Dr Robert Chessher (1750–1831)

Dr Robert Chessher of Hinckley was the first British Orthopedist, he also invented the double-inclined plane (Chesshers Collar) to help in the treatment of lower-body bone fractures.

dr robert chessher (1750–1831)
Dr Robert Chessher (1750–1831)

1750 Robert Chessher was born in Hinckley and lived on London Road.

Robert’s father died during his infancy. His mother married a surgeon named William Whalley (1709-1778), who also resided in Hinckley.

Robert went to school at the Foundation School in Bosworth as a private student, he made great proficiency in the classics.

Once he left the Foundation School at Bosworth, he became a young apprentice surgeon to William Whalley. William’s practice was very extensive, at the time there were but a few medical practitioners in the neighbourhood. This is where Robert laid the groundwork of that medical education which in later years would rank him amongst first operating surgeons of his day.

Early on he showed an aptitude for improvising supports for fractured limbs, especially for the purpose of obviating contraction of muscles and skin.

A case occurred of a fracture of radius and ulna, in a neighbouring village at a small farm house, during the time William Whalley was making the customary preparations, the young assistant Robert using a book, some pieces of pasteboard, and other materials that were at hand, constructed a support for the fractured limb. On being applied according to his own peculiar idea of placing the fractured part, it gave immediate relief to the patient. It was continued throughout the time of attendance, without the possibility of improvement in its construction.

A second case of the same kind soon afterwards occurred, but of a much more severe nature; a similar support was used, but the limb having threatened contraction a new mode of treatment was adopted, the parts being kept open until new substance had formed, by the aid of friction and motion and a simple but necessary improvement in the support. This case which was a very bad one was in due time perfectly restored. In both these instances William Whalley left the management principally to his step-son Robert.

Robert was showing the early signs of a genius in combining mechanical with medical knowledge. All his leisure time was now devoted to the study of such measures as might obviate the contraction of parts divided by fracture. He didn’t find any written work on the subject, and therefore his own experience, consequent upon a frequent occurrence of such case was the only guide of his practice.

1768 At the age of 18, his early development of his talents determined his parents to place Robert in London. Robert became the pupil to assist Dr. Denman, where his superior talent had a wide field in which to display themselves. Dr. Denman’s practice was at the time so extensive as to embrace all classes in society. Robert attendance was frequently required in the houses of distinguished persons. Robert’s juvenile appearance occasionally caused doubts of his capability on which his friend would observe that young as he was, he had perfect confidence in his skill and judgment.

Early introductions in cases of midwifery were of essential service to Robert, it would prepare him for his future successful career in his native place.

Robert would also attend William Hunter's (a Scottish anatomist and physician) and George Fordyce's (a Scottish physician, lecturer on medicine, and chemist) lectures at the anatomy theatre in Great Windmill Street, Soho in London.

He became a house surgeon to the Middlesex Hospital in London for a short while. Robert returned to Hinckley on his stepfather's (Whalley) death, and then remained in Hinckley resisting solicitations to return to London.

1790 He narrowed his practice to the treatment of curvature of the spine and deformities of the limbs and applied a double-inclined plane to support fractured legs with great success. Robert also invented several instruments for supporting weak spines, relieving the spinal column from the weight of the head, and also for applying gentle steady friction to contracted limbs or muscles.

Hinckley became ‘a mecca’ for patients with such ailments and it is said that at one time, Robert was said to be treating 200 patients at once. He employed 8 in-house craftspeople to make all of the medical apparatuses on a custom basis.

19th Apr 1795 Robert wrote a letter to John Frewen (No.3 Pierpoint Street, Bath) asking about the possibility of engaging Thomas Bishopp as an assistant. Robert wrote 'Brown's conduct this last month has been such I must part with him as soon as possible or immediately. I have reason to doubt his honesty as well as his shewing infamous behaviour in the house when I am from home'

He is noted for two important orthopedic apparatuses:

Some said that patients’ spines were actually shortened by several inches after years of treatment with the Chessher Collar. Whether or not Robert’s treatment was helpful in the treatment of scoliosis, it is a method that was emulated and built upon for generations to come.

