Doctor Spencer: Medical Practices

“…Had I not been deeply interested in the pursuit of professional knowledge I could not even have gone through the anxiety of mind I have endured…”

- Doctor Spencer

Work at the Dispensary

The Dispensary at Strand Street was open from 9am to 11am every day. The House Surgeon spent the rest of the day making calls to patients in their homes, supported by other doctors when the need arose. Doctor Spencer also had a private practice which would have supplemented his income, but generally completed his rounds before seeing his private patients. He was on hand to attend accidents and injuries that took place on the streets and harbour of Douglas, assisting with emergency amputations and attending women in childbirth.

Although the Dispensary and its committee often came in for criticism from the public and press, there is little evidence that this extended to Doctor Spencer. Newspaper reports said that he was “most sedulous [dedicated and diligent]” and praised his “humane zeal” when dealing with the poor.

Working Conditions

Working at the Dispensary was a difficult, dangerous and stressful job. In his resignation speech in April 1849, Doctor Spencer explained his decision to step down by saying “my health had so much suffered from the constant anxiety I have felt in having so many lives in my hands; together with the fatigue I have endured.” He also pointed out that doctors were at risk as they were “obliged frequently to visit many of a family all crowded together in a small and filthy apartment, generally ill-ventilated“. He believed that these conditions had caused a serious attack of typhoid in the winter of 1841, followed by recurring bouts of the disease every winter since.

He also stated “at my own house I have received recommendations and supplied the poor with medicine so frequently, that now it is a daily occurrence. This I could not wish my successor to do“.

Following his resignation, the Dispensary Committee advertised the post with an increased salary of £75 a year, but stated that the new House Surgeon must be a single man without a family, must live at the new hospital and could not practice privately. It is perhaps telling that no Manx doctors applied for the post and they struggled to recruit a new house surgeon on island. The successful candidate to replace Doctor Spencer was Mr Augustus William Eves, the son of a surgeon with whom Doctor Spencer had worked at Cheltenham.

New Treatments

Doctor Spencer was deeply interested in new medical developments. Although he still used contemporary practices such as bloodletting and trepanning, he tried and promoted new and innovative treatment techniques where he could.

In 1836-37, he worked in Cheltenham, near to where Dr Edward Jenner had discovered that cowpox could be effectively used to protect against smallpox. Spencer offered free vaccination clinics for poor children and campaigned to prevent children from attending school without it, dramatically cutting the occurrence of the disease in Douglas. He also pioneered the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic in operations and childbirth, and wrote to Dr James Simpson about its use on the Isle of Man.

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