Three Famous Figures Commemorated at Guy's Hospital
Do you ever walk by memorial plaques and wonder if there is more to the story that connects a particular individual to that location? Plaques and memorials abound at Guy's Hospital and I want to mention two of them, along with a statue and the interesting part of the story is that only one of the three actually became well-known in a medical field while the other two are a poet and philosopher, respectively. The first, who did make his mark in medicine, as a pioneer of cardiac surgery, was Russell Claude Brock, later Lord Brock of Wimbledon. Following the Second World War, he specialised in congenital heart conditions and performed groundbreaking mitral valve surgery at Guy's. Early in his career, he operated "blind" (without opening the chest, i.e. "open-heart" surgery) using only hypothermia (controlled cooling) until the first heart-lung machines (i.e. cardiopulmonary bypass) came into use. He was also one of the first surgeons in his field to meticulously document surgical outcomes.
In an alcove installed in 1861 that was once part of a previous incarnation of London Bridge sits a statue of the poet John Keats. Keats was just 14 (the norm in the early 19th century) when he was apprenticed to an apothecary, the equivalent of a GP. He later moved here to Guy’s to undertake further training under the legendary surgeon Astley Cooper. It was once assumed that the creative Keats could not have been that focused on his medical studies, but the record speaks otherwise. It seems that he was a very successful and attentive student while at Guy’s, passing an exam that many others failed and obtaining the coveted position of “dresser”. This involved assisting more experienced surgeons in operations as well as being on duty 24/7 one week in four. He have up medicine to focus exclusively on his poetry, penning such works as Ode to a Nightingale and To Autumn before dying at the young age of 25 from tuberculous.
The other individual who actually made his mark in a field other than medicine was the philosopher and mathematician Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was born into a very wealthy and highly-cultured but neurotic family in Vienna in 1889. Three of his four elder brothers committed suicide and Wittgenstein himself battled with depression. Upon his father's death, he inherited a large fortune but gave most of it away and he often avoided using his famous last name while taking on work as a teacher and gardener. In 1921 he published a slim volume outlining his theory of language called Tractatus logico-philosophicus, and went on to become a university lecturer and fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. Frustrated with teaching philosophy while a war (WW2) waged he organised, through connections, a manual job for himself at Guy's as a dispensary porter. This involved him delivering drugs from the pharmacy to the wards, where he supposedly advised the patients not to take them. Very few people at Guy's were aware of his background although some did call him Professor Wittgenstein.
So amazing stories and such interesting lives! It's almost always worth it to look into the background of the individuals commemorated!