Berkeley Moynihan 1865 – 1936

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In July 2015, I visited Lawnswood Cemetery where my grandfather, Baron Moynihan of Leeds, the greatest surgeon of his time, lies buried. At the time, his family had been offered the opportunity for a grand ceremony and burial in Westminster Abbey but his family knew that Berkeley would have chosen Leeds, a city that he loved, where he made his mark upon the medical world. An inspirational teacher and international pioneer in abdominal surgery, he introduced the use of sterilised whites and rubber gloves as well as green drapes to soothe the eye. He carried out the first blood transfusion in Britain and emphasised the need for ‘caressing the tissues’ rather than speed in surgery.



Grave of Berkeley Moynihan


My older sister, Imogen still remembers watching her grandfather operate and how, when he had completed his work and his patient had been wheeled out, Berkeley would wave to her. His manicurist would arrive after breakfast, twice a week, to manicure his hands. The manicurist would use two bowls of water, an orange cleaning stick, a file and dark pink powder which would be placed on each of Berkeley’s nails. This was followed by a final ‘whizzy’ polish in a small box-machine specially designed to polish his fingernails. The hands were key to surgery and had to be kept in fine condition; he often wore gloves when out to protect his hands.

Imogen can clearly remember the much-loved swimming pool at the bottom of Carr Manor gardens and how, as a young child, she was always asking what happened to you when you dived in. Berkeley told our father to dive in with her on his back so she could find out and that’s exactly what he did! She can’t remember ever not being able to swim. Berkeley once told her that it was his ambition to swim the channel. Imogen also remembers that Carr Manor was reported to have a lady ghost. One evening, Berkeley had to be summoned when Vera, the cook who was bringing Imogen her mushroom soup for tea, fainted at the top of the stairs, having seen ‘The Grey Lady’. She told me that Berkeley had two chauffeurs called Dowding and Stringer. They used to take it in turns to drive because Berkeley was on call twenty-four hours, always ready to attend one of his patients. The idea of not being on call or leaving the follow-up care to someone else was not part of Berkley’s beliefs about how patients should be treated.

Berkeley Moynihan was born on 2nd October 1865 in Malta, the son of Andrew Moynihan and Ellen Ann Parkin. Andrew Moynihan came from a long line of soldiers and was the son of Malachi Moynihan and Ann Scott. Malachi and Ann moved from Templemore, Tipperary to England and Andrew was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire on September 8th 1831. After leaving school, Andrew began army life and married Ellen Ann Parkin in 1853.

Serving with the 90th Light infantry in the Crimea in 1854, Andrew was to distinguish himself in the field of battle. He was the first man to enter the Russian fortification known as the Redan, near Sebastopol, on June 18th 1855. However, the English were beaten back, leaving Lieutenant Swift wounded. Single-handed, Andrew returned to rescue Swift but was twice bayoneted and taken prisoner. However, the English attacked again, freeing Andrew and taking the Redan. But the Russians made a fierce onslaught and once more regained the Redan, beating back the English. In this fight, Andrew was wounded several more times. However, Ensign Maude had been left behind, wounded, and so, under tremendous fire and crossing open ground, Andrew Moynihan returned to rescue Maude, bringing him to safety. In all, Andrew was bayoneted and wounded twelve times while rescuing Lieutenant Swift and Ensign Maude. He was elevated to the rank of Ensign that year and awarded the Victoria Cross in June 1857, being in the first group of men ever to receive the medal from Queen Victoria                                                                   .

Later that year, Andrew was promoted to Lieutenant and, thereafter, fought in the Indian Mutiny. In 1866, he was promoted to Captain and became Musketry Instructor for the island of Malta. He died of Malta fever (aged 37) in 1867 from drinking fresh goat’s milk (cow’s milk was scarce and the importance of boiling milk unknown). He was buried in the Ta Braxia Cemetery, Malta, with full military honours.

