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The surgeon who saved Churchill

by Valerie Herbert

(Click on images to enlarge)

This simple headstone in Chilton churchyard on the borders of Sudbury marks the grave of one the most successful surgeons of his era who saved the life of  Winston Churchill and could count British and foreign royalty among his patients.

The final resting place of Thomas Crisp English

The distinguished surgeon Sir Thomas Crisp English lived at  the 16th century Chilton Hall across the fields, having acquired it in 1923 as his country house. He made his reputation both for his innovative work in treating the wounded in the First World War and his skill in removing an infected appendix at a time when this was regarded as risky surgery. Such was the expertise of Sir Crisp, as he became known, that the wealthy and famous flocked to his consulting rooms in Brook Street, Mayfair.

Crisp English at the height of his fame

It was not until after his death that it became known that Sir Crisp had saved the life of Winston Churchill in 1922. Britain‘s future wartime leader was 48 and Colonial Secretary in Lloyd George‘s Government when he consulted the surgeon in October that year complaining of being in pain for almost a week with what he described as severe ‘indigestion.’ Sir Crisp diagnosed acute appendicitis and insisted on operating that very evening even though Churchill had planned to travel north to Dundee to defend his seat in the forthcoming General Election.

Churchill was anaesthetised with ether before the surgeon made a five-inch-long incision. His decision to operate immediately proved timely as his notes record that the appendix was gangrenous, as well as perforated, and that he removed it with difficulty. Three days later discharge from the wound caused anxiety but it eventually healed, apart from where the drainage tube had been inserted, and a fortnight after the operation Churchill went home on a stretcher to Sussex Square. Initially it was announced that he was suffering from a severe bout of gastroenteritis and that it was doubtful that he be fit enough to campaign in his constituency.

At this time acute appendicitis was considered a serious matter requiring long convalescence, and on November 1st Sir Crisp wrote to royal physician Sir Bertrand Dawson seeking his opinion on the advisability of Churchill’s plan to travel to Scotland even though he had shown ‘surprising powers of recuperation.’ Sir Bernard, later Lord Dawson who served three British monarchs as a Royal Physician, obviously gave a favourable opinion, or else Churchill ignored his advice, as ten days later he travelled north in a wheelchair to campaign. It was all in vain: the Liberals lost heavily to the Tories and Labour made big gains. The future wartime Prime Minister would  record in his memoirs that he returned from Scotland without a seat in the Commons, without prospects and without his appendix.

Winston Churchill- grateful patient

Four months later Churchill wrote to Sir Crisp from the French Riviera reporting he had no ill effects from the surgery and expressing ‘my very best thanks once again for all the trouble and care you took in my case.’ He added that he had been playing polo and ‘everyone seems very much astonished that I should be playing so soon after a serious operation.’ He had only one complaint: that he was having to forgo alcohol at lunch time – he called it ‘a horrible infliction’ – in order to improve his digestion. It is an interesting thought that but for Sir Crisp’s skill and insistence on operating immediately, Churchill might not have survived to lead Britain to victory in the Second World War. Now antibiotics after surgery would be an obvious treatment  such a serious case of infection, but at that time penicillin would not be available for another 20 years or so. The surgeon was discretion itself during his lifetime and the drama of Churchill’s illness was not told until after Sir Crisp’s death.

The King’s daughter

There would be publicity when the surgeon with charming manners and military bearing became a darling of the Royals.  In 1933 he led the team operating on Princess Mary, the Princess Royal, only daughter of George V, sister of George VI  and aunt of Queen Elizabeth II. He operated on two other princesses that year and knew how to treat his patients royally: Princess Mary wrote to thank him prettily for visiting her twice a day for a fortnight including the weekends. She sent him the gift of an elegant monogrammed piece of furniture and her affectionately-signed Christmas cards arrived for years afterwards. Another grateful royal patient, King George of The Hellenes, made him a Knight Commander of the Order of George I of Greece. The cases of fine wines from many other patients go unrecorded.

