The first surgeon who treated phossy jaw could be my neighbour?!

There is a British TV programme called “Who do you think you are?” on BBC about celebrities using archives and meeting historians in tracing their ancestors. I enjoy watching the programme and I am stunned by the fact that, in general, European countries keep very good records and we can still get access to documents hundreds of years old. I have got someone in mind – Mr W. C. Wright, the University College Hospital (UCH) surgeon who treated the first case of phosphorus necrosis in England in 1846 and this marked the start of my journey of searching.

With the information from the Medical Times report written by Mr Wright, (see my previous blog entry “The first English phosphorus necrosis case”), I contacted UCH archive to see if the original medical record is available. However, the archivist could not identify anything relevant.

I then approached the two Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), Edinburgh and England respectively, as Mr Wright, bearing the post-nominal initials MRCSE, was a member with one of them. A librarian from RCS Edinburgh promptly checked their historical records and told me that there was no evidence of anyone by this name from their College.


The search didn’t stop there. At RCS England, Archivist Karen guided me through different materials I can refer to. I spent one whole morning on the Medical Directories from 1846 till 1894 and there were two possible matches:

1. Mr William Wright – a general practitioner, obtained his MRCSE in 1793, lived on Grenville Street and his record on the Directory only appeared till 1846.

2. Mr William Wright – a more high-profile surgeon who published a few papers on ear anatomy and disease. Although he specialised in ear, he could still be interested in the jaw as it is part of the head and neck region. However, Karen and I thought, unlike the surgeon above, the second W. Wright reported to the Directory his publications including an essay, a handbook and an article on Lancet. So he should have included the one on phosphorus necrosis in Medical Times if he had authored it.

So where is my Mr Wright? I haven’t a clue yet. If he was the first one, living at 3 Grenville Street, now the International Hall where I live, he could be my neighbour across two centuries! The real searching is not as easy and romantic as it seems in “Who do you think you are?”, but I will visit RCS England again soon. Stay tuned!


  • Wright, W.C. 1846. “Case of Salivation and Diseased Jaw from the Fumes of Phosphorus.” The Medical Times 15 (377) (December): 224–225.
  • Anon. 1845. The London Medical Directory. Churchill Livingstone.
  • Anon. 1853. The British Medical Directory for England, Scotland, and Wales. Offices of The Lancet and British Medical Directory.
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