Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Key, Charles Aston

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KEY, CHARLES ASTON (1793–1849), surgeon, born in Southwark on 6 Oct. 1793, was eldest son of Thomas Key, medical practitioner, and Margaret Barry. Thomas Hewitt Key [q. v.] was a half-brother by a second marriage. Aston Key was educated at Buntingford grammar school, Hertfordshire, and was apprenticed to his father in 1810. He attended the lectures at the United Borough Hospitals in 1812, and became a pupil at Guy's in 1814. In 1815 his apprenticeship to his father was cancelled, and he became pupil of Astley Cooper at a large premium. In 1817–18 he lived with Cooper, and in 1818 married Cooper's niece, Anne Cooper. Key became demonstrator of anatomy at St. Thomas's Hospital, but resigned the post in February 1823, though he gave some of Sir Astley Cooper's surgical lectures for two sessions afterwards. Key had qualified at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1821, and in the autumn of the same year was appointed the first assistant surgeon to Guy's, succeeding to a full surgeoncy in January 1824. In this year he introduced the operation for lithotomy with the straight staff, using only a single knife all through; the success of his operations established his reputation as a surgeon. He gained a large practice, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. In 1825, on the separation of Guy's from St. Thomas's medical schools [see Cooper, Sir Astley Paston], Key was appointed lecturer on surgery at Guy's, and his classes were for many years very popular. He resigned the lectureship in 1844. In 1845 he was one of the first elected fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons, and in the same year became a member of its council. In 1847 he was appointed surgeon to Prince Albert. He died of cholera on 23 Aug. 1849, leaving nine children. His son Sir Astley Cooper Key is separately noticed.

Key was a great surgical operator and lecturer, his lectures being largely the results of his own experience. He was not a well-read man nor a scientific pathologist. He was one of the first surgeons in London to use ether as an anæsthetic. His dexterity with the knife was remarkable; he was never known to make a mistake through inattention to details. In person he was of commanding presence, thin, and rather tall, with a slightly aquiline nose.

Key contributed to the ‘Guy's Hospital Reports’ some valuable papers on hernia, lithotomy, and other subjects. He also wrote:

  1. ‘A Short Treatise on the Section of the Prostate Gland in Lithotomy,’ 4to, 4 plates, London, 1824.
  2. ‘A Memoir on the Advantages and Practicability of Dividing the Stricture in Strangulated Hernia on the outside of the Sac,’ 8vo, London, 1833;

and he edited the second edition of Sir Astley Cooper's work on hernia, 1827.

[Brit. and For. Med.-Chir. Review, iv. 572–7; Lancet, 1849, ii. 300, 411; Wilks and Bettany's Biog. Hist. of Guy's Hospital.]

G. T. B.