Remembering Past Greats: Thomas Spencer Wells

Author Information

Prasad M
(Assistant Professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Seth GS Medical College and KEM Hospital, Mumbai, India.)

Sir Thomas Spencer Wells (1818-1897) was an excellent 19th century medical practitioner. He started training as a doctor at a rather young age (for those times) of 17. Within two years, he had risen to the role of main assistant to leading obstetricians in Leeds. He then spent varying amounts of time being trained at Leeds University, Trinity College, Dublin and St Thomas Hospital, London. Upon earning the Royal College of Surgeons membership, he joined the Royal Navy and served in the British colony, Malta, for many years.[1]

His mentor during the Navy days, William Burnett had been described as a ruthless professional,[2] and had significant influence over his future career. It appears that Sir Wells picked up a lot of nuances about the importance of asepsis during the stint in the Navy,[3] and implemented them well during future practice also. His ability to describe pathological processes in detail and correlate with autopsy findings are exemplified in a publication, whose archive is still available.[4]
Gynecological pathology evolved under him, and a contemporary Lawson Tait, who pioneered the correlation of pathological specimens removed at surgery rather than excessive reliance on autopsy specimens, as chronicled by Young.[5] His enthusiasm for strategies to prevent diseases among sailors, and to develop and popularize vaccines,[6] paved way for much research in this aspect.
Despite all these contributions, the ones he is most popular are the operations on the ovary. He is believed to have performed over 1200 ovariotomies for various indications and attempted pathological correlation with various gynecological conditions, which was a pioneering achievement for the 19th century. Most of this work was done in the Samaritan Hospital for Women and Children in London.  He also designed a clamp, which is now commonly used in vaginal hysterectomy. He had initially described it for the ovarian pedicle.[1]

To summarize, Spencer Wells was a leading medical figure of his times, and his memory is sure to kindle enthusiasm among all of us to be excellent gynecologists.

  1. Biographies. In O’Dowd MJ, Philipp EE, editors. The History of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 1st ed. Lancs: Parthenon Publishing Group 2000; pp. 656-7.
  2. Penn C. Sir William Burnett (1779-1861), professional head of the Royal Naval Medical Department and entrepreneur. J Med Biogr. 2004;12(3):141-6.
  3. Smith EJ. 'Cleanse or Die': British Naval Hygiene in the Age of Steam, 1840-1900. Med Hist. 2018 Apr;62(2):177-198.
  4. Martin W, Wells TS. Report of Cases Treated in the Royal Naval Hospital, Malta. Edinb Med Surg J. 1844;61(159):350-390.
  5. Young RH. The history of British gynaecological pathology. Histopathology. 2009;54(2):144-55.
  6. Cook GC. Thomas Spencer Wells, Bt FRCS (1818-97) and his contributions to naval medicine. J Med Biogr. 2007;15(2):63-7.

Prasad M. Remembering Past Greats: Thomas Spencer Wells. JPGO 2018. Volume 5 No.12. Available from: