Charles Dickens’ writing career saved by a surgeon at St Mark’s Hospital

PUBLISHED: 13:01 09 August 2019 | UPDATED: 16:23 09 August 2019

Charles Dickens, who sat so long writing his books, he visited St Mark's Hospital. Picture: Charles Dickens Museum

Charles Dickens, who sat so long writing his books, he visited St Mark's Hospital. Picture: Charles Dickens Museum


What the Dickens! A Northwick Park hospital helped save the career of the UK’s revered writer of tales such as Oliver Twist.

Frederick Salmon, founder of St Mark's Hospital. Picture: Dickens MuseumFrederick Salmon, founder of St Mark's Hospital. Picture: Dickens Museum

Charles Dickens might never have sat down and written another book without the assistance of surgeon Frederick Salmon, the founder of St Mark's Hospital.

The novelist suffered from an anal fistula, a painful condition where an abnormal passageway developed in his bottom giving rise to pus and infection,

Dickens had found it increasingly difficult to sit for any length of time without being in pain saying it was a "consequence of sitting too much at my desk."

It was no laughing matter and he sought the help of Salmon who, tiring of a medical profession that favoured patronage over ability, founded his own practice in 1835.

Frederick Salmon, founder of St Mark's HospitalFrederick Salmon, founder of St Mark's Hospital

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The hospital in Watford Road, which today shares the same site as Northwick Park Hospital, began life as the Benevolent Dispensary for the Relief of the Poor Afflicted with Fistula Piles and other diseases of the Rectum and Lower Intestines.

It operated from a single room but quickly grew in size and reputation moving to a succession of larger premises and attracting influential benefactors including the Archbishop of Canterbury and future Prime Minister Lord John Russell.

Dickens, who had recently wowed his readership with Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop, came to Salmon as a private patient in 1841 complaining that 'all manner of queer pains were floating around my illustrious person.'

Salmon discovered an anal fistula was troubling the writer and Dickens later noted that he suffered 'agonies' and could 'scarcely bear' the procedure that was carried out without any anaesthetic.

It proved successful and a relived Dickens expressed a 'spontaneous and most heartfelt emotion of gratitude' and gave the surgeon several autographed copies of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, and contributed ten guineas to the hospital.

Dickens went on to write another 16 novels including many of his classics, such as David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations, and secretly blessed the surgeon who saved his career.

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