Following Andrew’s death, when Berkeley was less than three years old, Ellen moved Berkeley and his two sisters (Ada and Eva) back to England. They stayed for a short time with Andrew’s mother at Sefton Park, Liverpool, Ellen’s onlyincome being one pound a week from the Patriotic Fund, before they went to live with Ellen’s sister, Mrs. Ball and her husband, a Police Inspector, in Millgarth Street, Leeds. They had no children of their own and helped provide for Ada and Eve’s education and Berkeley’s early student days. When Berkeley was six, he attended a small preparatory school in Brandon Villa, New Leeds, run by the three Misses Baxendale. In 1875, H.R.H. The Duke of Cambridge secured the nomination for Berkeley to attend Christ’s Hospital. When he was fifteen, he transferred to the Royal Navy School at New Cross.

It was Berkeley’s wish to become a soldier despite his mother’s preference for him to become a doctor. However, passing the Leeds Infirmary one day, he had a sudden change of mind and announced to his mother, “The Moynihans have done enough killing. It’s time they mended their ways! And I’m going to be the first to do it. I’m going to be a doctor!” So, in 1883, on his eighteenth birthday, Berkeley entered the Medical School in the Yorkshire College (later to become the University of Leeds) and Leeds General Infirmary and became the first of his family not to enter the army. He qualified four years later in 1887, with an M.B. of London University and the Primary Fellowship after which he was appointed house surgeon to Mayo-Robson.

                                                                                                                                                            Leeds General Infirmary


In 1890, Berkeley achieved the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons and was appointed R.S.O. at Leeds Infirmary. In 1893, he practised from 33, Park Square, Leeds, and passed his Master of Surgery of the University of London. In 1895, Berkeley married Isabel (Isabella Wellesley) Jessop, daughter of Thomas Richard Jessop, senior surgeon at the Infirmary, at Leeds Parish Church. They lived at 5, Woodhouse Square and had three children: Dorothy, Shelagh and Patrick. In 1896, aged 31, Berkeley was elected to a position on the surgical staff of the Infirmary.

Berkeley continued as a commanding surgeon, teacher, speaker and writer, publishing many papers, publications and books from 1896 onwards. He would write each day before breakfast between the hours of 6 and 8 o’clock. Many of his books included his own drawings of surgical findings that he sketched at the end of each operation and provided evidence for his surgical theories. It was through recording meticulously each operation that he was able to recognise patterns that led to the development of a deeper understanding of abdominal disease. His largest book, Abdominal Operations, was published by W.B. Saunders in 1905. It was Berkeley who succeeded in raising understanding of the high incidence of duodenal ulcers and perhaps his best known book became: Duodenal Ulcer, 1910 W.B. Saunders.


33, Park Square, Leeds


From this time onwards, Berkeley made several trips to America, once returning with rubber gloves that he started to use when operating. Previously, he had introduced the wearing of white, sterilised garments for operations and in 1912, he used green rather than white drapes for the operating table to help reduce eye fatigue. The family moved to 63, Clarendon Road, Leeds from 1904-1914. In 1906, Berkeley advanced from Assistant Surgeon to Full Surgeon and, in this year, he performed the first successful blood transfusion in this country. In 1909, Berkeley was made Professor of Surgery in Leeds University and founded the Chirurgical Club to bring together provincial surgeons to advance new learning and practices.

In 1910, Leonard Braithwaite became Berkeley’s private assistant and Assistant Surgeon at the Infirmary. He continued to work for Berkeley for the next 15 years. It was Leonard Braithwaite who commissioned the marble bust of Berkeley that still stands in the Royal College of Surgeons in London, left to the R.C.S. by Berkeley. He was knighted in 1912 and elected to the Council of the Royal College of Surgeons in the same year. When presented to King George V, theKing said, “I am proud to shake the most skilful hand in all the world.” In 1914, the Moynihan family moved to Carr Manor, Meanwood.

It was the nursing home in Hyde Terrace that became Berkeley’s favourite operating place. He gave advice to some of the most famous people of his time but he always had time for the people of Leeds. Whilst those who could afford to pay, did, those who couldn’t would still be seen and treated by Berkeley. He would talk at length to his patients, believing the patient’s history and postoperative care were intrinsic parts of the surgical approach. Patients would be followed up meticulously, so that he attended to their pre and post-operative care in a manner that would be rare nowadays. Patients would be visited at weekends or late at night so that the whole medical journey was attended to in a thorough manner.


