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Sir William Arbuthnot-Lane, 1st Bt

Sir William ("Willie") Arbuthnot-Lane, 1st Baronet, Legion of Honour (Fort George, Invernesshire 4 July 1856 – 16 January 1943) was a Scottish surgeon. His father, Benjamin Lane, was an Irishman who was posted as military surgeon to Inverness, Scotland, where William was born.

Associated for most of his career with Guy's Hospital, Lane is known for three surgical procedures: the treatment of cleft palate, the application of internal splints to fractures using the strict aseptic 'Lane technique' and the treatment of chronic intestinal stasis. During the 1914–18 war, he organised and opened Queen Mary's Hospital, Sidcup, a pioneering institution in plastic surgery. This controversial surgeon asked to have his name removed from the Medical Register, in order to promote the New Health Society (the first organised body to deal with social medicine), to avoid being disciplined by the General Medical Council. He had founded the New Health Society in 1925 to publicise his views on healthy diet and life.



Arbuthnot-Lane trained and later worked at Guy's Hospital in London. Lane is best known for his attempts at improving alignment of fractures by using internal fixation. He started off using silver wire, then he used steel screws and this was followed by the use of plates and screws. Lane was regarded at his peak as the best abdominal surgeon in England and was called on to operate on Royalty, politicians and many society figures of the Edwardian era.

Naturally rather shy, he found teaching and medical writing difficult, and taught mostly by example. His remarkable knowledge of anatomy and supreme surgical technique was much admired by surgeons from all over the world who flocked to watch him operate at Guys Hospital. This fame made him many enemies in London surgical circles. Remarkably, when he published a series on the operative repair of fractures by steel plate and screws, his fellow surgeons reported him to the General Medical Council (the doctors disciplinary body in Britain) and attempted to have him struck off the Medical Register and thus destroy his practice.


Natural selection

In 1904, Lane met the Russian Nobel prize winning bacteriologist Elie Metchnikoff who fatally influenced his thoughts. Believing that Darwin's theories on natural selection were right, Lane noticed that the skeletons of manual workers had undergone changes in their lifetime. This led him to believe that natural selection was happening much faster than Darwin suggested. Metchnikoff unfortunately had become convinced that humans were changing much faster as well and that several of our body structures were now obsolete and through evolutionary process going to disappear. He suggested that the colon was one such structure, that it was going to shrink like the appendix and dreamed of a day when we could have an operation to remove it entirely.


Lane realised that he had now developed abdominal surgical technique to a point where this was possible and decided to operate on some patients with very severe constipation. Gratified by the results of this first surgery, he then performed total colectomies as a cure for "auto-intoxication". This condition had no medical or scientific credibility and at a meeting of the Royal Society of Medicine in London to discuss the topic in 1913 many of Lane's enemies seized the opportunity to attack his ideas and to publicly humiliate him. Lane's reputation was irreversibly damaged and despite being asked to lead the British army's surgical service during World War One and setting up the first plastic and reconstructive surgery unit to cope with war injuries, he never recovered. After the war he left Guy's Hospital and soon retired from medicine.

In 1926, still convinced that auto-intoxication was a genuine disorder, he appeared to have completely changed his mind about removing the colon. In an extraordinary volte-face he started promoting exercise, fruit and vegetables and bran cereal as the answer to bowel problems. Using his many royal and society connections he set up The New Health Society to promote programmes of health education that mirror those present today. Lane wrote columns in the newspapers, held public lectures and improved the distribution of fruit and vegetables. In this he was 40 years ahead of his time.

Lane's syndrome

(Otherwise Lane's disease or Arbuthnot Lane syndrome).

A syndrome prevalent in women characteised by colonic inertia, contraction and lack of relaxation of the pelvis muscles, and rectal obstruction.

The Doctors Dilemma

Lane is sometimes unfairly quoted as the model for George Bernard Shaw's scurrilous surgeon in his play The Doctors Dilemma. This is not true. Shaw himself stated that he had written the play before he had ever heard of Lane. The original of Cutler Walpole according to Shaw was an Ear Nose and Throat surgeon in London who had made a fortune by performing an unnecessary operation to extirpate the uvula. Lane and Shaw never met, but Shaw was an admirer of his. He was fascinated by Lane's opinions about the speed of evolution and the two had corresponded on the subject.

Quotations include:

  • The man whose first question after what he considers to be a right course of action has presented itself, is 'What will people say?' is not the man to do anything at all.
  • If everyone believes a thing it is probably untrue!
  • If you get a rude letter, always send a polite one back. It's much better.


Lane married first Charlotte Jane Briscoe (died q2 1935 aged 78), daughter of John Briscoe, son of Major Briscoe. They had issue. Sir William married second Hendon 25 September, 1935 Jane Mutch (died Bridport q4 1966 aged 82), sister of Sir William's son-in-law, Nathan Mutch.

He died from being run over during a wartime blackout outside the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall.

External links

Baronetage of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
New Creation
(of Cavendish Square)
Succeeded by
William Arbuthnot-Lane


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