Lives of the fellows

Geoffrey Langdon (Sir) Keynes

b.25 March 1887 d.5 July 1983
Kt(1955) BA Cantab(1909) MB BChir(1913) MD(1918) FRCS(1920) FRCOG(1950) FRCP(1953) Hon LLD Edin Hon Dlitt Oxon Cantab Birm Sheffield Reading

Geoffrey Keynes, the second of three children, was born into a comfortable middle class home in Cambridge. Though his father was registrary to the University and a fellow of Pembroke, it was hardly a highbrow family, but by the times Keynes died the name was a household one - principally, though not entirely, because of his elder brother’s (Maynard) eminence as an economist, but also because it had become one of the great Cambridge intellectual dynasties, linked partly by marriage and partly by collaboration and friendship with the Darwins, the Adrians, the Huxleys, and the Wedgwoods.

Geoffrey Keynes himself attained equal eminence in three separate spheres: as a surgeon and medical innovator; as a bibliophile, combining the roles of collector, writer, editor, and bibliographer; and as a public man, particularly his services as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery from 1942 to 1966.

Educated at Rugby (where he was a contemporary of Rupert Brooke) and Pembroke College, Cambridge (where he was a foundation scholar and got a first in the Natural Sciences tripos), Keynes went to Bart’s in 1909, winning the Brackenbury surgical scholarship and the Willett medal, and qualifying four years later. Deciding to devote himself to surgery - he was to taunt his uncle Sir Walter Langdon-Brown with the relative therapeutic impotence of the physician - he did house jobs at Bart’s until he joined up at the outbreak of war.

Before this, however, he had gained a certain eminence among his friends by saving Virginia Woolfs life when she attempted suicide with an overdose of drugs in 1913. He and Sir Henry Head washed out her stomach and spent the night by her bedside while she slowly recovered. Unlike his brother Maynard, Geoffrey Keynes was never a central member of the Bloomsbury group, although he knew many of the principal characters and shared their tastes for painting rather than architecture, ballet rather than opera, high thinking rather than good living; as a memento some years later Virginia Woolf gave him the manuscript of her essay ‘On Being Ill’ in gratitude for his professional care.

In the first world war Keynes served as a regimental medical officer in the trenches, as well as in military hospitals. At the latter he was able to introduce the new technique of blood transfusion, which, albeit primitive, was to save the lives of many soldiers. Despite this, however, the idea of transfusion provoked considerable opposition, something that Keynes was to encounter again in peace time when, having written the first textbook in Britain on transfusion (1922), he tried to introduce the technique on his return to Bart’s.

Thus, later in the 1930s, when he suggested and himself practised limited excision together with radium treatment for localized cancer of the breast, Keynes was fully experienced in coping with ill-based and obdurate professional argument. Likewise the third of his innovations, thymectomy for myasthenia gravis, also provoked much opposition when it was introduced during the second world war — yet again, like blood transfusion and ‘lumpectomy’, it is now a standard form of treatment.

All this, however, is to jump around a bit over the decades. Keynes returned from the first world war to obtain higher degrees and then to be appointed in 1920 as assistant to the newly formed medical unit at Bart’s headed by George Gask. Thereafter he was appointed an assistant surgeon on the staff at Bart’s, and also held specialist posts at Mount Vernon Hospital, the Radium Institute, the LCC Thyroid Clinic, and the City of London Truss Society. He also built up a large private practice, in particular acting as Lord Moynihan’s assistant in London and specializing in the surgery of hernia, breast cancer, and thyroid disease.

In the second world war he served in the Royal Air Force with the rank of acting air vice-marshal. He obtained numerous medical honours: the fellowship of two other Royal Colleges; at the Royal College of Surgeons three Hunterian professorships, (1923, 1929, 1945), as well as the Cecil Joll prize in 1953 and the Sir Arthur Sims Commonwealth travelling professorship in 1956; at the royal College of Physicians the Harveian oration in 1958 and the Fitzpatrick lecture in 1963; and at the Royal Society the Wilkins lecture in 1967. He was appointed Knight Bachelor in 1955.

Despite an energetic life in surgery, however, Keynes found the time for a totally different one outside the consulting room and operating theatre. He had started collecting books while an undergraduate at Cambridge and his first book, A Bibliography of John Donne, was published in 1914 just as he had arrived in the trenches. It was to be the first of many bibliographies of his many enthusiasms — particularly for seventeenth century authors such as Donne, Hooke, King, Evelyn, and Harvey - and, though his approach might be criticized by the stricter academic specialists, he contended, and most generalists agreed, that it was justified by the broader light that it shed on its subject.

His skills were never put to better use than when he edited nine books - among them works by Harvey, Thomas Browne, and William Blake - for the Nonesuch Press, and he had a hand in at least sue others. He had helped this from its early days together with its founders, (Sir) Francis and Vera Meynell and David Garnett. In 1975 he presented 250 volumes from his library by or about Sir Thomas Browne to the Royal College of Physicians but later suggested that these should be sold to Cambridge University and the money added to the College building appeal. His library from his beautiful house near Newmarket was also acquired by Cambridge University, after his death.

The rules of Bart’s stipulated that consultants had to retire at 60, and Keynes had to leave in 1946, only a few months before the Health Service was introduced, under whose rules he would have been able to stay until 65. His colleagues at Bart’s solved this dilemma by making him emeritus surgeon for five years, with few official duties entailed. But a man of Keynes’s energies was hardly to remain underemployed either for this last five years or after he had completely ‘retired’. He continued with some of his surgical interests, also travelling and lecturing, but threw himself into his other careers almost whole time.

President of the Bibliographical Society in 1952-1954, he served as the chairman of the trustees of the National Portrait Gallery from 1955 to 1966; he wrote numerous articles and essays, and brought out new editions of some of his books; while his major biography of William Harvey was awarded the James Tait Black memorial prize in 1966. His last major work was his autobiography, The Gates of Memory, published in 1981, and he contributed to the introduction to John Dreyfus’s History of the Nonesuch Press, published in 1982.

For most of his life Keynes was a trim upright man with a small moustache, who spoke with a rapid clipped voice that betokened an Edwardian upbringing. Latterly he became bent and walked with a stick, but he lost neither his good looks nor, despite a minor stroke, his sharpness or his intelligence. Reputedly arrogant and brusque in the ’20s and ’30s, little of this was apparent in his later years, and in any case these are not unusual attributes for a young man of high intelligence who is in a hurry. And in his life he had so much to do, for, besides the interests already mentioned, he was at times an enthusiastic rock climber, entomologist, camper, gardener, carpenter, and balletomane (devising the scheme for Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Job).

Almost certainly, part of the drive for all this came from his need to keep up with Maynard - though the latter had ignored him until his wife Lydia Lopokova (one of Diaghilev’s ballerinas) drew his attention to Geoffrey’s merits. But much also came from a need never to waste a minute and from the streak of puritanism that ran through him, as typified by his pride in never having been drunk in his life. He made friends easily and voraciously, had no snobbery in his make-up, and loved beauty in all its forms; he was an example that polymaths need not necessarily have feet of clay.

In 1917 Keynes married Margaret Darwin, who predeceased him in 1974. They had four sons, one of whom became a surgeon and another, who was elected FRS, professor of physiology at the University of Cambridge.

SP Lock

[The Gates of memory, Oxford, OUP, 1981; Times, 6 July 1982; Brit.med.J., 1982, 285, 299, 384; Lancet, 1982, 2, 168; The Library: Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, Vol.4, No.4, Dec 1982]

(Volume VII, page 319)

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