Blue plaque for victor horsley

Victor Horsley (1857-1917), pioneering neurosurgeon and social reformer – who also took a leading role in the successful efforts to eradicate rabies from the UK – has been honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at his former home in Bloomsbury, London.

Responsible for several operating ‘firsts’, Horsley was arguably without peer in successful intracranial operations before 1890. One modern worldwide historical survey of brain surgery states that he ‘may legitimately be called the first neurosurgeon’. Horsley also played a leading part in the eradication of rabies in Britain, chairing the Society for the Prevention of Hydrophobia and acting as secretary to an important government committee of investigation; he was a strong advocate of the muzzling of dogs, a matter of great controversy.

After studying medicine at University College Hospital, Horsley took up surgical roles from 1880. Between 1883 and 1891 he was Professor-Superintendent of the Brown Institution in Wandsworth Road, established to carry out research ‘useful to man’ and where he specialised in studying the functions in the brain and spinal cord. It was also at Brown that he carried out experimental work on the thyroid gland that paved the way for modern treatments of certain thyroid disorders.

Among the operating ‘firsts’ following Horsley’s appointment at the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic in Bloomsbury (1886), were the first removal of a tumour from the spinal cord (1887) and the first carotid ligation (binding of the artery) for a cerebral aneurysm, while his experimental work on the thyroid gland paved the way for many modern treatments. He also co-developed the Horsley-Clarke stereotaxic apparatus which enabled the accurate pinpointing of a particular area of the brain for treatment. In terms of scientific landmarks, its invention has been compared to that of the telescope and microscope. Another of Horsley’s innovations was an antiseptic compound of beeswax and almond oil – known as ‘Horsley’s Wax’ – which is still used to stem bleeding from the cranial vault.

Knighted in 1902, Horsley reduced his surgical commitments after 1906 and became an ardent campaigner for temperance, women’s suffrage and sex education. Twice he stood unsuccessfully for parliament, as a Liberal, and he actively supported Lloyd George’s health insurance reforms, a stance that put him at odds with many in the medical profession. While his manner with patients was exemplary, Horsley’s demeanour in dealing with colleagues was often abrupt and abrasive, which may explain why his achievements have not been more widely celebrated.

Although he was fifty-seven at the outbreak of the First World War, Horsley volunteered for active service. He was sent first to the Dardenelles, after which he volunteered to go to Mesopotamia. Characteristically, Horsley fought hard to improve conditions for the care of wounded and diseased troops, but died of heatstroke on 16 July 1916 at a military hospital at Amara, near Baghdad; he was also buried there.

Professor Ronald Hutton, Chairman of the English Heritage Blue Plaques Panel, said; “Sir Victor Horsley was a truly significant figure in the field of medical science, virtually founding neurosurgery, and whose impact on public health can still be seen today. This Blue Plaque marks the place he lived and worked when undertaking his early pioneering work, close to University College Hospital, with which he was connected for many years.”

Michael Powell, who proposed the plaque, said; “Sir Victor Horsley was a leading surgeon scientist, with a wide range of surgical ‘firsts’ who made important advances in research, neurosciences and endocrinology. He was a powerful debater and orator, reforming a number of medical organisations including the GMC and BMA, and was a passionate social reformer who very prominently supported causes such as female suffrage.”

The English Heritage Blue Plaque is at 129 Gower Street in Bloomsbury, a short distance from University College London. Horsley moved here in November 1882, while working at the hospital, and is the place where he first set up his ‘brass plate’ of practice, was elected to the Royal Society of Surgeons, and became engaged. He moved out in 1885. A two-bay terraced house, the Grade II listed building is now part of a medical students’ hostel.

The English Heritage London Blue Plaques scheme is generously supported by David Pearl, the Blue Plaques Club, and members of the public.


1857 Born in Kensington, London
1880 Appointed house surgeon at University College Hospital, where he studied medicine
1883 Became Professor-Superintendent of the Brown Institution in Wandsworth Road
1886 Surgical appointment at National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic, Bloomsbury
1887 First successful removal of a tumour from the spinal cord
1892 Founded the Journal of Pathology
1896 Elected to the General Medical Council
1902 Knighted
1906 Reduced surgical commitments and became ardent campaigner
1910 Contested General Election as a Liberal candidate for London University seat
1914 Volunteered for active service at outbreak of war
1915 Posted to Egypt as consultant to Mediterranean Expeditionary Force
1916 Died of heatstroke at military hospital in Amara, near Baghdad

HISTORY OF LONDON’S BLUE PLAQUES SCHEME – The London-wide blue plaques scheme has been running for nearly 150 years. The idea of erecting 'memorial tablets' was first proposed by William Ewart MP in the House of Commons in 1863. It had an immediate impact on the public imagination, and in 1866 the (Royal) Society of Arts founded an official plaques scheme. The Society erected its first plaque – to poet, Lord Byron – in 1867. The blue plaques scheme was subsequently administered by the London County Council (1901-65) and by the Greater London Council (1965-86), before being taken on by English Heritage in 1986.

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