Humphry and Old Age

George Murray Humphry was appointed surgeon to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in 1842 at the age of only 22, and this gave him the distinction of being the youngest surgeon in England.  Humphry with George Paget, physician to Addenbrooke’s, were instrumental in forging the links between the hospital and the University to make a clinical school in Cambridge.  He started giving lectures and was interested in medical research.

In 1889 Humphry published:Old Age the results of information received respecting nearly nine hundred persons who had attained the age of eighty years, including seventy-four centenarians’.

In the preface to this volume he says: ‘in my Presidential Address at the Cambridge Meeting of the British Medical Association (BMA), in 1880 I drew attention to the advantages that might be derived by utilizing the organisation of that great body, then numbering more than eight thousand members, for the purpose of collecting information upon various subjects of medical interest.  A “Collective Investigation Committee” was consequently formed, and carefully-considered Circulars of Inquiry upon several subjects were issued’.

He was so enthusiastic that this committee should be successful that he became its Chairman and encouraged all types of research some are listed in this book including: ‘Acute Pneumonia, Chorea, Acute Rheumatism, Cancer of the Breast, the Connection of Disease with Habits of Intemperance, the Geographical Distribution of Certain Diseases in the British Isles’ and several on old age.

For his own research on ‘Old Age’ Humphry sent out to members of the BMA an ‘Inquiry-Paper; asking for the ‘general condition, habits, and circumstances, past and present, and the Family History of Persons who had attained or passed the Age of Eighty Years’. The questions included details of present condition, past history or family history.  He received nearly 900 replies.  As today the names of the patients are not included but the doctors sending in returns are listed with their location.

A review of Humphry’s work on old age in ‘The Spectator’ of April 1890 concludes:

Professor Humphrey deserves the thanks of the community for his painstaking investigations. The returns are, ….. provokingly incomplete. But at least a beginning has been made. The hill of knowledge, is mounted with slow and laborious steps, and we must be content to advance little by little. In any case knowledge is its own reward.

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