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James Fitzjames Fraser West
The diary of a Victorian Surgeon
James Fitzjames Fraser West - pictures and a biographical sketch 
27th-Jul-2007 09:08 pm
Younger mutton chops
Please click on any of the pictures shown below to view larger versions

West seated at a writing desk

Youthful studio portrait

Seated studio portrait

This portrait was taken around 1864, the year of West's marriage to Sarah Hammond Sellers.

Older portrait with beard

West at the International Medical Congress, London 1881

West's head is circled. The arrow indicates the French neurologist Jean Martin Charcot (1825-93), a fellow-delegate.

Biographical sketch of West's life and career

James Fitzjames Fraser West was his mother's second illegitimate child, but he nevertheless secured a good education, and went on to pursue medical training at St. Thomas' Medical School, London. After qualifying, he left London in 1854 to take up an appointment as Residential Medical Officer at Queen's Hospital, Birmingham. There he remained for the rest of his life although his time there was not trouble-free. His election to the post of full surgeon on 14 October, 1857, was declared 'null and void' days later - the result of a bitter conflict between the hospital's leading medics and its council of lay governors. The dispute which followed raged for more than six months, brought the hospital to the brink of ruin and was only resolved when West and his rival, Joseph Sampson Gamgee, were made joint post-holders. West, a keen advocate of the value of post-mortems, was also a professor of Anatomy at Queen's College, the forerunner of the city's medical school. He contributed regularly to leading medical journals such as The Lancet, and the British Medical Journal and played an active role in local medical societies.

West belonged to a new breed of medical practitioners: professional men who based their practice on scientific methods, and actively sought out new medical techniques. During his lifetime, advances such as anaesthesia and antiseptic methods transformed surgery, facilitating more painstaking and complicated operations than had been possible hitherto. Lives, which would have been lost only a generation earlier, were being saved. West practised surgery at a time when specialism was in its infancy. His work, like that of most surgeons, included everything from extirpating eyes, amputating limbs, removing ovarian cysts and trephining for epilepsy to the removal of cancerous tongues. In 1868, he even reconstructed a lip he had removed on a cancer patient: an early example of plastic surgery. Though initially a sceptic, West became a devotee of Joseph Lister's antiseptic treatment of wounds and sought, in papers and in medical society discussion, to persuade hostile die-hards of its efficacy.

West and his family moved to the leafy and salubrious Birmingham suburb of Edgbaston in 1874. A loving father and husband, he doted on his wife, Sarah (affectionately known as Tadie), and their eight children, and remained close to his mother, Mary, and half-sister, Fanny, who lived nearby. Like many professional men, West was a Freemason, playing an active role in Lodge meetings. He maintained a wide circle of friends and colleagues, with whom he shared regular dinner-parties, musical evenings, and games of cards and tennis. He also enjoyed reading, country walks, sight-seeing, Shakespeare, art, architecture and an occasional smoke!

If you would like to know more about West's life and career before he began his last diary, you can read all about him in A Victorian Surgeon. A Biography of James Fitzjames Fraser West 1833-83, Birmingham Surgeon

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