Semon Committee



 Written by Professor Michael Gleeson, MD, FRCS, FRACS, FDS. 

It had long been Sir Felix Semon’s wish that his name would exist in perpetuity by the establishment of a lecture. The opportunity came at his retirement dinner on 2nd July 1909. A sum of £1,200 had been collected by his friends and colleagues for a testimonial. Instead, Sir Felix chose to use it and endow a lectureship at the University of London. It was to be known as the Semon Lectureship for Laryngology.


Negotiations with the University consumed the better part of a year, while lawyers phrased the statutes to the joint agreement of the University and Sir Felix himself. The statutes stated that the lecturer should be appointed by a board that consisted of the Principal of the University of London as chairman, Sir Felix Semon during his lifetime, the current and immediate past Presidents of the Section of Laryngology and Rhinology of the Royal Society of Medicine, together with two other persons nominated by the Senate. Over the years, the most famous and familiar names of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology have served on the Board. Indeed, the structure of the Board remained the same with only minor clarifications for the following 90 years.

In 1996, the Principal of the University of London appointed Professor Michael Gleeson to the Board as a statutory member nominated by the Senate. The other statutory member was any one of several professors of general surgery, all alumni of the University of London, but not necessarily holding a chair in London. Throughout the following 10 years, the Committee functioned extremely well with the secretarial support of the Principal’s executive PA, Mrs Valerie Adams, and the Squire Bedell of the University, Mr David Eames. Annual meetings of the Semon Board were combined with the George Davey Howells Prize Board that consisted of the same members, but with the inclusion of the President of the Section of Otology for his or her recommendation for the book prize only.

In the latter part of 20th century, the University of London began to de-centralise and become a federation of self-governing colleges. In time they would award their own degrees and manage their own finances. Imperial College became a University in its own right, followed later by King’s College, University College and St Mary’s Westfield College. By 2006, the University of London had decided to re-organise the legacies that funded various academic purposes across the four colleges. They recognised that the Semon Fund was relatively poor, whereas the George Davey Howells Fund was far more robust. The University decided it made sense to merge the two funds and provide the Chairman more flexibility with its apportionment. Besides, the Semon Lectureship was an international accolade and not restricted purely to British Laryngologists. Flexibility of the fund gave the opportunity to increase the honorarium when lecturers were appointed from distant parts of the world.

Arrangements were made for University College London to manage the fund through the Institute of Laryngology and Ear Institute. They were also to provide secretarial support to the Chairman. Professor Michael Gleeson, who had already served on the Semon Board for 10 years, was appointed as Chairman in place of the Principal of the University, until he wished to stand down. Sadly, some of these arrangements proved to be unreliable when a new Director of the Ear Institute, Professor David McAlpine, was appointed. He refused and failed to recognise the significance and importance to surgeons all over the world of the Semon Lectureship, removed all secretarial assistance and had all recent records and correspondence discarded. This left Professor Gleeson with no option other than to return the management of the fund to Senate House, and together with his NHS secretary, undertake the administrative tasks of the Board.

Ever since its inception, the Semon Lectureship had been the property of the University of London. Indeed, at the outset the lecture had been given at Senate House itself. It had become to be regarded as one of the most prestigious international awards that a laryngologist or rhinologist could receive. The University of London was determined that it should retain that reputation in perpetuity despite the de-centralisation of the University itself. This continues to be reflected by the current structure of the Semon Lecture Board which consists of a Chairman and three statutory members all of which must be alumni of the University of London. They co-opt the current and immediate past Presidents of the Section of Laryngology and Rhinology. The Board not only appoints the lecturer but also dictates the title of the lecture. As the George Davey Howell’s Prize is always awarded at the same meeting, the President of the Section of Otology is afforded the courtesy of attendance, his views are respected but does not have a vote. The Lecture is delivered at the Royal Society of Medicine on the first day of each academic year.

In 2013, Professor Gleeson demitted office as the Chairman and appointed Mr John Watkinson to take his place. Throughout his tenure, Professor Gleeson had been anxious that the fund be managed carefully so that in time it would be sustainable without help from any other society or organisation. He continues to keep a close eye on its financial status and advises the Board accordingly.


Sir Felix would have wanted his lectureship to enhance the continual medical education of the specialty and profession. It has honoured his wish and continued to do that throughout the last hundred years.



Written by Mr John Watkinson, MSc, MS, FRCS, DLO.

My involvement with the Semon Committee began in 2009, when the then Chairman (Professor Michael Gleeson) invited me to introduce Professor Randall Morton to give his lecture on “Quality of Life in Patients with Head and Neck Cancer” I was then subsequently invited onto the committee in 2011 and served until 2017 (the last 4 years being as Chairman). Because of this, I was involved in the appointment of the lecturers from 2013 until 2018. During my tenure, I was able as well to introduce the speakers Professor Ashok Shaha from New York, USA (2013), Professor Janet Wilson from Newcastle, UK (2016), and then finally Professor Ralph Gilbert from Canada in 2017. All gave brilliant Key Note lectures, and the last three lectures are now available for viewing on the website (as is the 2007 lecture).

During my tenure, we have seen a significant growth in our finances. This has been largely due to the work of Professor Michael Gleeson during his time as chair, and then latterly Mr Rupert Obholzer who was appointed as the Treasurer in 2016. This was a new post specifically created to monitor and guide the committee’s finances, and Professor Michael Gleeson remains by invitation on the board to also advise and provide a link (together with Mr Obholzer) with the University of London.

During my time as Chairman, a committee meeting had been arranged in March 2015 at the Royal Society of Medicine. On the Agenda was a motion (proposed by Ms Lisa Pitkin) that we should attempt to document in some form the history of the Semon Lecture. Through mutual contacts, Dr Brendan Clarke (Reader in History of Medicine at UCL) had been invited to the meeting with a view to pursue whether his department (with Medical Student BSc input) could help facilitate the project. The size of such a project was not to be underestimated, particularly as some of the surviving records were suddenly no longer available. At this meeting, the concept of a website outlining the the history of the lecture was launched and then underwent a gestation period of just over 3 years culminating in the site going live in late 2018. The project was driven forward by Dr Brendan Clarke and Miss Catherine Chapple (then iBSc student in the History and Philosophy of Medicine at UCL), ably assisted by the Semon Committee as and when.

The Semon Lecture website is now an educational resource for not only medical students, trainees, ENT Surgeons and allied specialities but also anyone lucky enough to be chosen to give this prestigious lecture in the future. I believe that over the last 100 years or so, despite the many advances seen in the field of medicine, that the vision and concepts that Semon had when he bestowed the funds for the Lecture Trust in 1910 remain as strong and worthwhile now as they did then.

The current Chairman of the Semon Committee is Mr Peter Clarke, and the 2019 lecture (the ninety-fifth) will be given one hundred years after Semon retired and Theodor Kocher (who Semon acknowledged) became the first surgeon to win a Nobel Prize for his work on the Thyroid Gland.