According to his obituary in the British Medical Journal, William Freer Lucas was just 23 years old and acting resident medical officer at the Middlesex Hospital when he died. He had been a promising young man: successful at school, he went on to study medicine at the University of London before entering the Middlesex Hospital in 1888 where he continued to win scholarships and prizes. He was also an athlete and 'his gentlemanly bearing, uprightness, and candour gained for him many friends.'
However, Lucas's early promise was cut short by his death from diphtheria. Today, most of us have been vaccinated against this highly-infectious disease which is spread primarily by coughs and sneezes. It can also be treated by antibiotics. With neither vaccination nor antibiotic treatment available in the nineteenth century, though, the disease was a frequent killer. In severe cases, a grey-white film would develop in the throat and block the airway, and an operation to relieve breathing was the only treatment.
It was just such a severe case that Lucas treated in 1893. While he was administering chloroform during a tracheotomy operation on a child with diphtheria, the patient coughed into his face. Lucas nonetheless proceeded with the operation. Four days later, he too had diphtheria which killed him within 10 days.
Lucas's memorial service (held at the hospital chapel, almost all that now survives of the Middlesex Hospital buidlings) and his burial were well attended by his medical colleagues. The BMJ published a memorial poem written by 'one who was well acquainted with Mr Lucas'; since it is in Latin, I won't reproduce it here. The Freer Lucas Scholarship for medical students at Middlesex Hospital was also endowed by his parents a few years later.
His plaque on the Watts Memorial states:
WILLIAM FREER LUCAS MRCS LLD AT MIDDLESEX HOSPITAL RISKED POISON FOR HIMSELF RATHER THAN LESSEN ANY CHANCE OF SAVING A CHILD'S LIFE AND DIED OCT 8TH 1893.