Sir Felix Semon is widely celebrated as singlehandedly establishing laryngology, a notion that Donald Harrison expressed in his biography of Semon saying, “he was highly intelligent, industrious and almost solely responsible for establishing laryngology as a definitive specialty.” (Harrison, 2000:230). This appreciation and recognition is something that Semon worked tirelessly for throughout his entire career. Semon started his career when he graduated from Heidelberg University in 1874 at the age of 25 with a medical degree and then travelled around Europe to gain experience in different clinical settings. This journey ended in London where he established himself as a laryngologist. After his first appointment in 1874 as a physician at Golden Square Hospital his career only went from strength to strength. A feat highlighted by his knighthood in 1897 and subsequent appointment as Physician Extraordinary to King Edward VII in 1901 (Semon, Semon &McIntyre, 1926:34, 58, 62, 79, 82, 258, 274).
There were many barriers Semon had to break down to achieve the great successes of his career. As a German Jew, he faced discrimination from some of his colleagues, especially towards the end of his life with World War I weighing heavily on people’s minds. Although his lack of English was a significant handicap at the beginning of his career, after he mastered the language his ability to speak three languages gave him a great advantage. He was able to read and publish articles in multiple languages to stay at the forefront of laryngology and as such “he wielded an influence beyond that which he could have obtained on purely professional lines.” (McBride, 1921). Indeed he is credited with 132 publications (Harrison, 2000:107), such as his paper Clinical Remarks published in 1881 in the Archives of Laryngology, which detailed his experiments that led to Semon’s Law (Negus, 1931). Although his Law was soon proved incorrect, it was important in motivating others to take part in experimental work and appreciate its significance.
Felix Semon was particularly active in establishing the reputation of laryngology against the disregard in which it was held. To bring about progress in the field on an international scale he established the Internationales Centralblatt für Laryngology, Rhinologie und verwandte Wissenschaften in 1884 (Semon, Semon & McIntyre, 1926:129), which further accentuated his belief in the importance of both research and clinical experience. Semon also played a prominent role in various medical societies and exerted a great influence on many of the important decisions. Indeed when laryngology was awarded a Subsection at the International Medical Congress of 1881, it was deemed to be due to his efforts (McBride, 1913). In 1888 he was appointed the President of the Laryngology and Rhinology Section at the Annual Meeting of the British Medical Association (Harrison, 2000:31-32). Semon later established the London Laryngological Society in 1893 with the express purpose of conglomerating the most eminent laryngologists to discuss matters specific to their specialty. This later amalgamated with the British Rhino-Laryngological Association in 1907, becoming the Laryngological Section of the Royal Society of Medicine. A move which highlighted the equal platform on which laryngology came to be held (Semon, Semon & McIntyre, 1926:222-224). His legacy was succinctly put by McBride in his obituary when he wrote, “It will probably be considered no injustice to anyone, living or dead, if we venture the statement that he did more for the advancement of our specialty than any other.” (1921).
Harrison, D. 2000. Felix Semon 1849-1921: A Victorian Laryngologist. London: The Royal Society of Medicine Press.
McBride, P. 1913. Sir Felix Semon – His Work and its Influence on Laryngology. The Journal of Laryngology, Rhinology and Otology. 28: 113-129.
McBride, P. 1921. Sir Felix Semon, K. C. V. O., F. R. C. P.. The Journal of Laryngology and Otology. 36: 211-214.
Negus, V. 1931. Observations on Semon’s Law. The Journal of Laryngology and Otology. 46: 1-30.
Semon, F. & Semon, H. & McIntyre, T. 1926. The Autobiography of Sir Felix Semon. London: Jarrolds Limited.