The Dorset surgeon who rescued the Elephant Man and saved Edward VII


Sir Frederick Treves, who died a century ago this month, was one of Dorset’s most famous men – Rachael Rowe reports

Sir Frederick Treves

On 15 February 1853, Frederick Treves was born at 8 Cornhill in Dorchester, the son of upholsterer William Treves. Young Frederick attended a local school run by Dorset dialect expert and poet William Barnes, who had a significant impact on Frederick’s writing in later years.
After his father died in 1867, his mother moved the family to London where Frederick attended Merchant Taylor’s School before enrolling at the London Hospital Medical College.
He became a general practitioner in Derbyshire before returning to London to continue his studies. In 1875 at the age of 22, he passed his membership exams for the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) and five years later became a Fellow of the RCS.
In 1877, Treves married Ann Elizabeth, whose father, Alfred Samuel Mason, was a well-known Dorchester brewer. The couple had two daughters.

The Elephant Man
Frederick Treves was a lecturer in anatomy as well as a surgeon at the London Hospital.
One day in 1884, he heard a commotion in the building opposite the hospital, and went to investigate. There he met Joseph Merrick, commonly known as the Elephant Man, who was being exhibited as entertainment by Tom Norman, a London-based showman.
After birth, Merrick developed a very rare medical condition, causing deformities, lumps and thickening of skin on various parts of his body. Medical science has still not been able to identify the exact cause or nature of this condition. The only way he could earn money to survive was to appear in freak shows and fairs.
When Treves saw Joseph Merrick, he immediately had the exhibition shut down and offered to examine him at the London Hospital. He described his first encounter in his 1922 book, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences:
‘The whole of the front of the shop, with the exception of the door, was hidden by a hanging sheet of canvas on which was the announcement that the Elephant Man was to be seen within and that the price of admission was two pence. Painted on the canvas in primitive colours was a life-size portrait of the Elephant Man. This very crude production depicted a frightful creature that could only have been possible in a nightmare. It was the figure of a man with the characteristics of an elephant. The transfiguration was not far advanced. There was still more of the man than of the beast.’
Treves eventually provided quarters for Joseph Merrick at the London Hospital in order to oversee his long-term health problems. Merrick lived there for four years, even meeting Princess Alexandra when she visited in 1888. He died in 1890, after the weight of his head led to him suffocating overnight.

Saving the King
In 1888 Frederick Treves performed the first appendectomy in England. He was appointed surgeon to Queen Victoria in 1900 and on her death in January 1901 continued as surgeon to Edward VII, becoming Honorary Serjeant Surgeon to the King, and knighted the same year.
In August 1902, just before his coronation, the King developed appendicitis, but he was deeply unwilling to have an operation because of the very high mortality rates of operations at that time. Treves talked him into having the surgery, bluntly pointing out that if the king did not have the operation there would be a funeral instead of a coronation.
The operation was performed on the table in the Music Room at Buckingham Palace, where Treves was assisted by another famous surgeon, Sir Joseph Lister (Baron Lister of Lyme Regis). They made a small incision to drain an abscess around the appendix, preventing the development of lethal peritonitis and sepsis.
The next day, King Edward VII was sitting up in bed happily smoking a cigar. As a result of the King’s successful surgery for appendicitis, the technique was seen as being safe and was implemented across the country, saving many more lives. In 1902, Treves was granted the Freedom of the Borough of Dorchester. When Edward VII fell into a rabbit hole in 1905, Treves treated his achilles tendon.

A Dorset Writer
Sir Frederick Treves never lost his love of Dorset. In 1904 he became the first President of the Society of Dorset Men. In 1906 he wrote Highways and Byways of Dorset, a delightful description of the towns and villages in the county. Sturminster Newton is described as ‘No greate place,’ while he thought of Milton Abbas that ‘there is nothing like to it in any part of England.’
Treves travelled to all corners of Dorset on foot and bicycle in order to write his book.
To read it is like stepping back in time to the days when Thomas Hardy and Treves would have wandered the countryside, observing people, nature, and the characters living in Dorset.
On 7th December 1923, Sir Frederick Treves died of peritonitis in Lausanne, Switzerland. His funeral was held at St Peter’s Church, Dorchester, on January 2nd 1924 and the King was represented by Lord Dawson. Thomas Hardy was good friends with Frederick, and though 84 and very frail, he stood in the rain beside the open grave for the entire ceremony. He placed a poem in The Times, titled In the Evening, to mark the occasion:
‘In the evening, when the world knew he was dead,
He lay amid the dust and hoar
Of ages; and to a spirit attending said. “This chalky bed? —
I surely seem to have been here before?”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Share post:

More like this

Buckland Newton | Then & Now

Step back in time with our ‘Then and Now’...

Clayesmore head likens Labour’s policy to 1980s pit closures in open letter

In a powerful open letter, Jo Thomson, the head...

A century ago in Hinton Martell | POSTCARDS FROM A DORSET COLLECTION

This month Barry Cuff has chosen a couple of...

Wimborne Minster through time

A final tribute: Roger Guttridge’s last literary journey as...