Thanet Writers Spotlight Sir Frederick Treves

Seb Reilly highlights the life, works and legacy of author and surgeon Sir Frederick Treves, and spotlights his connection to Thanet.

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Sir Frederick Treves was a doctor, surgeon, and author, though perhaps most recognised for his encounters with and study of Joseph Merrick, otherwise known as the Elephant Man. Although from very different paths, their meeting in 1884 was to bring fame and recognition to both men.

Treves was born in Dorchester in 1853 to a family well-rooted in Dorset. His father was an upholsterer, and Treves was sent to the local school run by poet and philosopher Reverend William Barnes. Clearly showing academic attributes, Treves later attended the Merchant Taylors’ School in London, then University College. Frederick followed in the footsteps of his older brother William and pursued medicine, becoming a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries in 1874, and passing the membership examinations for the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1875.

Treves was appointed House Surgeon at London Hospital for three months in early 1876. He was then offered the role of Resident Medical Officer at the Royal National Hospital for Scrofula, a hospital in Thanet where his brother William was Honorary Surgeon. The Royal National Hospital for Scrofula was later renamed the Royal Sea-Bathing Infirmary, then the Royal Sea-Bathing Hospital in Margate. Although it is no longer a medical facility, and since its closure has been converted into apartments, the building itself retains much of the historical features.

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In 1877 Treves married Anne Elizabeth Mason at a church in Sydenham. She was from the same town as Frederick, born the same year, and they had grown up together. Frederick began practice as a General Practitioner in Wirksworth, Derbyshire, to provide a home and set roots for a family.

Treves obtained fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS) in 1878, and a year later he and Anne returned to London with a daughter, Enid. Frederick took up the position of Surgical Registrar at the London Hospital, though very quickly a vacancy on the surgical staff became available, and Treves was appointed Assistant Surgeon. He also became a demonstrator of anatomy to the Medical School of London Hospital, finding favour with his presentation style and good humour.

It was from his lectures that Treves found writing, as after he was appointed Erasmus Wilson Professor at the College of Surgeons in 1881 he began lecturing on the Pathology of Scrofulous Affections of Lymphatic Glands, a subject he was very familiar with from his work in Margate. His colleague and fellow surgeon Malcolm Morris, founding president of the British Association of Dermatologists and medical editor for Cassell & Co., is credited as discovering his writing talent, and in 1882 at the age of 29 Treves published his first book, Scrofula and its Gland Diseases. His other daughter, Hetty, was also born this year. Clearly Treves was a man who liked to keep busy.

Frederick was published again in 1883 with a textbook titled Surgical Applied Anatomy, and then continued to write and publish throughout the rest of his life. He regularly referred back to his first specialist subject, which he gained knowledge on whilst working in Margate, even after his fame spread due to his introduction to his second. He discovered this thanks to Tom Norman’s exhibition in a shop across the road from London Hospital.

Joseph Merrick is perhaps the most famous disabled person from the Victorian era, and that is in no small part to Treves’ lectures at the time and papers written afterwards. These were followed by the eventual and inevitable book The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, published in 1923. Unfortunately, at the time Treves failed to grasp the irony of removing Merrick from one freak show to then parade him before surgeons and medical students in what was effectively another, though the shrewdness of Merrick’s business mind and self-exploitation for profit have also been regularly downplayed and may have contributed to this. What is clear is the two developed a strong friendship, with Frederick nicknaming Joseph Merrick ‘John.’

The story of Treves and Merrick was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt respectively in David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man, which co-starred Treves’ great-nephew, also named Frederick Treves. The Treves name is embedded in the history of Margate from this side of the family, all descended from William, the eldest brother who paved the way for his sibling’s success and contributed to his first permanent placement.

Treves continued to be a surgeon of note after Merrick’s death in 1890, eventually volunteering at a field hospital in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and writing about his experiences there in the British Medical Journal. These articles were later collated into a book, The Tale of a Field Hospital, which brought Treves further acclaim.

In 1900, Treves’ youngest daughter, Hetty, died from a perforated appendix, possibly spurring Frederick to pursue his third specialism: peritonitis. He was appointed Honorary Serjeant Surgeon to King Edward VII in 1901, then later that year knighted as a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. In early 1902, with Edward’s coronation looming, the King was discovered to have appendicitis. Treves performed a radical surgery on the usually life-threatening condition, opting instead of the risky traditional procedure to undertake a revolutionary new process that was relatively untested. The next day, Edward was sat up in bed smoking a cigar, and Treves was honoured with a baronetcy a few weeks after seeing his eldest daughter marry. More importantly, appendix surgery became routine medical practice.

Treves continued to write, and published several books about his experiences and travels throughout the world. He served as President of the Headquarters Medical Board at the War Office during the First World War, and was then encouraged to leave the country as his health was deteriorating. He moved to France, to the coast of Lake Geneva, then later to the other side of the lake in Switzerland. He died in 1923 of peritonitis, another irony which he may or may not have been aware of. He was cremated and his ashes returned to Dorchester, where he was buried. His childhood friend Thomas Hardy attended his funeral. His wife and eldest daughter survived him. Enid died in 1936, outlived by her mother. Anne died in 1944 and was the last to be buried in the family plot in Dorchester, where four graves sit North, East, South and West of each other, for each of the four Treves family members.

The legacy Treves left behind is extensive, not least because of his contributions to modern medicine. His writing remains accessible even to this day, putting complex medical procedures in understandable terms and portraying the human behind the patient. He was driven by many things, and was a complicated individual, but also one who most definitely left more than one mark upon the world.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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