Charles Clay

Administrative / Biographical History

Charles Clay (1801-1893) was born on 27 December 1801, the son of Joseph Clay, a miller and corn merchant, at Arden Mills, Bredbury. In 1816 Clay began an apprenticeship under the successful Manchester obstetrician Kinder Wood (c.1785-1830), who practised at the Manchester and Salford Lying-in Hospital (now St Mary's Hospital) and lectured at Joseph Jordan's newly opened Bridge Street Medical School. This early influence from Wood undoubtedly shaped Clay's later pursuits in the fields of obstetrics and gynaecology. After 5 years apprenticed to Wood and a period of time spent studying at Jordan's medical school, Clay commenced studies at the University of Edinburgh in 1821 for a period of two years. In 1823 at the end of his two years of study in Edinburgh he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, but he did not gain an MD.

Following the cessation of his formal studies in 1823 Clay returned to Lancashire settling in Ashton-under-Lyne where he established himself in successful medical practice and also served for a time as medical officer of health for Audenshaw. In the same year he married the daughter of the Bredbury-based surgeon John Vaudrey, who he went on to have three children with. Sadly, by 1839, both his wife and his three children had all died. However, he married again on 28 October 1839, this time to Maria Boreham, the daughter of a Suffolk based brewer, and they went on to have two daughters and a son.

In 1839 he left Ashton for Manchester where he set up office as a surgeon at 101 Piccadilly and also began lecturing in medical jurisprudence. Additionally he became a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians in May 1842 and it was in this year that the beginnings of his reputation as the 'Father of Ovariotomy' were truly established. On 13 September 1842 Clay operated upon 45 year old Mrs Wheeler of Ancoats, Manchester and successfully removed a 17lb ovarian tumour. This was the first successful recorded operation of its kind in England, with the world's first successful attempt being credited to Ephraim McDowell (1771-1830) of Kentucky, USA in 1809. This first operation brought Clay immediate fame, but he pursued his work into the ovariotomy and later the hysterectomy for many more years. His worked developed over time, as too did other medical practices with both general anaesthesia and antiseptic practices being introduced over the course of his career. It is notable that his first 14 ovariotomy operations were performed without the assistance of anaesthesia, which was not widely introduced until 1847.

Regarding the ovariotomy operation, Clay entered into a public and bitter dispute with the London based surgeon Thomas Spencer Wells (1818-1897). Wells was also a well renowned surgeon and performed the ovariotomy, although he did not perform his first successful procedure until 1858. Nonetheless, in the introduction to his 1865 work Diseases of the Ovaries: Their Diagnosis and Treatment, Wells took the opportunity to dismiss Clay's work as being insignificant in the development of the procedure owing largely to the fact that Clay's operations had not been performed in a hospital before professional witnesses and a connected series of cases had not been published. This in turn led to Clay publishing a somewhat strong criticism of Wells' work in The Lancet, for which he later had to apologise.

Following the success of the ovariotomy in 1842, Clay soon attempted a hysterectomy for fibroid tumours [leiomyoma] of the uterus in 1843. Unfortunately the operation proved fatal as did subsequent attempts in the same year. It was not until 1863 that he performed his first successful hysterectomy. Some people have credited him with having performed the world's first technically successful hysterectomy, however, his patient died of an accident two weeks later and so the title went to an American surgeon. Instead he can claim the title of having performed the first successful hysterectomy in Europe.

By 1847 Clay had been appointed Medical Officer to the St Mary's Hospital and in 1857 he was appointed as the Senior Medical Officer at St Mary's, a role he would resign from in December 1858. He also lectured at St Mary's in the Principles and Practice of Midwifery from 1859 alongside Radford and Winterbottom, and made efforts to have the course recognised by the leading universities of the time, the various Royal Colleges, and other medical societies so that a certificate of completion of his course would be accepted towards the medical qualifications issued by them.

Clay was involved in several professional societies and was a founder member of the Obstetric Society of London and in 1860 was appointed as a referee for papers by the Council of the Obstetrical Society. He was also a member of the Gynaecological Society of Boston, USA and closer to home became president of the Manchester Medical Society for a year in 1861.

As a lifelong avid collector of books he made a significant donation to the library of the Manchester Medical Society in 1860, which is when the manuscripts in this collection were acquired. He is known to have had approximately 1500 rare books relating to midwifery and gynaecology, most of which went on to become part of the Society's library. His book collecting interests stretched beyond medicine, however, and he held particular interests in archaeology and geology and also owned over 1000 editions of the bible, which were auctioned at Sotheby's in 1883.

Upon his retirement Clay moved to Tower Lodge in Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire, where he died at the age of 91 on 19 September 1893.


The manuscripts formerly owned by Clay have been divided into two series, reflecting those which he created himself and are a product of his own medical studies and professional career, and those which he collected from elsewhere and would have formed part of his extensive midwifery and obstetrics library. 

  • MMM/16/1 - Clay's Own Manuscripts
  • MMM/16/2 - Manuscripts Collected by Clay

Related Material

The Wellcome Library, London hold three items relating to Clay including MS.1661, a manuscript of titles, termination and specimen pages of various editions, reprints, etc. in Clay's possession and MSS.5747-5748, 1 volume of correspondence from various correspondents and an autograph album.


Elwood & Tuxford Some Manchester Doctors Manchester 1984. Sally Frampton, 'Patients, Priority Disputes, and Value of Credit: Towards a History (and Pre-History) of Intellectual Property in Medicine' Medical History 2011 55(3) pp.319-324. Peter D. Mohr, 'Charles Clay (1801-1893)' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press, 2004. William Fletcher Shaw 'Charles Clay: The Father of Ovariotomy in England' BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 1951 58(6) pp.930-940. Slater's Classified Directories of the Following Important English Towns: Birmingham, Bristol, Derby, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield, and West Bromwich 1847.