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Percivall Pott

For the Member of Parliament for Devizes, see Percivall Pott (politician).

Sir Percivall Pott (6 January 1714 – 22 December 1788) born in London, England was an English surgeon, one of the founders of orthopedy, and the first scientist to demonstrate that a cancer may be caused by an environmental carcinogen.


He served his apprenticeship with Edward Nourse, assistant surgeon to St Bartholomew's Hospital, and in 1736 was admitted to the Barbers' Company and licensed to practise. He became assistant surgeon to St Bartholomew's in 1744 and full surgeon from 1749 till 1787.

As the first surgeon of his day in England, excelling even his pupil, John Hunter, on the practical side, Pott introduced various important innovations in procedure, doing much to abolish the extensive use of escharotics and the cautery that was prevalent when he began his career.

In 1756, Pott sustained a broken leg after a fall from his horse. It is often assumed that his injury was the same one that later came to be known as Pott's fracture, but in reality Pott's broken leg was a much more serious compound fracture of the femur. As he lay in the mud and muck, he sent a servant to buy a door from a nearby construction site, then had himself placed on the door and taken home. Surgeons cleaned the wound and discussed amputation, an operation which at the time had a very high rate of failure (as it often led to sepsis and death), but Pott prevailed on them to splint the leg and he ultimately recovered completely.[1] In 1768, Pott published Some Few Remarks upon Fractures and Dislocations. The book was translated into French and Italian and had a far-reaching influence in Britain and France. His name was written in the annals of medicine, by first describing arthritic tuberculosis of the spine (Pott's disease). He gave an excellent clinical description in his Remarks on that Kind of Palsy of the Lower Limbs. Among his other writings the most noteworthy are A Treatise on Ruptures (1756), and Chirurgical Observations.

In 1775, Pott found an association between exposure to soot and a high incidence of scrotal cancer (later found to be a type of squamous cell carcinoma) in chimney sweeps. This unusual disease, later termed chimney sweeps' carcinoma due to Pott's investigation, was the first occupational link to cancer, and Pott became the first person to associate a malignancy with an environmental carcinogen. Pott implicated chimney soot as a direct contact carcinogen to skin.

Latter animal studies (1933) painting coal tar onto skin would demonstrate the role of the first proven chemical carcinogen benzo(a)pyrene, which occurs in high concentrations in smoke and chimney soot, with the process that Pott first identified. Pott's early investigations thus contributed to the science of epidemiology and the Chimney Sweepers Act 1788.[2] The same chemical responsible for Pott's unique cancer of chimney sweeps has since proven to be a prime suspect in various cancers caused by cigarette smoke.

In 1765 he was elected Master of the Company of Surgeons, the forerunner of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

See also


  1. ^ Gordon 1994, pp. 126–127
  2. ^ Gordon 1994, p. 128


  • Gordon, Richard (1994). The Alarming History of Medicine. New York: St Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-10411-1. 
  • Dobson, J., 'Percivall Pott' in Annals of The Royal College of Surgeons of England, vol. 50 (1972), pp. 54–65

External links

12px This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

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