The KIng's daughter

One tribute after Sir Crisp’s death claimed that he had more national figures among his patients than any other surgeon of his generation. He never spoke of them but a report in Time magazine in 1931 records that he operated at the American Embassy in London on Virginia, teenage daughter of the ambassador. Charles Gates Dawes had served as vice-president to Calvin Coolidge and won the Nobel Peace Prize for 1925.  Ambassador Dawes had a special link with Sudbury. In 1929 he had visited the town to be granted the Freedom of the Borough in recognition of his descent from William Dawes who emigrated to America from Sudbury in 1635. Among the early settler’s descendants was another William Dawes who on the brink of the American Revolution rode with Paul Revere from Boston to Lexington to warn the Colonists’ leaders that British Redcoats were on the way to arrest them. A version of the story is immortalised in H W Longfellow‘s poem Paul Revere‘s Ride.

Early brilliance

Sir Crisp was not a Sudbury native. He was born in London in 1878, the son of a doctor from a family with Yorkshire and Suffolk connections. He studied medicine at St George’s Hospital after Westminster School, winning scholarships and prizes. He was still only 24 when in 1903 he was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and elected Hunterian Professor of Surgery, giving three lectures on the after effects of head injuries. The previous year he had won the College’s Jacksonian prize for his paper on head injuries and for a while he toyed with the idea specialising in brain surgery. But then the repercussions of a Royal case of acute appendicitis changed his mind.

On the eve of Edward VII‘s Coronation in 1902 Queen Victoria’s corpulent heir was relieved of his infected appendix by Sir Frederick Treves, a pioneer of abdominal surgery who is also remembered as the friend of the Elephant Man. The medical implications of this life-saving operation enthralled both the medical world and the general public. It was the catalyst that persuaded the ambitious young Thomas Crisp English to become pre-eminent in appendix surgery and through dextrous, careful and conscientious hard work he achieved his ambition.

So the surgeon who had shown promise of achieving so much in surgical innovation was seduced into specialising in what would eventually become a routine procedure, even though he was a skilled general surgeon. His published work includes a text book on diseases of the breast, but it was still a  somewhat disappointing outcome for a man described in a medical journal obituary as being a brilliant, speedy and accurate operator.

Initially the First World War stalled  his career intentions. He served with the Royal Army Medical Corps, first as an operating surgeon in France, Italy and finally with the Salonika force in the Balkans as a consulting surgeon with the rank of Colonel. His insistence on a regime of operating early and asepsis is credited with saving many lives.  He was four times mentioned in despatches and in 1917 made a Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George  for his services, being advanced to a Knight Commander at the age of 39. The Serbs added another decoration conferred by Crown Prince Alexander and yet another honour was his appointment as a Knight of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. He would used his considerable experience of battlefield  hospitals as an editor of the section on surgery in the official History of the Great War published in 1922.

Serving in the Balkans in 1916

Coronation year honour

His private practice was hugely successful after the war, but he continued  to work  as a consulting surgeon at St George’s Hospital, as well as at the Queen Alexandra Military Hospital, Queen Charlotte’s, Beckenham Hospital, King Edward the VII’s Hospital for Officers and the Hospital of St. John and St Elizabeth. Sir Crisp and his wife Annie moved into London society through his admission to the Goldsmith’s Company, the most powerful of the City livery companies. He was Prime Warden in 1937, the year of George VI’s Coronation, which led to a round of glittering City functions and opened many  doors. Among his surviving papers is a table plan for a intimate dinner party at his home in Brook Street with ‘the Queen’ in the place of honour. Which queen is not specified. At the Goldsmith Company’s annual livery dinner in May 1937 he sat between King Farouk of Egypt and Prince Chichibu, younger brother of Emperor Hirohito of Japan, both in London to attend the Coronation. Farouk was deposed by Colonel Nasser in 1952, and Oxford-educated Prince Chichibu avoided being involved in Japan’s war effort by reason of his tuberculosis.

Despite Sir Crisp concentrating his efforts on relieving the wealthy of their appendix and propelling himself into Society, he believed in the need to treating all classes of patients holistically. He urged that medical students should be taught to treat the whole person. ‘Hospital patients should not be known as numbers or by their disease; it should not be Number 10 the duodenal but Mr Williams with an anxious wife and a family of six to support,’ he wrote in an article for Medical World.