One of the key aspects of Berkley’s work was his respect for nurses, a role he described as ‘a noble profession’. He was always considerate of his nurses, particularly that of Miss. Bertha Reid, his favourite nurse, who would accompany him when operating in private houses or remote farmhouses by the light of an oil lamp. His appreciation of the nurse’s role helped bring about the proper recognition of nurses’ work and eventually led to the State Registration of nurses. We can only imagine what Berkeley would have thought of the current situation where much of the genuine nursing is carried out by the lowest paid health care assistants whilst the nurses’ time is too often spent on form filling behind the nursing station.

Between 1914 and1915, Berkeley was posted to France as a consulting surgeon with Leonard Braithwaite, his A.D.C. where they visited over a hundred hospitals, supervising the construction of hospitals and helping improve the quality of surgery. Berkeley continued his commission as Major, in the Royal Army Medical Corps, throughout the war, advising in London and America. During the war, his eldest daughter, Dorothy Moynihan, would sometimes assist him in his operations.

In 1917, Berkeley and Colonel Goodwin were made Honorary Fellows of the American College of Surgeons during their tour of America. In 1918, on the King’s birthday, Berkeley was made a K.C.M.G. – Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George for his services at home and abroad during the war. This was followed in 1922 when Berkeley was created a Baronet. He now saw some patients at the Jules Hotel and subsequently in Portland Place several days of the week as well as in Leeds. He operated in Lady Carnarvon’s nursing home.

In the autumn of 1921, he placed the author John Buchan on a health regime which Buchan reported had rapidly made him ‘feel better’. As ever, he also devoted time to all patients, often talking with them for up to an hour, standing by their beds, to calm their nerves which he believed to be part of the healing process.

In 1926, he was made President of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was the first President ever to be appointed from outside London and held the office for six years. In 1926, he was made a Freeman of the City of Leeds. Berkeley retired from the Infirmary in 1926 (aged 60) but continued to practise in both Leeds and London. Additionally, he worked for the advancement of surgical research and helped found the Buckston Browne Research Farm in Kent. In 1932, Berkeley was the first surgeon to be invited to give the Romanes Lecture in which he discussed the experimental method of research. From 1927 onwards, Berkeley visited South America, India, Jamaica, Canada, theMediterranean and Egyptwhere, on one occasion, he spent a day in Tutankhamun’s tomb with Howard Carter. He was asked to reduce the subcoracoid dislocation of a sphinx’s shoulder that had occurred in 1450 B.C.

In 1929, Berkeley was elevated to the House of Lords as Baron Moynihan of Leeds. In the latter part of his life, Berkeley put forward the case for euthanasia for the incurably ill and he supported the Voluntary Euthanasia Campaign for the rest of his life.

He remained devoted to his wife, Isabel, who died on August 31st, 1936 after which he died just six days later. Berkeley’s nephew, son of his sister, Ada, Andrew Moynihan Claye, became honorary obstetric surgeon at Leeds University from 1929 until 1961 and was himself, knighted in 1960.

Forever proud of his provincial roots, the City of Leeds and all the opportunity it had offered him, Berkeley’s family chose for him to be buried in Leeds, where he would have wished, and not in Westminster Abbey, a distinction the family were offered, but turned down. His funeral was held in Leeds and the streets were lined for over four miles to Meanwood.


Berkeley was blessed with tireless energy, both physical and mental (like his father, Andrew), a quick wit, infectious charm and great sense of humour. He often stated that one should never turn down a request on the basis of not ‘having enough time’ or being ‘too busy’; time had to be made for his patients. He possessed an extraordinary memory and was a highly accomplished orator. Six weeks before he died, he wrote to a friend: ‘It has all been great fun, and I would willingly have it over again’.

Berkeley, like his father, Andrew, selflessly prioritised the welfare of the individual and both their inspirational endeavours were motivated by the value of human life, their belief in attention to detail and a professional devotion which must always remain uppermost when striving for progress. Both men worked single-mindedly on behalf of their country, driven by a sense of devotion to their fellow folk with both bravery and selflessness. For society to succeed, we need to be driven as much by patience, practice and persistence, as by technological advancement.  


© 2016 Melanie Corbett, grand-daughter.


Conversations with Imogen Vance, grand-daughter;

Berkeley Moynihan Surgeon by Donald Bateman Macmillan 1940;

Moynihan Centenary lecture by Sir Geoffrey Keynes 13 October 1965;

Private letter to Sir Berkeley from John Buchan 1921.