Cataloguing the Collector: The life and career of Frederick Charles Pybus

Exhibition now open to the public March – August 2017.
Level 1, Philip Robinson Library, Newcastle University. 

The text and images below are from the exhibition, ‘Cataloguing the Collector: The life and career of Frederick Charles Pybus’. Items within this exhibition are taken from the Frederick Charles Pybus Archive.  

Exhibition talk: ‘The Life of the Collector: Frederick Charles Pybus



Date: 29th March 2017
Time: 5.30-7pm
Location: Room 152, Level 1 of the Philip Robinson Library

A talk on the exhibition will be given by our archivist Alex Healey hosted by the Friends of the University Library.


Frederick Charles Pybus is arguably best known for his collection of historic medical books, held here in the library. However, items from his personal archive reflect his medical career and personal interests, demonstrating that collecting was only one aspect of his personality.

Pybus the Surgeon


Surgery team including Pybus ready for theatre in the Fine Arts department at Armstrong College, 1st Northern General Hospital, c. 1915 (Professor Frederick Pybus Archive, FP/1/3/9)











At the start of the 20th century, medical developments relating to antiseptics and anaesthesia allowed surgeons to perform more elaborate and lengthy procedures on their patients.

Frederick Charles Pybus entered the profession, registering as a medical student in 1901 and graduating in 1906. He was to remain associated with the medical profession for over 50 years, until his retirement in 1961.

Pybus not only witnessed the development of surgery in this period, but himself conceived and undertook experimental processes on his patients, contributing directly to the development and improvement of surgical procedures, including tonsillectomies and the removal of cysts.

With the exception of a brief stint in London after his graduation, Pybus’ career both as a student and a practitioner was spent working in medical institutions here in Newcastle, including the Royal Victoria Infirmary, the Fleming Hospital for Sick Children and the Newcastle General Hospital.

Pybus the Veteran

The Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) were responsible for the wellbeing of all military personnel during the First World War. As well as serving overseas, members of the RAMC worked on the home front. Suitable buildings were requisitioned as hospitals to accommodate the huge number of wounded soldiers returning from the trenches.

Pybus received his papers placing him on reserve duty in 1910. When war arrived four years later, he helped requisition Newcastle University’s Armstrong College for use as the 1st Northern General Hospital.

Over 1000 operations were performed by Pybus at the 1st Northern, at least some of which were performed in what had been the Fine Arts department. Many surgeries were attempts to correct the damage caused by gun-shot wounds and it was during this period that the field of plastic surgery was developed.

Image included in patient notes for removal of a bullet from Private J. Shrubb of the Inneskilling Fusiliers, Sept 1914 (Professor Frederick Pybus Archive, FP/1/3/3)

Image included in patient notes for removal of a bullet from Private J. Shrubb of the Inneskilling Fusiliers, Sept 1914 (Professor Frederick Pybus Archive, FP/1/3/3)















Pybus and Children’s Medicine

After the First World War Pybus was appointed Assistant Surgeon at the Fleming Memorial Hospital for Sick Children, located at what is now Princess Mary Court in Jesmond.

The early 20th century was a period of change for children’s hospitals, in which their status was shifting from being seen as the last resort of impoverished families, to places in which modern medical techniques, tailored to the needs of children, were delivered by skilled practitioners.

During this period, Pybus’ publications and research interests became focussed on the treatment of children. This culminated in the publication of his book The Surgical Diseases of Children: A Handbook for students and practitioners in 1922. The book was published in England and North America, and was received favourably by the medical press.

The Surgical Diseases of Children: a handbook for students and practitioners, 1922 (Pybus J.I.11)

The Surgical Diseases of Children: a handbook for students and practitioners, 1922 (Pybus J.I.11)

Pybus and Cancer Research

At the start of the 20th century improved understandings of the causes of cancer caused this long known illness to become a focus of public debate. The understanding that environmental factors could directly cause cancer made the illness a social issue as well as a medical one.

As a result of this, research into the identification of carcinogens became increasingly popular as the 20th century progressed. Having spent some time at cancer specialist hospitals early in his career, Pybus established a Cancer Research Institute in Newcastle in 1925.

The Institute used animal testing to research bone tumours and was one of the first to suggest that atmospheric pollution could be a major contributing cause.

Pybus the Collector

Arguably, Pybus’ most well-known legacy is the Pybus Collection of historic and rare medical texts. He became interested in such books after an encounter with a ‘really handsome book’ at the first meeting of the Association of Surgeons in the early 1920s. He later recalled that this encounter with the ‘magnificent’ plates of a Vesalius folio ‘wetted his appetite with a vengeance’.

Frontispiece from 'De humani corporis fabric' (Fabric of the Human Body) by Andreas Vesalius (Pyb.N.v.10)

Frontispiece from ‘De humani corporis fabric‘ (Fabric of the Human Body) by Andreas Vesalius (Professor Frederick Pybus Collection, Pyb.N.v.10)

Despite offers from book dealers and American universities to purchase parts of the collection, Pybus donated it in its entirety to Newcastle University Library in 1965, where a dedicated reading room was established in the old library. The collection is now held by Special Collections here in the Philip Robinson Library, and is included on the library catalogue.

Pybus the Person

Photograph of Professor Pybus, c. 1913

Photograph of Professor Pybus, c. 1913 (Frederick Charles Pybus Archive)

Much of Pybus’ life was taken up with his medical career and hobby of collecting medical texts. His archive demonstrates that these were the dominating aspects of his life. Nevertheless, there is evidence of other interests.

Other items in the archive hint at Pybus’ other interests. These include involvement with lecture societies, membership of Masonic organisations and an attempt to resurrect the historic Company of Barber Surgeons and Tallow Chandlers of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Other Resources

Interested in Pybus’ book collection. Find out more about the Professor Frederick Pybus Collection.

More about Pybus our blog:

Pybus during the First World War


Operating Theatre, Fine Art Dept., 1st floor., 1st Northern General Hospital, Armstrong College, 1915 – 16 (Pybus in the centre with a mask on)

Pybus was informed of his mobilisation in 1909, he became a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Territorial Force. Initially he had very little to do in his role as Captain, he spent time in York Military Hospital and camped at the Royal Station Hotel, during this stay he described visiting the hospital to understand the organisation and also lots of form filling.

In 1913 Pybus was persuaded by a colleague to become a Registrar at the RVI which meant he had to be coached in military law, organisation and equipment, he passed this and became a field officer; meaning his authority changed to training the unit based at the RVI. For Pybus, this mainly meant leading marches. This all changed in 1914 and on the 4th of August he received the mobilisation papers to take authority of Armstrong College and establish the First Northern General Hospital. Pybus surveyed the college deciding which rooms would be turned in to wards, bathrooms and sanitary accommodation. He renamed the main building block A and two newer buildings B and C. Block C first floor was designated ordinary rank and lower floor for officers.


The notebook details patients name, ward, regiment, number, date of surgery, type of surgery, surgeon (Pybus), anaesthetic used, anaesthetist, result and remarks. 1364 operations are listed.

This was organised within 48 hours and set up with Infirmary staff so if any wounded soldiers arrived they could be provided for immediately. It was sometime after the initial set-up that the first wounded were brought to Newcastle, these consisted of Belgian soldiers and officers.


Section of the Operating Theatre C notebook

The Hospital gradually expanded from 520 beds to 2166 in 1917. Huts were built in the grounds of Armstrong College and extra wards built on the North side of main infirmary corridor. Further places were offered as convalescent or auxiliary hospitals these were mainly Country houses on estates such as Howick Hall owned by Earl and Countess Grey. The most northern of these homes was Haggerston Castle just south of Berwick-upon-Tweed and the most southern was Crathorne Hall in Yarm. These were all visited weekly by surgeons and physicians including Pybus, his work also meant that he was on boards which decided what to do with soldiers after injury.

Pybus eventually transferred from registrar to surgeon due to shortages, he was briefly posted in Alexandria, but on his returned continued as surgeon at Armstrong College where he performed at least 1346 operations.

The Pybus Papers

Pybus c. 1913

Pybus c. 1913

Professor Frederick Charles Pybus (1883 – 1975) was a surgeon and alumni of our College of Medicine, graduating  in 1905. He joined the 1st Northern General Hospital shortly after its formation and was serving as its Registrar in 1914. As a Major in the Royal Army Medical Corps, except for a brief posting at the 17th General Hospital in Egypt, he served as a surgeon at Armstrong College throughout the war. Up until 1919, he carried out at least 1,364 operations on wounded servicemen.



Professor Pybus went on to have a distinguished career as a surgeon in the Royal Victoria Infirmary from 1920 until his retirement in 1944, becoming Professor of Surgery in the College of Medicine in 1941. Amongst his claims to fame was inventing a drink to sustain patients before operations, which was later developed and sold by a local chemist to Beechams, becoming Lucozade.



His lifelong concerns included cancer research, developed during his 50 year surgical career from 1924 and pursued through his own cancer research laboratory. He was amongst the first to make the link to atmospheric pollution as a major contributing cause of cancer and his work directly informed the Clean Air Act 1956.

For some 40 years Professor Pybus also built up a collection of international importance on the history of medicine, including books, engravings, letters, portraits, busts and bleeding bowls. In 1965, he donated the collection to the Library, where it remains a valuable source of information for medical historians. Meanwhile, his papers, also held in Special Collections, offer a unique insight into a renaissance man of medicine.



Universities at War: Chronicling the Fallen of Newcastle and Durham Universities (1914 – 1918)

Your University Needs You!

Our new project to tell the lost stories of Newcastle and Durham University staff and students who fell during the First World War has been awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant. Newcastle University and Durham University Library’s Special Collections are seeking volunteers in the region and beyond to help research the lives of mainly alumni who were unable to fulfil their potential.

Wounded soldiers in front of the Quadrangle entrance to the Armstrong Building

Wounded soldiers in front of the Quadrangle entrance to the Armstrong Building

Like heritage organisations across the country, we are marking the centenary with a programme of commemorations relating to our collections and the university’s role in the conflict. We are holding a series of exhibitions from 2014 – 2018, the first of which A Higher Purpose explored how the university became a military hospital; the 1st Northern General.


Universities at War itself came from another project based around the 223 names on the Armstrong Memorial in the foyer of the Armstrong Building. Often overlooked as part of the furnishings, our Head of Archaeology Dr Jane Webster sought to remedy this in 2011 through original research by undergraduate Sophie Anderton as part of her dissertation Small Sorrows Speak: Great Ones Are Silent. This piece of work, based around the University Archives, shone a light on many of the personal stories and provided the basis for further research by Archaeology students and library staff.

The Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal recognised the importance of making this research available to the widest possible audience, awarding the project a grant to create the initial Armstrong Memorial Digital Memory Book. This also included teaching resources aimed at schools into how to research war memorials, devised by our Education Outreach Officer Gillian Johnston. The site was launched in 2014 and the project was nominated for a Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Award (THELMA) in the same year.

Digital Memory Book Launch Event

Digital Memory Book Launch Event, with Dr Jane Webster presenting the new interface

The Armstrong Digital Memory Book on a kiosk in front of the memorial, with Library Systems Developer Scott Bradley, Archivist Ian Johnson, and Archaeology student Ben Howson

The Armstrong Digital Memory Book on a kiosk in front of the memorial, with Library Systems Developer Scott Bradley, Archivist Ian Johnson, and Archaeology student Ben Howson

It now takes a prominent place on a kiosk in front of the memorial itself, providing context and personal depth to the names. This resource has also seen many descendants of the fallen and members of the public get in touch with more information, and it was this that sparked us and colleagues at Durham, already undertaking their own research on everyone that served, to team up and create a much more expansive picture.

However, the information we have, including the 53 fallen from our Medical College not yet represented, is incomplete. Further research into these important stories will be promoted through public events and an exhibition in 2017 showcasing the work of any volunteers who come forward. Both Universities will also work with local schools to help young people understand the local impact of the conflict and develop the skills to research their own memorials.

We are thrilled to have received the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund to engage the public in the important aim to make these fallen more than just names on a memorial. As many of these fallen were local and the commemorations have sparked everyone’s interest nationally, we know the experts are in our communities and we want them to get in touch to make this a success through credited contributions.

Ivor Crowther, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund North East, said:

“The impact of the First World War was far reaching, touching and shaping every corner of the UK and beyond. In this Centenary year we’re pleased to fund this project which will provide a truly personal link to the conflict and ensure the stories of Durham and Newcastle alumni are heard and remembered.”

Both universities invite anyone interested in learning more to an open event at Newcastle University’s Robinson Library at 6pm on 25th June. The work done so far is available to view both at the Armstrong Memorial Digital Memory Book and Anyone interested in joining the team are also welcome to get in touch through contact details available on these sites.

Durham University Officers' Training Corps, Stobs camp, 1914, Durham University Library Special Collections, Ref: MIA 1/307

Durham University Officers’ Training Corps, Stobs camp, 1914, Durham University Library Special Collections, Ref: MIA 1/307