Robert was called to attend at a family mansion in the neighbourhood of Hinckley, for the purpose of amputating the limb of a young lady who had met a serious accident. She was returning from a ridge on horseback, and crossing the park, when a deer sprang up, which caused the horse to start. The suddenness of the action threw her, and she fell upon the inner edge of the ankle, the integuments of which gave away. The foot being forced from the malleolus internus, and the lower part of the tibia being fractured, the bones were driven out of the joint. A very small portion of the cartilage of the end of the tibia remained, with little bone to it.

Robert was much pressed to amputate and the young lady had resigned herself to lose the limb, but he requested a second examination. He now gained the patient’s permission to take off a portion of the bone, which was safely done for more than an inch. The parts were then carefully put together and put in a temporary rest until a support that was more effective could be prepared. Next Robert took a model of the young lady’s other limb from which the support for the fractured one was in part formed, the leg was so adjusted in the support as to keep the limb in the most natural shape.

The limb would be watched to keep it from any unnatural shapes in the support, over time the leg was restored to its natural form and range of movement. In this case Roberts double-inclined plane was very useful and absolutely necessary in order to keep the leg stable. In all cases of fractures Robert would keep the patient from putting their weight bearing on the limb for a much longer time than other practitioners would resulting in a strong and well-shaped limb.

Roberts support for the spine kept the patient’s weight of their head off the spine or would keep weight of the pelvis only employing extension according to the growth or improvement of the patient. One of Robert’s patients was a military officer who has suffered from angular curvature with total loss of use in his limbs. After using a support for his spine he was perfectly restored after a comparatively short time and was able to resume his military duties.

1807 George Canning who was the British Foreign Secretary (1827 British Prime Minister), came to consult with Robert about his eldest son ‘George Charles’, who due to a fall had become lame. George would be a regular visitor with Robert was treating his son.

He would see himself being strongly solicited by several distinguished medical practitioners in London to work and settle there, he turned them down because he wanted to give every possible advantage and encouragement to his native town Hinckley. He would have interesting conversations with young medical friends and others on subjects connected with his methods at the time.

During 1830, Robert started to relax in his arduous work, for many of the previous years he had been more or less subject to a catarrhal affection (cold/flu symptoms) from which he suffered for about a month from the middle of June to the same time in July. During this month of illness his patients were deprived of his valuable services.

During Roberts leisure times, which could be just a couple of hours, he would be fond of conversing on agricultural subjects, although not a practical agriculturist, he would at times suggest ideas and improvements.

At three times of the year, Robert appointed certain articles of clothing to be given to some of the poor people of Hinckley who were not getting ‘Relief of the Poor’, on its distribution there were some hundreds of applicants. Other charities would greatly benefit by his generosity, but one that he intended to found and endow was designed for the reception of patients from all classes that had been afflicted with deformities of the spine and malformation of the limbs, unfortunately this never happened and the locals would continue to suffer.

He made preparations with his medical books and machinery, he bequeathed to Mr. Ridley, whom he appointed to succeed him and to continue the profession in Hinckley. Robert’s manuscript cases would never be published.

Over the years Robert amassed a considerable wealth by his great talent and unwearied industry, but he didn’t reach great riches. This was due to him having fixed charges for those who had the means of paying and reducing the fee considerably for the people who could not afford the fixed charges. Many poor children received gratuitous assistance and which many obtained a livelihood in their adult life due to the treatment which without would have left them cripples for the remainder of their lives.

Robert would only moderately dine and wine, he kept the most liberal home. His patients and friends remember the cheerful and elegant entertainments given under his hospitable roof. He made a point to serve his home town Hinckley, by spending his ample income amongst the local tradespeople. Robert stayed unmarried throughout his life.

31st January 1831 Robert died.

Robert would have the road ‘Chessher Street’ in Hinckley named after him and a Blue Plaque placed on the side of Queens Park Court (now apartments) along London Road which was built on the site of Roberts house in Hinckley.

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