Reference code(s): GB 0113 MS-LEER
Held at: Royal College of Physicians
Title: LEE, Robert (1793-1877)
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 27 oversize boards with 29 drawings
Name of creator(s): Lee | Robert | 1793-1877 | obstetric physician
Robert Lee was born in Melrose, Roxburghshire, in 1793, the second son of John Lee. He was educated in the Scottish Border town of Galashiels, under the Rev. Robert Balmer, the profound theologian. Lee entered Edinburgh University in 1806. Initially intended for the church he changed his mind and chose to pursue a career in medicine. He graduated MD in 1814, and became a member of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons. He was appointed physician's clerk at the Royal Infirmary to Dr James Hamilton, physician and professor of midwifery.
In 1817 Lee moved to London and took charge of an epileptic patient, the son of the Honorable William Lamb (afterwards Lord Melbourne). On relinquishing this appointment he spent the winter of 1821-22 in Paris, furthering his medical education through the study of anatomy. He remained abroad for the following year, employed as domestic physician to a family of high rank. He traveled with them through the South of France and Northern Italy. On his return to England he became a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London, in March 1823, and began to practice as an obstetric physician.
He suffered a severe illness at this time. When he recovered he obtained a medical appointment with the East India Company. However, before leaving for Calcutta, he received the offer of appointment as domestic physician to Prince Woronzow, then governor-general of the Crimea and the Russian provinces around the Black Sea. He left for Odessa in October 1824. In 1825 he traveled with the Prince and his family to the Crimea, where he was presented to Czar Alexander a few days before the Czar's sudden death from epidemic fever. Lee later published an account of the Czar's final days, Last Days of Alexander and the First Days of Nicholas (1854), in order to counteract rumours that the Czar had died a suspicious death.
Lee returned to England with Prince Woronzow in 1826, and again began to practice as an obstetrician in London. In 1827 he was elected physician to the British Lying-in Hospital, and began to lecture on midwifery. In 1829 he also became lecturer on midwifery in the Webb Street School of Anatomy and Medicine. He had taught himself shorthand and this enabled him to make full notes of every lecture he attended and the cases he treated, making it possible for him to preserve written histories of the important cases of puerperal and uterine disease he came across after these appointments.
From his settling in London in 1827, Lee devoted much time and effort to investigations into the pathology of the diseases of women, puerperal fever, and in prolonged dissections of the ganglia and nerves of the uterus. He contributed to the Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine (1833-35), writing entries on 'Abortion', 'Diseases of the Ovaries', 'Puerperal Fevers', 'Pathology of the Uterus and its Appendages', and 'Diseases of the Veins'. He also wrote numerous papers. Many were published in the Transactions of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society, whilst others he read before the Royal Society. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1830. Despite Lee's proliferation of papers the Society never awarded him a medal and even suppressed some of his articles. This was due, it is said, to `differences of opinion as to the value of his discoveries' (DNB, 1892, p.373).
He became secretary to the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society, 1830-35. In 1834 he obtained, through the interest of Lord Melbourne, the appointment of Regius Professor of Midwifery at the University of Glasgow. However he resigned after his introductory address and returned to London. In 1835 he was appointed lecturer on midwifery and the diseases of women at St George's Hospital, an appointment he held for thirty years. Lee was admitted a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1841.
In 1842 he published what some consider his most valuable contribution, Clinical Midwifery (2nd ed. 1848), which contained 545 cases of difficult labour. His subsequent work, Three Hundred Consultations in Midwifery (1864) was also deemed to be important (ibid). However, others consider that it was his `remarkable' dissections of the nerves of the heart and uterus that `entitle him to a place in the foremost rank of anatomists and physiologists of his time and country' (Munk's Roll, 1878, p.268).
Lee's relationship with the Royal Society did not improve in the 1840s. It was owing in part to his dissension that the president, the Marquis of Northampton, and the secretary, Dr Peter Mark Roget, resigned in 1849. Lee's version of his treatment by the Royal Society can be found in his Memoirs on the Ganglia and Nerves of the Uterus (London, 1849). Although it was recognized that Lee could be somewhat dictatorial in manner and intolerant of those in slightest opposition to his views, `his honesty of purpose in all he did was never doubted' (ibid). Furthermore, he was undoubtedly `an indomitable worker, and made numerous discoveries of permanent value' (DNB, p.373)
He delivered several of the eponymous lectures of the Royal College of Physicians, namely the Lumleian Lectures in 1856-57, the Croonian Lectures in 1862, and the Harveian Oration in 1864, the last time the lecture was delivered in Latin. He resigned his lecturership at St George's Hospital in 1866, but continued in practice.
