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Historic Hospital Admission Records Project

Sir William Arbuthnot Lane (1856–1943)

Surgeon and health campaigner, William Arbuthnot Lane was born near Inverness in 1856, the eldest child of an army surgeon. His childhood was spent following the regiment in India, Corfu, Malta, Canada, South Africa and Ireland. In 1872 he went to Guy's Hospital to study medicine, and was persuaded to become a surgeon, as it was a surer way to advancement than through medicine.

He began his surgical career at the Victoria Hospital for Children, Chelsea, although he returned to Guy’s in 1882 as an anatomy demonstrator and assistant surgeon. He served as a consultant at Great Ormond Street Hospital from 1883 to 1916, and his work as consulting surgeon at Aldershot and the French Hospital, in addition to opening St Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup, earned him a CB on top of the baronetcy he was awarded in 1913 for an operation he performed on a member of the royal family.
A controversial character in many ways (his advocacy of complete removal of the colon found little favour among his colleagues), his reputation as a safe pair of hands in the operating theatre was unrivalled. He was fanatical about hygiene while operating, designed surgical instruments to reduce the disturbance of tissues, and was supremely successful in setting (and resetting) simple fractures using wires and screws to keep the knitting bones in place. At Great Ormond Street, he developed new techniques for cleft palate and hare lip surgery (with specially-developed breathing exercises) that attracted patients from across the globe.

He was an early advocate of healthy diet as a cancer prophylactic, and his much-publicised views on this topic brought him into final conflict with the BMA, from which he resigned in 1924. In 1925 he launched the New Health Society, which promoted wholemeal bread, increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables, the return of people to the land, maximizing exposure to sunlight, and physical exercise.

Dr John Poynton recalled him;

“In his day, one of England’s greatest surgeons. Guy’s Hospital. A tall, rather thin man with a clever and uncommon face, and seemed ageless. He was a surgeon –essentially - almost aloof from the patient. What he felt or thought was hard indeed to tell. What line of thought governed him was hard to tell also. He had the hands and dexterity of the born mechanic. I was his House Surgeon when he was intent on curing Hare Lip and Cleft Palate in babyhood. How he could manipulate needles in the tiny mouths was to me astounding. Naturally the operation often broke down later, but this in no way disturbed him in his course. He was a pioneer in the surgery of ear diseases, and Ballance by comparison seemed a strong cart-horse following an Arab steed. His curious mind was illustrated by this: He was removing a kidney and said to me “such a dull operation, don’t you think so? ” Seeing that I had been a House Surgeon a matter of weeks I was hardly in the habit of removing kidneys. His method of wiring fractures and plating the bones were famous. Later he became intent on the colon and liquid paraffin. He was a wonderful abdominal surgeon, quick, light-fingered and dexterous, I never saw a better. There is no doubt his skill inspired the younger surgeons at G. O. S.”