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The Memorial plaque to Samuel Rabbeth.


The death of Dr. Samuel Rabbeth (1858 - 1884) was, perhaps, not as dramatic as some of those commemorated on the memorial; but it was, nonetheless, the result of a genuine act of selfless heroism.

His plaque reads, "Samuel Rabbeth, Medical Officer, Of The Royal Free Hospital, Who Tried To Save A Child Suffering From Diphtheria At The Cost Of His Own Life. October 26th 1884."


Thanks to vaccination, Diphtheria is now rare to the point of being unheard of in England nowadays.

But, in the 19th century it was extremely prevalent, and was a common cause of death with Victorian Children.

Spread by coughs and sneezes, this contagious bacterial infection could also be caught by coming into contact with the bedding or the clothing of an infected person.

Diphtheria mainly affects the nose, throat and upper respiratory tract, and its symptoms include fever, fatigue, sore throat, barking cough, headache, difficult and painful swallowing coupled with the formation of a thick grey membrane in the throat, making breathing extremely difficult.

There can be little doubt that Samuel Rabbeth would have been keenly aware of the dangers of infection posed by four-year-old Leon Rex Jennings, who was admitted to the Royal Free Hospital, suffering with diphtheria in October 1884.

But, as his obituary in the British Medical Journal put it, Dr. Samuel Rabbeth :-

"...did not flinch from the sacrifice which professional responsibility impelled him to undertake.."

A portrait of Dr Samuel Rabbeth.

Dr Samuel Rabbeth (1858 - 1884)
From The Illustrated London News 15th November 1884
Copyright, The British Library Board


The newspapers were universal in their acclaim for the medic's act of selfless heroism.

According to The Southern Reporter, in its issue of the 1st of November 1884:-

"...The deceased, who was only twenty-eight-years of age, was greatly respected, especially by the poor patients... "


Other newspapers went so far as to draw comparison between his sacrifice, and those made by soldiers on the battlefield.

On the 1st of November 1884, The Alnwick Mercury was fulsome in its praise of Dr. Rabbeth's act of bravery:-

"Dr. Samuel Rabbeth, who has just died, was one of those heroes of whom the world hears little.

He was the senior medical officer at the Royal Free Hospital, Gray's Inn Road.

Under his care was a lad suffering from diphtheria. The lad grew worse day by day, and at last it was decided to open his windpipe. This failed, and the poisonous matter still choked the life out of the boy.

Dr. Rabbeth volunteered to suck free the passages. He did this, and died himself from diphtheria.

The bare recital of these facts is more touching than any comment I can make upon them. There was no feverish excitement of the battle-field to urge on to glory; no enemy's guns to be charged, only the deadly venom of an insidious disease; no honour to be gained. It was simple duty; and yet in that Simplicity was there nobler stuff than in all wars.

Let England not despair; she still breeds the old-world heroes, and of such we may reckon Dr. Rabbeth."


Soldiers are not the only brave men in the world.

On October 10, a child aged four years, in the Royal Free Hospital, Gray's-inn-road, suffering from diphtheria, was threatened with suffocation, and to avert this Dr. Samuel Rabbeth, the senior resident medical officer, performed the usual operation of tracheotomy.

The obstruction of the breathing was not relieved by the operation, and to save the child from the immediate danger of death by asphyxia, Dr. Rabbeth, without the slightest hesitation, and well aware of the nature of the disease and of the peril involved, sucked the tube and cleared it of the obstructing membrane.

The child was saved for a time, but afterwards sank and died.

On Monday, the 13th, Dr. Rabbeth felt ill and weary; on the 14th symptoms of sore-throat appeared; during the next day or two diphtheritic patches were seen on his fauces and palate, and he expectorated large flakes of false membrane; on the 18th he was much worse; on the 20th he became cyanosed, and in the evening he expired in a paroxysm of dyspnoea, which had lasted two or three minutes.

The immediate cause of death was probably the formation of a clot in the pulmonary vessels.


The Lancet provided its readers with an obituary of the late Dr. Rabbeth, outlining his impressive career:-

"Dr. Samuel Rabbeth was the son of one of the most trusted officials in Messrs. Coutts' bank in the Strand, was born Aug. 19, 1858, and was educated at Kings College School.

In 1877 he matriculated at the University of London, and on Oct. 1 entered the Medical Department of King's College.

He passed the preliminary scientific and 1st M.B. Examinations of the University, and in 1880 gained a prize in Clinical Surgery and certificates of honour in other subjects.

In the next year, having taken a medical diploma, he was appointed Assistant House Physician to King's College Hospital, and in the following May became full House Physician.

In 1883 he obtained the Scholarship and Gold Medal in Midwifery at the M.B. Examination of the University, and was elected an Associate of King's College.

In April, 1884, he succeeded his friend and fellow-student, Mr. R. Brooks, as Senior Resident Officer at the Royal Free Hospital, so that he had only held the appointment six months.


Fun decided to eulogize the doctor and his act of bravery in verse, albeit, it must be admitted, the poetic value of the piece was, to say the least, a little on the melodramatic side:-

Another name to add to that grand scroll
of those who, trying to save others, died
To those true heroes who, with fearless soul,
In duty's path, death's fiercest darts defied.

The jester pauses, as his cap and bells
He ingles o're the topics of the day;
His tears well forth at this brief tale which tells
Of that brave doctor who has passed away.

Young, earnest, brilliant, ay, and better still,
Beloved by all the poor who sought his aid
His arduous journey up fame's toilsome hill
Has by his own self-sacrifice been stayed.

To save a child that was to others dear
He braved the deadly tube - alas, in vain!
Death checked his bright and promising career
Both child and hero fell disease hath slain.

For all the prizes science can bestow
That brave young heart no longer yearns and sighs;
But though of these Death robbed him at a blow,
His end was God-like - there's no nobler prize.


However, several doctors wrote to the newspapers to question Dr Rabbeth's judgment and to observe that his death was both utterly unnecessary and completely avoidable.

Some questioned why Rabbeth had used his mouth to remove the blockage when hospitals were equipped with devices such as pumps and syringes that would do the job equally as well and, more importantly, with no danger to the physician performing the procedure.

Despite agreeing that Dr Rabbeth had acted bravely, the dissenters also suggested that he may have acted rashly.


However, dissenting voices were few and far between, and almost everyone was of the opinion that Samuel Rabbeth had performed an act of heroic self-sacrifice.

As the Ballymena Observer put is on Saturday 1st November 1884:-

"Every parent who learns the story of how the young physician of the Royal Free Hospital willingly gave up his life for a child's sake, will revere his memory.

He is dead before his prime, but he leaves behind him what cannot die - a sweet and noble example of courage and self-sacrifice - a seed of goodness that elevates the whole medical vocation by one perfect act, and makes him an example and an honour to his professional brethren."