Lives of the fellows

Joseph (Sir) Fayrer

b.6 December 1824 d.21 May 1907
Bart(1896) KCSI MD Rome(1849) MD Hon LLD Edin Hon LLD St And Hon PhD Padua FRCS Edin FRS Edin FRCP(1872) FRS FRCS FCP Philadelphia

Joseph Fayrer was born at Plymouth, the second son of Commander Robert John Fayrer, R.N, a pioneer of ocean steam navigation, and his wife Agnes, daughter of Richard Wilkinson of Lancashire. In his youth he met Wordsworth and Coleridge at Haverbrack in Westmorland. He was educated privately at Dalrymple in Ayrshire and went to school at Liverpool. At the age of sixteen he sailed to the West Indies and South America as a midshipman in the West Indian Mail Steam-Packet Service, and three years later accompanied his father on a voyage to Bermuda. Here, experience of yellow fever inclined him to a medical career, and on his return, in 1844, he entered Charing Cross Hospital, where T. H. Huxley was among his fellow students. He received a house appointment at the Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital and in 1847 qualified as a doctor. In the same year he joined the Naval Medical Service but soon afterwards resigned his commission to travel on the Continent with Lord Mount-Edgcumbe. At Palermo, during the Sicilian revolution, he had his first experience of treating war wounds, and at Rome he studied for the University’s M.D. degree, which he was granted in 1849.

A new and distinguished stage of Fayrer’s career began when, in 1850, he was gazetted to the Bengal Medical Service. His first stations were Cherrapunji and Dacca, but in 1852 he was posted to the Burma field force and was present at the capture of Rangoon. His services there were rewarded by the appointment of residency surgeon at Lucknow in 1853. A year later he was given the additional office of honorary assistant resident, which involved him in administrative responsibilities, and in 1856, on the annexation of Oudh, he was made civil surgeon of Lucknow. Little more than a year afterwards, the Mutiny broke out, the Residency was besieged and Fayrer’s house became at once a fort and a hospital. Fayrer subsequently wrote, in his Recollections of my Life (1900), a graphic account of his experiences during the siege, in which he himself was an outstanding figure. He attended Lawrence when he fell mortally wounded, and Outram and Napier when they arrived, both wounded, at the head of the first relieving column. For his services, Fayrer received the thanks of the Government, promotion to the brevet rank of surgeon, a year’s seniority and a year’s prize money (which he presented to the Royal Medical Benevolent College, Epsom). Characteristically, he spent his next home leave, in 1858-59, in preparing for the Edinburgh M.D. degree, to which he was duly admitted.

Fayrer’s next post was as professor of surgery at Calcutta Medical College. Elected president of the Faculty of Medicine in 1863 and of the Asiatic Society in 1867, he was conspicuous in Calcutta medical and public affairs for more than a decade. He was chosen as surgeon to the Viceroy in 1869, a year after being created C.S.I., and accompanied the Duke of Edinburgh on his visit to North-West India in 1870. Meanwhile, he had completed important researches on snake-bite which were published in a volume entitled Thanatophidia of India in 1872.

In 1873 Fayrer resigned from the active list of the I.M.S. and became first a member, and then chairman, of the Medical Board of the India Office, which position he retained till 1895, when he finally retired with the rank of surgeon-general. During a last visit to India in 1875-76 as a member of the Prince of Wales’s staff, he was created K.C.S.I. His years in London were fully occupied with his private practice, with writing, and with his activities on behalf of numerous committees and societies, and at international congresses and similar functions. He delivered clinical lectures at Charing Cross Hospital, of which he was elected consulting physician in 1877, and the Croonian Lectures at the Royal College of Physicians in 1882. He represented the College and Edinburgh University at the tercentenary of Galileo at Padua, at which he made a speech in Italian.

Fayrer was made a baronet in 1896. He spent the greater part of his last ten years at Falmouth, where yachting and deep-sea fishing were his main recreations. All through his life he had been a fine sportsman, a big-game hunter and an excellent shot. But he was also a first-rate linguist, and the range of his interests included poetry, science and theology. He was, indeed, a man of untiring energy, mental and physical, and of unmatched courage. For all his achievements, his character bore the mark of genuine simplicity, for if he was outspoken at times, he was also straightforward and never insensitive. He was no respecter of persons, yet men of every rank of society respected and loved him, as his huge circle of friends testified. He married in 1855 Bethia Mary, daughter of Brigadier-General Andrew Spens, then in command of the troops at Lucknow. There were six sons and two daughters of the marriage. He died at Falmouth.

G H Brown

[Lancet, 1907; B.M.J., 1907; D.N.B., 2nd Suppl., ii, 15. Roll of 136; Plarr, I, 394; Sir J. Fayrer, Recollections of my life, 1900]

(Volume IV, page 201)

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