Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Campbell de Morgan (1811-1876)

Bust of Campbell De Morgan, presented to the Middlesex Hospital by John Graham Lough

Described as a man of great accomplishment and unusual ability, Campbell de Morgan was a surgeon and a professor at the Middlesex Hospital in London. His main interest was neoplasia, and he participated in the debate on whether cancer arises locally and then spreads to the lymph nodes or has a multi-centric origin. He vigorously espoused the local spread theory and also drew attention to the occasional spontaneous regression of cancer in the presence of infections, especially tuberculosis, which even today could have important applications in the treatment of cancer immunotherapy.1 But he is most remembered today for the skin lesions named after him.

These lesions are small hemangiomas occurring largely on the trunk, and consisting of collections of capillaries, some dilated. They are found mainly in people over the age of thirty and according to one estimate occur in 75% of persons over the age of seventy-five.2 They are almost always benign and require no treatment but may bleed if injured and may be removed by electrocautery, freezing with liquid nitrogen, or laser surgery. They need to be distinguished from other dermatological lesions of a more sinister import. There are also reports in the literature of outbreaks of such lesions, some even recurrent, more likely to occur in hot weather, occasionally related to an elevated alkaline phosphatase level but with no evidence of actual liver involvement or of any other complications.3

Campbell de Morgan spots

Campbell de Morgan was regarded as a highly experienced clinician, his observations accurate, his reasoning logical, and his opinions sound but never dogmatic. A careful though not brilliant operator, he was concerned primarily with the safety of the patient, never rash, but bold when so required. He introduced zinc chloride as an antiseptic dressing for wounds, drainage tubes for treating empyema, and a splint with pulleys for hip joint disease.4 Other scientific contributions were papers on the nervous system of the lobster, the structure and development of bone (1852), and the structure and functions of the hairs in crustacea (1858).4

As an examiner in surgery at the Royal College of Physicians, he always exhibited a reassuring manner with the candidates, advocating fairness in their evaluation. His interests were wide. He was a gifted caricaturist, a talented musician, one of the best amateur flute players in London, and a good billiard player.4 He hated charlatanism,4 would never make unnecessary visits or charge exorbitant fees, and was a modest man with a “tall and upright figure, fine intellectual features, a kind heart, a refined mind, and an unvarying, cheery disposition.” His altruism and dedication are shown by his sitting up all night by the bedside of a sick colleague and contracting pneumonia, from which he died five days later (1876).4



  1. De Morgan C. Observations on cancer. Lancet1874;i: 323-9
  2. Rosser EM. Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (1983) vol. 65
  3. Seville RH et al. Outbreak of Campbell de Morgan spots. BMJ 1970;i:408 (14 February)
  4. British Journal of Dental Sciences 1876;235 (vol xIx)





GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Fall 2018   |  Sections  |  Surgery

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