Predicting the future

Sir Crisp was diverted by ambition from personally expanding medical knowledge beyond his own specialty, but that was not the advice he gave to St George’s Medical School in his inaugural address to the intake of 1936. ‘I urge upon you the supreme importance of looking ahead,’ he told students, ‘For you the future is infinitely more important than the past.’ Perhaps he privately regretted that he had not played a major role in the advancement of surgery. He certainly saw the future with amazing clarity. In this address he promoted the growth of preventative medicine saying: ‘I hope the day will come when ordinary patients pay their medical men so much a year for keeping them well.’ And he forecast the future development of cosmetic surgery predicting ‘that there would soon be no need for anyone to look unlovely.’ He also favoured discharging surgical patients from hospital as soon as possible, though at this time people were kept in bed for weeks after routine surgery. His medical  knowledge was considered relevant almost 100 years later, when one of his Hunterian lectures of 1903 being reprinted for a medical conference and  described by the lecturer as ‘remarkable because of the author’s knowledge of head injury and its consequences.’

In 2000 the medical historian Professor Roy Porter told  BBC Radio 4 listeners the ultimate anecdotes about Sir Crisp’s view of the future predicted at a time when both television and commercial air travel were in their infancy. In 1936 Sir Crisp told  medical students that one day aerial ambulances working ‘on the principle of the autogyro’ would deliver patients to the roofs of city hospitals; that telephones with television would be in regular practical use in diagnosis. ‘He, [the surgeon] would see his guineas but will be unable to reach them.’

In the same lecture Sir Crisp predicted more or less universal air-conditioning and sound-proofing of hospitals and other buildings ‘for clean air will hasten recovery and diminish complications.’ Most extraordinary of all, in the days long before computers, he predicted that letters would be typed without the intervention of a secretary, food would be ordered from shops by telephone and television, and that most eaten in the home would arrived prepared, or at least partly prepared. He also added that unnecessary noise would be a punishable offence. His crystal ball was not entirely accurate. He made these predictions in 1936 forecasting that they would happen in the following  20 years, yet some are still recent innovations more than 70 years later.

Life at Chilton

In decay: Chilton Hall when Sir Crisp acquired it

Sudbury would not have known of his crystal ball gazing or the important role in Churchill’s life played by the owner of Chilton Hall. He acquired the house the year after operating on the politician and Sir Crisp kept a low profile in the town though he offered his expertise as a consultant to St Leonard’s Hospital.

This far-seeing man had few outside interests apart from dabbling with golf and an annual trip to Scotland for fly fishing. At Chilton Hall he paid a local lad to row him around the moat while he fished for carp.  His favourite  relaxation was spending time with his wife and daughter at the house where he gardened, planted trees and bred a pink rose he named Lady English after his wife.  The house was showing both its age and neglect when he acquired it, and he set a small army of workmen to work stripping stucco and ivy from exterior brickwork, putting in Tudor- style windows and castellating the repaired tower. Internally, plaster was stripped to reveal diapered walls and he added a huge bath fed by well-water pumped up into tanks in the attic. Mains water was not connected until long after his death.

Sir Crisp and his wife, Annie, gardening in the 1930s

The garden was planted with a profusion of roses and perennials and he turned a meadow into a wood. The couple also created a formal garden with low brick walls, paths and an arbour as a surprise 21st birthday gift for their daughter Ruth. Sir Crisp had his own set of gardening tools which Faiers, the gardener, was expected to keep as clean as surgical instruments.

Staff from his London home would arrive at Chilton ahead of the family to prepare the house for weekend and longer visits. An annual highlight was the Christmas party for the children of the neighbourhood, a treat long-remembered by the guests especially the generous gifts from the Christmas tree. Sir Crisp died at Chilton in August 1949, aged 71, following a stroke. After a period of failing health he had moved there permanently from Brook Street only a few weeks previously. He was so ill that his daughter Ruth English wrote in her diary: ‘I sometimes wonder if Daddy will ever get to Chilton.’

Chilton Hall today

Surprisingly for a man who had achieved such eminence, his funeral at St Mary’s Church across the field from the Hall, was a private affair and there was no memorial service in London.  According to a report in the Eastern Daily Press the only mourners were Ruth, then prospective Liberal candidate for the Lowestoft division, and her cousin Mrs Lammy. The surgeon’s Scottish wife Annie, the former Annie Gaunt McLeod, had died three years earlier and Ruth was their only child. She would later marry County Councillor Aubrey Herbert, son of Sir Jesse Herbert, a doyen of the Liberal Party under Lloyd George, but their marriage was childless.