pope, who has commemorated him with Dr. Mead in a line of his 'Imitations of Horace,' praised him in a letter to Swift, and has left a short note addressed to Cheselden himself which shows the intimacy existing between them. Jonathan Richardson the painter complimented him in verse as well as by painting the fine portrait of him now at the College of Surgeons. He attended the deathbed of Sir Isaac Newton, and was intimate with Sir Hans Sloane, as is shown by two manuscript letters in the British Museum, otherwise of no importance (Sloane MS, 4040).

In December 1727 Cheselden was appointed surgeon to Queen Caroline. Later on he would appear to have been out of favour at court, and was not called in during the queen's last illness. An improbable stony is told that Cheselden gave offence in high quarters by neglecting to perform a certain experimental operation on a condemned criminal. The proposed experiment consisted ia perforating the membrana tympani, or drum of the ear, so as to show whether this part is the seat of hearing, and whether the operation could safely be done to relieve deafness. Cheselden in his 'Anatomy' tells the story as follows: 'Some years since a malefactor was pardoned on condition that he suffered this experiment, but he falling ill of a fever the operation was deferred, during which time there was so great a public clamour raised against it that it was afterwards thought fit to be forbid.' So that proposing, the operation rather than neglecting to do it was more probably the offence.

In 1729 he was made corresponding member of the French Academy of Sciences, and on the foimdation of the Royal Academy of Surgery in Paris was made the first foreign associate. When St. George's Hospital was founded in 1733-4, Cheselden was elected one of the surgeons, and on his resignation in 1737 was made consulting surgeon. After many years' active practice he accepted, in February 1737, the appointment of surgeon to Chelsea Hospital, which was a sort of retirement, though probably lucrative, and retired from St. Thomas's 29 March 1738. He was one of the last wardens of the Barber-Surgeons' Company, immediately before the separation of the surgeons and barbers, which took place in 1744--6. Possibly Cheselden was concerned in the change (Dr. B. W. Richardson).

Although Cheselden's practice was large and lucrative, 500l. being his fee for the operation for the stone, he does not appear to have accumulated a large fortune. He died on 10 April 1762 at Bath, and is buried in the grounds of Chelsea Hospital. He married Miss Deborah Elnight of London, who survived him and lived till 1764. They had an only daughter, who married Dr. Charles Cotes of Woodcote, Shropshire, but died without issue.

Cheselden will always be regarded as beyond dispute one of the greatest of British surgeons. He was one of the most brilliant operators whose achievements are on record. On one occasion, to the astonishment of a French surgeon, he performed his celebrated operation in fifty-four seconds, and according to Dr. James Douglas this was nothing unusual. Modern surgery has hardly surpassed this. None the less was he a sound scientific surgeon, and, what is rarer, a man of real inventive genius. He is said to have had a taste for literature and pretensions to critical judgment, which on one occasion misled him (in the presence of Pope himself) into denying that the fourth book of the ‘Dunciad’ could be by the author of the first three. His true bent was evidently mechanical, and it is stated, on the authority of Faulkner's ‘History of Fulham,’ that Cheselden drew the plans for the old Putney bridge. He was also a keen patron of athletic sports, especially boxing. His disposition was gay and genial. He was fond of society and evidently popular. To his patients he was kind and tender-hearted. His portrait, above mentioned, was engraved in mezzotint by Faber.

He wrote: 1. ‘Syllabus sive Index Humani corporis partium anatomicus. In usum Theatri Anatomici Willhelmi Cheselden chirurgi. Autoris impensis,’ London, 1711, 4to. 2. ‘The Anatomy of the Human Body,’ 8vo, 1st ed. London, 1713; 13th ed. London, 1792. 3. ‘Treatise on the High Operation for the stone,’ London, 1723, 8vo. 4. ‘Osteographia, or the Anatomy of the Bones,’ London, 1733, fol.

[Mém. Acad. Royale de Chirurgie, vii. 168, Paris, 1757, 8vo (information from family); Nichols's Lit. Anecd. iv. 613, viii. 414, &c.; Biog. Brit. (Kippis), iii. 491; Archives of St. Thomas's Hospital; Richardson's Asclepiad, iii. 40, 1886.]

J. F. P.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.63
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
192 i 25 Cheselden, William: after anatomist insert son of George Cheselden by his wife Deborah, daughter of Major William Hubbert of Rearsby, Leicestershire
193 ii 2 f.e. for 1764 read 1754
l.l. after daughter insert Deborah Wilhelmina