Lee worked indefatigably until 1875 when he retired from practice at the age of 82. He moved from his home in Savile Row to Surbiton Hill, Surrey, and died there on 6 February 1877. He was buried at Kensal Green.
On the Structure of the Human Placenta, and its Connection with the Uterus (London, 1832) Researches on the Pathology and Treatment of the Diseases of Women (London, 1833)
Pathological Observations on the Diseases of the Uterus, with Coloured Engravings from Original Drawings by Joseph Perry, Representing the Most Important Organic Diseases of the Uterus (London, 2 parts 1840; 1849)
The Anatomy of the Nerves of the Uterus (London, 1841)
Clinical Midwifery, with the Histories of the Four Hundred Cases of Difficult Labour (London, 1842; 2nd edition 1848)
On the Ganglia and Other Nervous Structures of the Uterus (London, 1842)
Lectures on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery, delivered in the Theatre of St George's Hospital (London, 1844)
Memoirs on the Ganglia and Nerves of the Uterus (London, 1849)
Memoir on the Ganglia and Nerves of the Heart (London, 1851)
Clinical Reports of Ovarian and Uterine Diseases, with Commentaries (London, 1853)
The Last Days of Alexander, and the First Days of Nicholas, Emperors of Russia (London, 1854)
Treatise on the Employment of the Speculum in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Uterine Diseases (London, 1858)
Engravings of the Ganglia and Nerves of the Uterus and Heart (London, 1858)
Three Hundred Consultations in Midwifery (London, 1864)
History of the Discoveries of the Circulation of the Blood, of the Ganglia and Nerves, and of the Action of the Heart (London, 1865)
A Treatise on Hysteria (London, 1871)
Entries in Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine (London, 1833-35), ed. by Sir John Forbes, John Conolly, & Alexander Tweedie
Publications about Lee:
Extracts from the Diary of Dr Robert Lee, FRS, 1821-22 (London, 1897, privately printed - posthumously)
Scope and content/abstract:
Original watercolour drawings, 1828-1844, of specimens illustrating Lee's work on the nerves of the heart and uterus, mostly by Joseph Perry. Some illustrations were used in Lee's various publications, especially his Pathological Observations on the Diseases of the Uterus, with Coloured Engravings from Original Drawings by Joseph Perry, Representing the Most Important Organic Diseases of the Uterus (London, 2 parts 1840; 1849), others are unpublished. Many are endorsed with a label identifying the illustration and a note of publication, in Lee's hand.
ACCESS AND USE
Language/scripts of material: English
System of arrangement:
Conditions governing access:
Conditions governing reproduction:
All requests should be referred to the Archivist
Appraisal, destruction and scheduling information:
Immediate source of acquisition:
Presented to the College by Robert James Lee, Lee's son, on 15 March 1890
Existence and location of originals:
Existence and location of copies:
There is material relating to Lee held elsewhere in the College Archives, amongst College papers, including a copy of Lee's Harveian Oration, 1864, made by his son, Robert James Lee (1840-1924) (MS1024/411), and a letter from Lee to William Munk (1816-1898) about Lee's delivery of the Croonian Lectures, 1861 (MS1012/22). His signature endorses a petition for free use of the library by licentiates of the College, 1858 (MS2000/15). There is also a paper by Robert Ferguson (1799-1865) analysing Lee's paper on Fibro-calcareous Tumours and Polypi of the Uterus, n.d. (MS415/19);
Lee's correspondence, diaries, and papers, 1806-1912, are held at the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine; Letters to John Lee, 1833-56, are held at the National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division. See National Register of Archives for details.
Many of the drawings are included in the the publication, Pathological Observations on the Diseases of the Uterus, with Coloured Engravings from Original Drawings by Joseph Perry, Representing the Most Important Organic Diseases of the Uterus, Robert Lee (London, 2 parts 1840; 1849). Others appear in Lee's entries for the Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine (London, 1833-35), ed. by Sir John Forbes, John Conolly, & Alexander Tweedie and in articles he wrote for the Transactions of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society
Archivist's note: Sources: Dictionary of National Biography, vol. XXXII, Sidney Lee (ed) (London, 1892) [DNB, 1892, pp.372-73]; The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, 1801-1825, William Munk, Vol III (London, 1878) [Munk's Roll, 1878, pp.266-69]; `Obituary - Robert Lee, MD, FRS', British Medical Journal, 17 February 1877, [BMJ, 1877, p.217]; 'From the Librarian's Desk', L.M. Payne, Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of London - College Commentary, April 1974, vol.8, no.3, pp.57-59; Historical Manuscripts Commission On-Line National Register of Archives.
Compiled by Katharine Williams
Rules or conventions: Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives, Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.
Date(s) of descriptions: April 2003