John Knowsley Thornton M.B., C.M. Edin., J.P.
John Knowsley Thornton was the son of John Thornton and Anne Knowsley. He was born on the 15th January 1840 at Northampton, Northamptonshire, England, and was baptised there on the 29th April 1845. John grew up in what appears to have been a loving family, his father was a School Teacher at Kimbolton, Huntingdonshire in 1851, and was then the Vicar of Aston Abbotts in Buckinghamshire for some 30 years.
John was educated at Rossall, one of the UK’s top boarding and day schools located in Fleetwood, Lancashire, and spent some years in teaching and clerical work. At aged 22 years, he decided to become a medical student. He left England and completed all his medical studies at the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, Scotland, graduating in 1871. He then became House Surgeon to Lord Lister in the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh.
Later, for a few months, John was in general practice at Ford, in Northumberland, close to the Scottish border. In 1873 his friend, Dr. William Thomson, left London and went to practise in the South, and through his introduction, John became Surgeon to the Samarian Free Hospital, and assistant to Spencer Wells in his private practice.
On 2nd December 1873 John married Eleanor Phillipa Paterson at St Stephen's Church, Kensington, London. Eleanor was born in 1839 in Exeter, Devon, the daughter of Capt. George Dacres Paterson of the 98th Regiment.
In 1874 John and Eleanor's son Ernest Windham was born, followed by Lucy Dacres Knowsley in 1877 and Mary Knowsley in 1880. All the children were born at St George Hanover Square, London.
By 1881 John was living with his family at 83 Park Street, London and is listed on the census as a Consulting Surgeon. In 1879, John had purchased Hildersham Hall in Cambridgeshire, and it was there that John suffered a blow when his wife Eleanor died aged 46 years in 1886.
On 18th July 1892, John married the Hon. Mary Agnes Windsor-Clive at St George Hanover Square, London. Mary Agnes was born on 29th May 1856. John and Mary had two children:
Clive Knowsley Thornton, born 1893 in London, and died aged a few months old in 1893. Clive Knowsley Thornton is buried in the Hildersham Cemetery.
Margery Gertrude Knowsley Thornton, born 1896 in London.
In 1891 he gave up hospital practice but for some years continued his private work, living until 1896 in Montagu Square, London. At the end of that period he fell very ill indeed, and was further much reduced in strength by repeated attacks of influenza complicated by gout. In 1898 he retired, and since then he lived at Hildersham Hall. He worked hard in his garden and farmyard and his health grew better for a time, but during later years he suffered much from peripheral neuritis which gradually exhausted his strength.
John passed away at Hildersham Hall on 3rd January 1904, and was survived by his wife Mary, his son Ernest, and daughters, Lucy, Mary and Margery. He is buried in the Hildersham Cemetery alongside his son Clive.
John's medical career, although short by most standards, was extremely successful. He was the first reported surgeon to perform a adrenalectomy, removing a large adrenal mass during radical nephrectomry. On 9th May 1889 he performed the first successful coledocotomia.
John's work at the Samaritan Free Hospital raised him to great distinction. He introduced the most rigorous antiseptic surgery into hospital practice. He had to admit that carbolic poisoning, from which he was himself a sufferer at least on one occasion, but still he insisted to the last that "antisepsis" was far superior to "asepsis" and contended vigorously in his writing in journals and his speeches at medical societies against colleagues and operators in other hospitals who rejected carbolic solutions and the spray.
His care about after-treatment was proverbial and probably accounted for those good results which he attributed to his particular line of treatment. John was known to be an extremely careful operator, yet at the same time bold, for complications only seemed to stimulate him, and if there were a way out of a difficulty he was the man to find it. He insisted on ability in an assistant, and hence was an excellent trainer of junior colleagues, whilst remarks by bystanders specially irritated him, and he reproved more than one distinguished visitor for talking during an operation. His name on the roll of surgery will not, however, rest on his surgical discipline nor on his faith in the spray. He will, rather, be remembered as one of the chief of those ovariotomists who developed their speciality into the general abdominal surgery of today. For fibroid disease of the uterus he did much; he was not too fond of hysterectomy as the cure for that disease, yet he did not advance the technique of of the operation very appreciably; he was, on the other hand, one of the leading pioneers in renal surgery. His Harveian Lectures on the Surgery of the Kidney, delivered in 1889, greatly increased his reputation. He demonstrated with great care the process by which the vessels in the hilum of the kidney should be secured, and dwelt at length on the management of the urethra, now mere matters of routine, but then considered feats of high surgical prowess. He was the apostle of the abdominal incision as opposed to the lumbar wound, which Morris and other British and foreign surgeons advocated. The discussions between these authorities on this subject led to the determination of the advantages of each incision according to circumstances.
John likewise played a great part in the establishment of the operative treatment of diseases of the gall bladder and liver, and his instructive series of papers on the subject are to be found in the Transactions of the Medical Society. His boldness was soon imitated, and, as in the case of renal surgery, what was once only dared by the few, such as himself, is now widely practised by general surgeons. In splenic surgery, again, John ranks as a pioneer.
John had the qualities which bring success in practice, and he prospered greatly; but that he deserved. Not only was there distressing sickness in his own home, but from the age of 18 upwards he was tormented with gout, which greatly interfered with his work. He admitted to a friend when he resigned his hospital appointment that though he had earned success it was quite unenjoyable to him, for he was often in pain and never well.
John did much work for Societies, and was President of the Medical Society in 1890; he also took part in many discussions at the annual meetings of the Association, and was a Vice-President of the Section of Obstetrics at the annual meeting in London in 1895.
Boldness and straightforwardness were the distinguishing features of John Knowsley Thornton, who was of a combative disposition, but his very strife advance the cause of surgery which he loved so well.