Robert Lee 1793 – 1877

Robert Lee 1793 – 1877 was a British orthodox physician, Member of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons, Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London, Fellow of the Royal Society, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Governor General of the Crimea and the Russian provinces around the Black Sea, Physician to the British Lying in Hospital, Lecturer on Midwifery in the Webb Street School of Anatomy and Medicine, Regius Professor of Midwifery at the University of Glasgow, Lecturer on Midwifery and the Diseases of Women at St George’s Hospital, Physician to Lady Caroline Lamb (mistress of Lord Byron), Domestic Physician to Prince Woronzow,

At a time when orthodox physicians were proclaiming they would not be seen even talking to a homeopath,  Robert Lee was a ’secret’ patient of homeopath James Manby Gully,

Ralph Barnes Grindrod, an allopathic physician who worked in Malvern nearby to James Manby Gully’s establishment, wrote to the British Medical Journal on 12.10.1861 to express his surprise to see allopathic physicians turn up for treatment at James Manby Gully’s establishment, and to consult with James Manby Gully over ‘difficult cases‘, and to bring and send their own patients to see James Manby Gully, all the while protesting against homeopathy…

Ralph Barnes Grindrod mentions the following allopaths by nameBooth Eddison, the President of the British Medical Association (a patient of James Manby Gully’s), Benjamin Vallance of Brighton (President of the Medico Chirurgical Society, Surgeon at the Sussex County Hospital), Thomas Spencer Wells, John Addington Symonds of Bristol (Vice President and President of the British Medical Association), Robert Lee and Sutherland (?George Granville William Sutherland Leveson Gower 3rd Duke of Sutherland) – and he says there were a great many more….

Robert Lee was born in Melrose, Roxburghshire, in 1793, the second son of John Lee. He was educated in the Scottish Border town of Galashiels, under the Rev. Robert Balmer, the profound theologian. Lee entered Edinburgh University in 1806. Initially intended for the church he changed his mind and chose to pursue a career in medicine.

He graduated MD in 1814, and became a Member of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons. He was appointed physician’s clerk at the Royal Infirmary to Dr James Hamilton, physician and professor of midwifery.

In 1817 Lee moved to London and took charge of an epileptic patient, the son of  William Lamb 2nd Viscount Lord Melbourne. On relinquishing this appointment he spent the winter of 1821-22 in Paris, furthering his medical education through the study of anatomy.

He remained abroad for the following year, employed as domestic physician to a family of high rank. He traveled with them through the South of France and Northern Italy.

On his return to England he became a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London, in March 1823, and began to practice as an obstetric physician.

He suffered a severe illness at this time. When he recovered he obtained a medical appointment with the East India Company. However, before leaving for Calcutta, he received the offer of appointment as Domestic Physician to Prince Woronzow, then Governor General of the Crimea and the Russian provinces around the Black Sea. He left for Odessa in October 1824.

In 1825 he traveled with Prince Woronzow and his family to the Crimea, where he was presented to Tsar Alexander I a few days before the Tsar Alexander I‘s sudden death from epidemic fever. Lee later published an account of the Tsar Alexander I‘s final days, Last Days of Alexander and the First Days of Nicholas (1854), in order to counteract rumours that Tsar Alexander I had died a suspicious death.

Lee returned to England with Prince Woronzow in 1826, and again began to practice as an obstetrician in London. In 1827 he was elected Physician to the British Lying in Hospital, and began to lecture on midwifery.

In 1829 he also became Lecturer on Midwifery in the Webb Street School of Anatomy and Medicine. He had taught himself shorthand and this enabled him to make full notes of every lecture he attended and the cases he treated, making it possible for him to preserve written histories of the important cases of puerperal and uterine disease he came across after these appointments.

From his settling in London in 1827, Lee devoted much time and effort to investigations into the pathology of the diseases of women, puerperal fever, and in prolonged dissections of the ganglia and nerves of the uterus. He contributed to the Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine (1833-35), writing entries on ‘Abortion’, ‘Diseases of the Ovaries’, ‘Puerperal Fevers’, ‘Pathology of the Uterus and its Appendages’, and ‘Diseases of the Veins’. He also wrote numerous papers.

Many were published in the Transactions of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society, whilst others he read before the Royal Society. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1830.

Despite Lee’s proliferation of papers the Society never awarded him a medal and even suppressed some of his articles. This was due, it is said, to `differences of opinion as to the value of his discoveries’ (DNB, 1892, p.373).

He became Secretary to the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society, 1830-35. In 1834 he obtained, through the interest of William Lamb 2nd Viscount Lord Melbourne, the appointment of Regius Professor of Midwifery at the University of Glasgow. However he resigned after his introductory address and returned to London.

In 1835 he was appointed Lecturer on Midwifery and the Diseases of Women at St George’s Hospital, an appointment he held for thirty years. Lee was admitted a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1841.

In 1842 he published what some consider his most valuable contribution, Clinical Midwifery (2nd ed. 1848), which contained 545 cases of difficult labour. His subsequent work, Three Hundred Consultations in Midwifery (1864) was also deemed to be important (ibid). However, others consider that it was his `remarkable’ dissections of the nerves of the heart and uterus that `entitle him to a place in the foremost rank of anatomists and physiologists of his time and country’ (Munk’s Roll, 1878, p.268).

Lee’s relationship with the Royal Society did not improve in the 1840s. It was owing in part to his dissension that the President, Spencer Compton 2nd Marquess of Northampton, and the secretary, Peter Mark Roget, resigned in 1849. Lee’s version of his treatment by the Royal Society can be found in his Memoirs on the Ganglia and Nerves of the Uterus (London, 1849).

Although it was recognized that Lee could be somewhat dictatorial in manner and intolerant of those in slightest opposition to his views, `his honesty of purpose in all he did was never doubted’ (ibid). Furthermore, he was undoubtedly `an indomitable worker, and made numerous discoveries of permanent value’ (DNB, p.373)

He delivered several of the eponymous lectures of the Royal College of Physicians, namely the Lumleian Lectures in 1856-57, the Croonian Lectures in 1862, and the Harveian Oration in 1864, the last time the lecture was delivered in Latin.

He resigned his lecturership at St George’s Hospital in 1866, but continued in practice. Lee worked indefatigably until 1875 when he retired from practice at the age of 82.

He moved from his home in Savile Row to Surbiton Hill, Surrey, and died there on 6 February 1877. He was buried at Kensal Green.

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