Clay has been described as 'the father of ovariotomy in England'; he did the first hysterectomy in England, and the first successful one in Europe. Clay was born in Bredbury in 1801 and was apprenticed to Kinder Wood, a successful obstetrician of Manchester. Clay was one of the first pupils of Joseph Jordan at Manchester, and also spent time studying in Edinburgh. Clay settled in general practice, first in Ashton then in Manchester. He began his career as an ovariotomist in 1842, with an operation on Mrs Wheeler, of Ancoats, Manchester. At the time, the primary treatment for ovarian cysts had been tapping. Mrs Wheeler had undergone this treatment, but still suffered a large tumour and was determined to be operated upon. Clay was supported in his decision to operate by Dr Radford of St Mary's Hospital and others. A detailed description of the operation is given by Sir William Fletcher Shaw in his published address to the Manchester Medical Society (see MMC/2/Clay/2/7). Clay was famous for the regularity and success of these operations, but his promotion of ovariotomy continued to be the subject of controversy.
In March 1863, Clay read a paper 'Observations on ovariotomoy, statistical and practical: also a successful case of entire removal of the uterus and its appendages'. This case was the first successful case of hysterectomy in Europe. In later life, Clay's role was overshadowed by the younger Spencer Wells, who claimed to have rediscovered ovariotomy. Clay died in Poulton-le-Fylde in 1893.