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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Hamilton Bailey FRCS, FACS - Surgical Tutor par Excellence

By Nihal D Amerasekera

Hamilton Bailey

To medical students and doctors the name Hamilton Bailey is synonymous with  Surgery for his extraordinary contribution to surgical literature. His books Demonstrations in Clinical Surgery  and A Short Text Book of Surgery which he co-authored with McNeill Love became our text books.  They were  bench-books for surgeons during their training.  His book titled Emergency Surgery was greatly respected by practicing surgeons.  These books are still in print, updated and widely read. They still command worldwide sales. With such knowledge and expertise I assumed he lead a charmed life of luxury basking in his wealth and affluence. I thought he was an eminent consultant in a prestigious London teaching hospital with a lucrative Harley Street practice. I was proved wrong on both counts. 

For many years, in September, I have followed the swallows in their migration to southern Spain for the luxury of autumn sunshine. The Costa Del Sol is a paradise for sun-worshippers. I made my annual pilgrimage to a quiet corner away from the hordes that descend on this magical place. On one such occasion I visited the city of Malaga, the largest coastal city in Andalucia. It is a fascinating place with Moorish and Roman ruins and the Picasso Museum.  As I walked its pretty tree lined streets I came across an English Cemetery and decided to take a stroll along its well-heeled passages. As usual I read some of the tombstones as I passed by and amazingly came across the name of Hamilton Bailey. This aroused my curiosity and fascination to research his life to find out why he lay in a distant foreign field. 

Hamilton Bailey was born to Scottish parents in 1894. His father was a doctor and his mother, a nurse. She suffered from depression and drank heavily. His sister had schizophrenia and was in and out of mental institutions.  Thus his childhood wasn’t ideal.  Despite his difficulties he  entered the London Hospital Medical School at the age of 16 and qualified in 1916. While training in surgery at the London Hospital he developed an infection in one of his fingers which had to be amputated. This was the era before antibiotics. It was a tragedy for a budding surgeon. 

 In 1927 he published his first book Demonstrations in Clinical Surgery. A Short Text Book of Surgery soon followed in 1932.  His co-author was his friend and colleague McNeill Love.  His wife who was a photographer did the magnificent illustrations for his books. Meanwhile he made many unsuccessful applications for consultant posts in several hospitals.  In 1930 he finally got his break at the Royal Northern Hospital in Holloway, North London. It was not considered an elite London teaching hospital.  His reputation spread as a charismatic teacher and a fine lecturer. He was one of the first to organize a drill for cardiac arrest. Hamilton Bailey became a Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons. 

With his large frame and self confidence he was demanding and domineering. Those who knew him have said he had few social graces, had no respect for authority and no rapport with patients or colleagues. It is a sad indictment for an elegant author and a superb lecturer with so many publications to enhance the profession. 

Tragedy struck his family when his only child died in a railway accident in 1943. His mental health suffered and his behaviour became erratic.  His temper was uncontrollable at times. In 1949 Hamilton Bailey gave up his surgical practice and sought psychiatric help.  He was sectioned and incarcerated for 3 years  and was unresponsive to treatment. When they were planning a prefrontal leucotomy  a young registrar suggested trying out a new drug.  He was started on Lithium.  Although he made a remarkable recovery he never worked in medicine again.  In 1951 he retired and bought a house in the hills near Fuengirola close to Malaga, in Spain, to enjoy its Mediterranean climate. There he continued to write and maintained contact with his surgical friends in England. 

While enjoying his retirement he developed signs of acute intestinal obstruction. He was rushed to the hospital in Malaga where he had an abdominal operation. Hamilton Bailey died in 1961, aged 66,  of septicaemia and peritonitis after surgery to remove a cancer of the colon. He was buried in the English cemetery in Malaga, Spain.  There are many doctors who visit the grave to pay homage to this brilliant teacher. They come not only from the UK but from all over the world. 

There can be few doctors of my generation who do not remember Hamilton Bailey gratefully. Unlike many consultants of his era he never chased money nor accumulated wealth for himself.  His erratic behavior and tantrums are perhaps due to his difficult childhood and mental illness.  I sincerely hope history will judge him kindly and remember his many contributions to surgery and his brilliance as a teacher and author.  He changed the face of surgical teaching in the 20th century.  

None of our lives are what it appears from the outside.  When I delve into the lives of famous people I realize amidst their success they too have their share of misfortunes and tragedies. There are many events in our lives that are beyond our control.  What amazes me most, in our lives, is the awesome force of destiny. 

I dedicate this short biography to my friend Bernard Randeniya  alias Claude Bernard . He was my constant companion all through Medical School and beyond. I have vivid memories of criss-crossing the long corridors of the General hospital Colombo with Bernard  looking for “good cases”. The agony and the ecstasy of exams, dancing and prancing, the music and the laughter of those years come easily to mind. He became a valued administrator in charge of the Cancer Institute in Maharagama.  Bernard had so much to offer society when his life was cut short.  Destiny was never kind to him. I will always remember him most fondly for his friendship, generosity and loyalty. His loud laughter still rings in my ears.  May his Soul Rest in Peace.

C’est la vie 

Lives of great men all remind us 
  We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us   
  Footprints on the sands of time; 

                                       - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 



  1. What a fascinating story! To think I read his book as a student and never bothered to find out more about him! The longer I live, the more I am interested in history. Thanks ND.

  2. Mahen
    Your kind input encourages us to keep this Blog alive an active.
    Thanks again

  3. My pleasure ND. Looking forward to meeting you in 2015 - long overdue!

  4. Mahen
    Yes, we must meet. As the weather improves we will meet up