“Then, sir, you will go as a corpse.”
Twelve days before this, on June 14, 1902, the future king developed abdominal pain. He was examined by the physician-in-ordinary to the King (they have such wonderful titles in Great Britain), Sir Francis Laking. Edward worsened over several days and by the 18th Sir Frederick Treves was sent for. Treves was, at the time, the most famous and best known surgeon in London.
Treves is known by many today as the physician who rescued John Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, from his appalling life as an exhibit in a circus sideshow. This story was popularized in the movie The Elephant Man, in which Anthony Hopkins played the doctor.
Treves had originally gained famed by performing the first appendectomy in England in 1888. Appendicitis was a deadly disease at the time, and remained so for much of the first two decades of the twentieth century. At the time of Edward’s illness, surgery was usually considered only as a last resort.
Edward appeared to improve for several days, even traveling to London from Windsor on Monday, June 23rd and hosting a large dinner party for coronation guests. But that night he took a dramatic turn for the worse and by the following morning it was apparent to Treves and the other attending physicians that an operation was necessary to secure the King’s life.
The King refused, not wishing to delay the coronation. It was at this point Treves uttered his now famous words, “then, sir, you will go as a corpse.”
The operation was carried out by Treves at 12:30 pm on June 24th, 1902. Lord Joseph Lister, who had discovered antisepsis and ushered in the era of antispetic surgery (which eventually made modern day aseptic surgery possible), was among those in attendance. The operation was carried out in a room at Buckingham Palace.
Interestingly, the appendix itself was not removed, probably because it was too scarred in to mobilize easily. Instead, the pus pocket surrounding it was entered and drained through the front of the abdomen (today this is a routine part of treating any abscess—incision and drainage to the outside). The King recovered uneventfully, though it is said Treves did not leave his bedside for seven long sleepless days and nights.
Treves was made a Baron, among many other honors, and appendix surgery finally ascended to its rightful place in the British surgical lexicon.
Ironically, Treves own daughter died of appendicitis.