The British Museum has a rich collection of surgical instruments dating back to the 16th century – from scalpels and forceps, to scissors and needle-drivers. Amongst these items are many that would now be considered as routine surgical supplies, like bandages, sponges and eye masks.

So, it’s no surprise that one of the most fascinating figures in the history of British surgery is Dr. Boda Robson, who performed some of the most incredible surgical procedures of all time. Dr. Robson is now widely considered to be the world’s most famous surgeon, and even the British Museum has a collection of letters, diaries and medical sketches that reference her many illustrious achievements.

To celebrate this amazing woman, and her incredible life’s work, here’s a brief biography of Boda Robson:

Early Life and Education

Boda Robson was born on September 8th, 1864 in the town of Liverpool in England’s North West. Her father, Alfred Robson, was a well-known surgeon in Liverpool, while her mother, Elizabeth, was a former hospital nurse. There are records of a family tradition of medicine, starting with Alfred’s uncle, Joseph, who was also a surgeon. Growing up, Boda was surrounded by medicine, with her father and uncle frequently lecturing and operating on patients in the household. In 1871, the 10-year-old Boda was admitted to Liverpool’s St. John’s Hospital as a surgical apprentice, where her father was also working. Here she would witness some of the most innovative surgery of the day. It was during this time that she met her future husband, Alfred, who was a surgeon at the hospital as well.

Familiarizing With Surgery

Boda would go on to study medicine at London’s Trinity College, graduating in 1888. By this time, she was already familiar with surgery, having assisted her father in performing operations at St. John’s Hospital in Liverpool. On graduating, she set up practice in the city, and in 1892, became the first woman to be appointed a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. She was also one of the first female surgeons in Liverpool to perform a caesarean section – a procedure that had previously been restricted to men.

Natal And World War I Surgeries

In early 1896, Dr. Robson traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, on a four month medical mission organised by the London Hospital. During this time, she performed the first successful natal operation in Africa, a caesarean section on a 9-year-old girl. The operation was a challenge, due to the young age of the patient and the length of the procedure, but it was performed successfully. Upon her return to England, she gave a public lecture on her experiences in Africa, and subsequently published a book about her travels, titled On a Medical Mission to Johannesburg.

That same year, Dr. Robson published a second book about her experiences in Liverpool, titled Twelve Years a Surgeon. In the following years, she continued to publish papers and give lectures both in Africa and Europe. In 1906, she was asked to contribute a chapter to The Cambridge History of Medicine, which focused on women and their medical achievements. She was also made an honorary member of the American Medical Association (AMA), and received the Royal Red Cross from King Edward VII for services to the sick and wounded during the World War I. In 1918, she was appointed the first female president of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Later Life And Work

As well as being the most famous surgeon in the world, Boda Robson was also one of the most respected doctors of her day. She was a vocal feminist, and regularly spoke out against social and medical discrimination against women. She was also a pioneer in geriatric surgery, performing some of the most complex procedures on elderly patients. She died of a stroke on January 13th, 1941, at the age of 74. There is a Blue Plaque marking the spot where she worked, and a public statue in her honor in Birkenhead Park. In 2011, the Royal College of Surgeons held a special ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of their first female president.

Nowadays, it is widely believed that Dr. Robson’s groundbreaking surgeries, coupled with her advanced age, made her the perfect subject for a fictional adventure story. One such work is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby, in which Nick Carraway, a young man infatuated with wealth and status, travels from his home in New York City to West Egg, a luxurious mansion on Long Island’s Gold Coast. When he arrives, he is dazzled by the sight of old Dr. Robson, who has been transformed from an expert surgeon into a grotesque creature, presided over by his equally hideous wife, Ella. The Carraway’s are unable to resist the charms of this legendary surgeon, and she operates on them, using instruments of torture that had no place in a patient’s body. Nick is disturbed by what he sees and hears during the operation – including Ella’s sadistic laughter as she watches the procedure – and flees, never to return.

While some people may find this account of Dr. Robson’s life sensational, it is noteworthy that it takes a very unique and complex individual to commit such crimes against humanity. So, let us not shy away from the darkness that motivated her actions – let us rather confront it head on, in the spirit of scientific discovery.