Lives of the fellows

Robert Lee

b.1793 d.6 February 1877
MD Edin(1814) LRCP(1823) FRCP(1841)

Robert Lee, M.D., was born at Melrose, co. Roxburgh, in 1793, and educated at Galashiels, under the Rev. Robert Balmer, D.D., subsequently of Berwick. He entered the college at Edinburgh, in 1806, and was then intended for the church, but after attending the literary and philosophical classes in the university, he diverted to physic, and graduated doctor of medicine there 24th June, 1814 (D.M.I. de Rheumatismo). He became a member of the College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and then returned into the country for a few months, but soon came back to Edinburgh, and was then for a lengthened period physician’s clerk at the Royal infirmary to Dr. James Hamilton, sen.

About the year 1817 Dr. Lee came to London, and through the influence of Sir Gilbert Blane was appointed to live with and take charge of the son of a distinguished statesman, who was afflicted with epilepsy in its worst form. On relinquishing this appointment, Dr. Lee proceeded to Paris, where he studied anatomy, under Breschet, and attended the lectures of Beclard, Desor-meaux, and Capuron. After a tour with a family of rank, as their domestic physician, in the south of France and north of Italy, Dr. Lee returned to England; on the 24th March, 1823, was admitted a Licentiate of the College of Physicians, and commenced practice in London as an obstetric physician. A severe illness occurred to blight his prospects ac this time, and on his recovery he sought and obtained a medical appointment in the East India company. He was preparing to embark for Calcutta when he was offered through Dr. Granville the appointment of domestic physician to the family of prince Woronzow, then governor-general of the Crimea and of the Russian provinces on the Black sea.

Dr. Lee left England for Odessa in October, 1824, and in the autumn of 1825 accompanied the prince and his family to the Crimea, where he was presented to the emperor Alexander. The emperor had visited the Crimea, with the idea of building a palace there, and retiring to it and from the cares of government at no very remote period. The Czar, however, was seized whilst there with the epidemic fever then raging in the Crimea, and died after a very short illness. Dr. Lee had dined with the emperor a few days only before he was attacked. A narrative of the circumstances attending the illness and death of the Czar, entitled The Last Days of the Emperor Alexander, was published by Dr. Lee, several years after, in the Athenaeum, to counteract a rumour which had been current that the emperor did not die a natural death.

Dr. Lee returned to London with prince Woronzow in December, 1826, and recommenced practice as an accoucheur. In the following year he was elected physician to the British Lying-in hospital, and began to lecture on midwifery. In 1834 he received from the Crown, through the interest of lord Melbourne, the appointment of regius professor of midwifery in the university of Glasgow. He proceeded to Glasgow and read his introductory address to the Senatus Academi-cus, but before this was delivered he had resolved to resign the professorship and return to London, which he did immediately. Soon after his return he was appointed to the chair of midwifery at St. George’s hospital, and occupied it for thirty years, resigning it in 1866.

Dr. Lee was admitted a Fellow of the College of Physicians 10th July, 1841; he delivered the Lumleian lectures of 1856-57, the Croonian lectures of 1862, and was Harveian Orator for 1864. Age was telling heavily upon him in 1875, when he withdrew from the practice of his profession and from London, and retired to Surbiton-hill, where he died 6th February, 1877, aged eighty-four. He was buried at Kensal-green. Dr. Lee’s portrait by S, Pearce is in the possession of his family.

Perseverance and indomitable industry were Dr. Lee’s main characteristics; no difficulty disconcerted him, no amount of labour in the establishment or support of what he believed to be truth appalled him. He was somewhat dictatorial in his tone and manner, and intolerant of the slightest opposition to his own views, but his honesty of purpose in all he did was never doubted. His researches into the pathology of phlegmasia dolens; his contributions to the ovular theory of menstruation; and yet more than these, his dissections of the nerves of the heart and uterus, entitle him to a place in the foremost rank of anatomists and physiologists of his time and country. It is on these remarkable dissections that Dr. Lee’s fame with posterity will chiefly rest. They gave occasion to much painful controversy at the time, and the treatment which Dr. Lee received in reference to them from the Royal Society did not conduce to the honour of that learned body.(1) The preparations are now at Cambridge.

Dr. Lee contributed to the Cyclopædia of Practical Medicine the articles, Abortion, Diseases of the Ovaries, Puerperal Fevers, Pathology of the Uterus and its Appendages, and Diseases of the Veins. He contributed numerous and important papers to the Philosophical and to the Medico-Chirurgical Transactions, and was the author of—
Researches on the Pathology and Treatment of some of the most important Diseases of Women. 8vo. Lond. 1833.
The Anatomy of the Nerves of the Uterus. Folio. Lond. 1841.
Clinical Midwifery, with the histories of the four hundred cases of Difficult Labour. 12mo. Lond. 1842.
Lectures on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery delivered in the Theatre of St. George’s hospital. 8vo. Lond. 1844.
Pathological Researches on the Diseases of the Uterus : with coloured engravings from original drawings by Joseph Perry, representing the most important Organic Diseases of the Uterus. Two parts. Folio. Lond. 1840—1849.
Memoirs on the Ganglia and Nerves of the Uterus. 4to. Lond. 1849.
Memoir on the Ganglia and Nerves of the Heart. 4to. Lond. 1851.
The Last Days of Alexander and the First Days of Nicholas (Emperors of Russia). 8vo. Lond. 1854.
A Treatise on Hysteria. 8vo. Lond. 1871.

William Munk

[(1) Those who wish to pursue this subject may consult Memoirs on the Ganglia and Nerves of the Heart, by Robt. Lee, M.D., F.R.S. 4to. Lond. 1849, and The Lancet, of 1851, vol. I, p. 332, et seq. Dr. Lee’s account of the whole transaction as therein given must be assumed to be substantially accurate, for it passed, so far as I know, without challenge or contradiction, and his threat of legal proceedings was followed by the resignation of the noble president, and somewhat later by that of the senior secretary of the Society, and by the dissolution of the Committee of Physiology.]

(Volume III, page 266)

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