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Henry Heather Bigg

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Henry Heather Bigg (1826-1881) of H. Bigg and Son

1882 Obituary [1]

MR. HENRY HEATHER BIGG was born in Dean Street, Southwark, on the 23rd of July, 1826.

His father was possessed, through his wife, of considerable property, which he had invested, partly in a brewery at Cheltenham, and partly in a building scheme in that town, in conjunction with two gentlemen as partners. One of these partners, however, speculated without the cognisance of the others, and was very speedily involved for an amount far beyond his power of recoupment, and as a result in those days of unlimited liability, Mr. Bigg’s father was ruined, and came to London with what little he could collect to start earning a livelihood as best he could. There he made the acquaintance of Mr. Sheldrake, a surgical instrument maker of that time, resident in Leicester Square, and ultimately purchased a share in his business, and in this way his son, Mr. Henry Heather Bigg succeeded to the pursuit which he afterwards made so successful.

At the age of fourteen young Bigg left school to learn the practical details of his future business. In these he speedily became proficient and, at seventeen, was attending the different hospitals with which his father held the contracts for orthopedic appliances, and was personally supervising their adaptation to the patients.

Here it was that his quickness and aptness of perception attracted the attention of one of the staff of St. George’s Hospital, who very generously offered to send him to Cambridge, and to defray all the expenses of his stay and study there, an offer declined by his father with the cynical and old-fashioned remark that a University education would unfit him for the business for which he was intended. At St. George’s, however, he attended as a student the lectures on Anatomy, Medicine, and Surgery, and, although never proceeding to the actual attainment of a medical degree, he gained an extended medical knowledge, which became the basis of much of his after work.

After some time he became his father’s partner, and, in 1852, he married a daughter of Dr. Robert James Culverwell, and obtained entire possession of the business on his father’s retirement.

Shortly after this the Crimean War broke out, and on the return of the wounded from the Crimea he received Her Majesty’s personal command to scheme the best substitutes for the lost limbs of many of the soldiers, a task which he so satisfactorily accomplished as to draw considerable encomiums from the press of the period, both general and medical. The result of his efforts in this direction were, in 1855, embodied in a book which detailed the principles of the construction and application of artificial limbs.

The success of this volume was so marked and so encouraging that he immediately commenced another, which was to appear in parts, and was to describe in sequence the various orthopaedic appliances best suited to the cure of the deformities of the human body. The first portion, devoted to the lower limbs, appeared in 1858, and served to securely establish the reputation he had already gained of being the first authority on the construction of such apparatus.

The next portion, entitled 'Localised Movements,' came out in 1859; it was devoted to the gymnastic treatment of deformities, which just then had been introduced from the Continent, and was attracting much medical attention. In it the author recounted his experiences after having visited all the important continental gymnastic establishments, and having, on his return to London, built a gymnasium in which, for four years, the efficacy of mechanical gymnastics were carefully tested by him.

In 1862 the final portion of the work appeared, completing his original project, and including the mechanical treatment of the spine and the upper limbs.

He had now reached a climacteric, and one which is recognisable in the lives of many successful men. They pass a large portion of their career in learning and in reaching the full power of knowledge expressed from their past experiences; and then they enjoy a term more or less lengthened, during which they utilize these experiences and this knowledge. He had passed through the first stage, and had gathered in his work an extended experience. He had fully considered and written on, one after another, all the subjects embraced in mechanical therapeutics. He had looked at it in its mechanical phase, he had looked at it in its medical phase, and he had found that whilst most surgeons understood but the rudiments of mechanics, so most surgical mechanicians had but the crudest ideas on the principles of surgery and medicine. He saw that by the study of the two sciences of medicine and mechanics in one person, a field of research would be opened, which had been almost unworked since the time of Hippocrates, and that, indeed, by the recognition of such a conjunction, a new scientific calling, which he designated 'Orthopraxy,' would probably arise.

As surgery had in the past become gradually dissociated from the barbers’ trade to rise to a science, as dentistry quite recently had passed almost from the condition of a handicraft to its present status, so he believed that in the future orthopraxy would constitute a scientific and honourable profession; and, as far as he had the power, he endeavoured to lay down the lines of this new development.

Further, he determined to practically test its working, and to see if what he considered was a want would be generally recognised as such. Giving up the cramped office in which he had previously had his work transacted, he moved into a private house in the heart of a medical neighbourhood, and shaking himself free from the trammels of a business dependent largely on hospital and other contracts, he started the independent practice of mechanical therapeutics.

He produced at the same time, 1865, his work entitled 'Orthopraxy,' which comprised, in an extended form, all the subjects on which he had previously written, as well as much fresh matter, a book which, it is believed, was the first comprehensive epitome of surgical mechanics in the English language.

And the immediate result of this venture fully justified the anticipations he had been led to form, notwithstanding the difficulties which lay in the way. For there were difficulties, of which not the least was the fact that, having failed to qualify himself as a medical man in his younger days, his proceedings were viewed askance by a large section of the medical profession, who believed that he was trenching unfairly on ground which could not justly be his, and which, if clearly defined by the sharp line of law, was none the less hedged in by the more dubious and sensitive one of traditional right and etiquette. This feeling he speedily overcame by strict adherence to set lines of conduct, and the weight of his opinions on the mechanical points in surgery came to be recognised by the leaders of the medical profession, who sent their patients to him with full confidence in his discretion and power to treat them. And so he rapidly rose into a practice which was very large, and which he enjoyed with unintermittent success till the time of his death. His literary work, subsequent to the publication of 'Orthopraxy' was confined almost entirely to producing fresh and enlarged editions of that and his previous books.

His inventive talent was great, and he enjoyed a faculty of rapidly and correctly coming to conclusions, without apparently intermediate reasoning nor the knowledge of how he arrived at them. He improved on nearly all the recognised orthopadic appliances in vogue in his earlier life, and invented many new oncs. Prothetic mechanisms were also brought by him to great perfection, as may be evidenced by the case of a woman at present living, who was a native of Dundee, there undergoing the quadruple amputation of both legs and arms, and was restored by him, through the substitutes he schemed, to perfect power of locomotion, and to the capability of writing and gaining her livelihood. He hail the honour of successfully attending several royal personages, notably the Princess of Wales, when Her Royal Highness was suffering from an injury to her knee.

In temperament Mr. Bigg was energetic and enthusiastic. His manner was winning and courteous with women, and characterised by a geniality which rendered him popular with men. It is, sad that, just as hew as about t o retire and enjoy the well-earned repose to which his labour and busy life had entitled him, he should have been stricken with a malady inevitably culminating in an operation under which he sank on the 30th of April, 1881, in the fifty-fifth year of his age.

He was elected an Associate of the Institution on the 4th of March, 1862.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 1882 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries