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.

Pybus’ Cancer Research

A brief introduction to Pybus’ research interests

Pybus had a wide ranging interest in cancer and published many cases and research papers in the medical journals concerning all aspects of his research. What comes through in his papers is that his main research focus was on lung cancer and carcinogens found in the air pollution, particularly benzopyrene in soot from burning materials and diesel fumes. Pybus did discuss lung cancer and tobacco smoking but felt that air pollution should be considered a bigger threat. He primarily used statistical evidence and cases he had seen to understand lung cancer and its association with air pollution.  He worked in his own research institute for 30 years and retired from active research in 1955; going on to campaign for cleaner air in the UK due to his findings.

1-3-49 cut

1-3-49 [boxlist number]

Pybus’ interest in cancer first began as a schoolboy, but became fully realised when he saw his first tumour as a veterinary pupil in about 1899. He saw a human cancer for the first time in 1903 after deciding to switch from veterinary school to medical school. He made this decision due to his distaste of the treatment of animals; such as lack of anaesthetic while surgery was performed. Pybus worked primarily as a surgeon, but in 1925 was able to set up his own Cancer Research Institute.

During this time Pybus was supported by the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, this fund was set up in 1902 and was aimed at finding new approaches to cancer and its treatment. In the 1920’s a new funding party was set up, namely the British Empire Cancer Campaign who also went on to fund Pybus’ Newcastle based Research Institute.

During his active research period Pybus used similar techniques to other researchers, including a “Tar-Painting” method which was first used in 1915 by Katsusaburo Yamagiwa and Koichi Ichikawa at Tokyo University to induce cancer in animals – the tar acted as a carcinogen. Using this method in 1924 Pybus produced neoplasms in mice.

3-1-29 [boxlist number]

3-1-29 [boxlist number]

Not only did Pybus explore various carcinogens he also researched and published an article in the British Medical Journal on hereditary bone tumours in mice. This follows a strong research theme within oncology which, since the discovery of DNA, has led to the ability to actively pinpoint inherited defective genes which can lead to cancer, such as a mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene which link to breast cancer.

3-1-22 [boxlist number]

3-1-22 [boxlist number]


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.



Professor Pybus and the Origins of Lucozade – October 2013

Short description of Pybus’ involvement in the production and use of Lucozade at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in 1908 (Pybus (Professor Frederick) Archive, FP/3/1/3)

Esteemed surgeon and Emeritus Professor Frederick Charles Pybus (1883-1975), is perhaps best known to Newcastle University as a collector, donating his internationally significant library of some 2000 books on the history of medicine to the library in 1965. This remains one of Special Collections’ most impressive and prestigious resources of rare and unique published material, dating from the 15th Century with particular reference to anatomy, surgery and medical illustration and including influential works by luminaries such as William Harvey and Andreas Vesalius.

Photograph of Frederick Charles Pybus, c.1905 (Professor Frederick) Archive, FP/3/4/32)

But Pybus himself is also remembered as a giant of the medical community and an influential figure both locally and nationally. A graduate of the Newcastle College of Medicine gaining his MS (Masters in Surgery) in 1910, Pybus’ long and varied career and lifelong associations with the Royal Victoria Infirmary and Newcastle University meant he is remembered as an authoritative voice on cancer research, surgical education and paediatrics. What is perhaps more surprising, and a story which has almost passed into folklore, is his hand in the creation of a household name; the energy drink Lucozade.

Pybus himself explains this story in this note present in his papers, which were donated shortly after his books. He describes how, during his student days working as a House-Surgeon at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in 1908, he lost a young patient following a seemingly successful operation. It was felt that this was because the child was starved, leading to them not being able to break down the chloroform used as an anaesthetic and resulting in a slow poisoning of the liver. This tragic event clearly affected the young Pybus and when he became surgeon at the Fleming Memorial Hospital for Sick Children following his graduation, he made sure patients drank a glucose drink he devised prior to surgery and when they had a fever to stop this happening again.

An enterprising chemist in Barras Bridge called William Owen provided the ingredients as a prescription, but noticing its popularity started making it himself and indeed perfected the recipe, with Pybus admitting his had “a taste of sulphur bi-oxide which most glucose had in order to prevent fermentation”.

Owen called this drink Glucozade, but, in 1938, Beecham pharmaceutical company realised the commercial potential and bought the formulae for the then princely sum of “about £10,000”, and Lucozade was born. Pybus admits in this note that although he had no share in this “I sometimes wish I had”. However, it was clearly a comfort that, in respect of the child that died, Pybus felt on his wards the Lucozade prototype “prevented this happening so far as I know for ever afterwards”.