Robert Lawson Tait (1845-1899) was a Scottish physician, famous for his pioneering research and treatments in gynaecology and abdominal surgery. Educated in his native Edinburgh, Tait moved south after graduation and set up practice in Birmingham. He became interested in reproductive medicine after watching helplessly as two patients suffered agonising deaths from ectopic pregnancies.
Tait began to research, develop and undertake surgical interventions for conditions with high mortality rates. In his three-decade career, Tait conducted and refined several groundbreaking operations, including excision of the ovaries, ruptured Fallopian tubes, appendectomies and gallbladder removal.
For all his surgical brilliance, however, Tait was prone to antiquated views, particularly about the causes of ovarian and reproductive disease. Like less esteemed doctors, Tait rejected viral and bacterial causes and instead put a good deal of blame on social factors. He was particularly opposed to girls and young women being subjected to music lessons. Tait argued that music was “a strong excitant of the emotions” that “agitated ovarian activity” and disturbed the developing female reproductive organs.
In the case of a teenage girl who was bedridden by hyperaemia and anaemia during her monthly period, Tait’s first step was to cancel her piano lessons:
“My first advice was that the patient should be removed from school and that for six months, all instruction, especially in music, should cease. I notice music especially, for I am quite certain that instruction in that art, as carried out in boarding schools, has to answer for a great deal of menstrual mischief. To keep a young girl during her first efforts of sexual development, seated upright on a music still with her back unsupported, drumming vigorously at a piano for several hours, can only be detrimental.
In life, Tait was a charismatic but unusual figure. Short and rotund, he waddled like a penguin and was occasionally given to eccentric dress. He was also a big drinker and notorious womaniser, who apparently enjoyed using the female reproductive organs as well as treating them.
In his final years, Tait was accused of fathering an illegitimate child with one of his nurses, a scandal that brought him some public discredit. His premature death in 1899 was ascribed to renal failure, though some believe it was brought on by venereal disease.