Dr Robert Henry Scanes Spicer (1856–1925), doctor and specialist of the throat, and a pupil of Alexander.
Dr Robert Henry Scanes Spicer (sometimes referred to as Scanes-Spicer) gained his M.D. in 1885. He studied in throat clinics in Vienna, Berlin, and Paris, and was one of the founding members of the Laryngological Society of London. In 1888 he became a throat surgeon at St. Mary’s Hospital, London, and in 1908 became a consulting surgeon. Inspired by Alexander he gave a number of papers and presentations between 1909 and 1910 with a focus on respiration. His last presentation was in 1911 after which he did not lecture or publish on the subject again. He retired in 1913 ‘owing to impaired health,’ though he later returned to work for the Ministry of Pensions until a more a serious breakdown in 1922. He died in 1925.
Connection with F. M. Alexander
When Alexander arrived in London, in June 1904, he had a letter of introduction to Dr Spicer from Dr Spicer’s friend, Dr Brady, who was a nose and throat specialist in Sydney. Dr Spicer was impressed with Alexander, and he and his wife and children immediately began to take lessons. He also recommended several patients to Alexander, among them the actress Lily Brayton. Dr Spicer incorporated some of Alexander’s observations in the BMA annual meeting for laryngology [concerning the throat] and otology [concerning the ear] in July 1904. However, from a discussion of the value of respiratory exercises for children in 1902, it is clear that Dr Spicer had made important observations of his own which would have prepared him for Alexander’s approach. He was already aware that, under certain conditions, breathing exercises ‘could and did effect much harm.’ He also advocated that posture and mental and physical conditions should be taken into account before prescribing exercises; although the similarity in wording does not indicate a similarity in practice, he stressed that proper breathing exercises are ‘often quite essential in directing the attention and physical energies to the parts where they [are] needed, and so consciously overcoming any errors of development.’ Alexander quotes Dr Spicer from this discussion in 1907.
Dr Spicer provided Alexander Leeper with a ringing endorsement of Alexander’s work in Leeper’s report on physical culture in 1908, where Dr Spicer is quoted for having written to Leeper as follows:
The results, not only in the production of the voice, but also in the deportment, appearance, and general health surpass anything that I have hitherto met with. Among the chief points which distinguish his practice from that of other physical educators are:
1. The absolute avoidance of physical strain, so conserving the available energy of the body;
2. the thorough emptying of the chest on expiration in such a way as to let the respiratory act be to some extent an elastic recoil;
3. the prevention of undue suction of the mucous membrane of the throat by insisting on no gasping or sniffing,
4. the better position of the thoracic and abdominal viscera, and the holding of the weight of the body to the best mechanical advantage.
Scanes Spicer’s appropriation of Alexander’s work
In 1909 Dr Spicer attempted to claim several of Alexander’s discoveries as his own, and tried to have his own version of Alexander’s ideas recorded as a medical discovery. This was first done in July 1909 with his paper ‘Some points in the mechanics of respiration’, reported in the Westminster Gazette. Alexander felt compelled to respond with ‘Breathing and cancer’ (19 October 1909) in order to protect himself as the originator of his method, and to disassociate himself from Dr Spicer’s speculative claims that chronic friction in the throat causes cancer. Dr Spicer wrote that the ‘irritation and friction’ caused by the ‘cricoid cartilage on the spinal column, and also the transverse axis of respiratory rotation of the cricoid on the thyroid cartilage,’ which he believed took place in ‘belly breathing,’ caused cancer. The argument was developed – with further references to clinical studies which might corroborate his theory – in an article of 16th October the same year, titled ‘Cancers of the throat: some remarks on their sites of origin, pathogeny, early diagnosis, and radical cure.’ At the time this was an ambitious attempt to settle several contentious issues. The article 1) attempts to clarify the nature and origin of cancer, 2) introduces and defines two modes of breathing and explains why abdominal breathing is inferior to costal breathing, 3) argues that abdominal respiration causes friction in the throat and larynx, and 4) argues that the irritation arising from this, combined with decreased oxygenation and circulation (as a consequence of abdominal breathing), is carcinogenic. The origin of cancer was the subject of much flimsy conjecture during this period, and Dr Spicer’s theory should be seen in that context.
Alexander, probably after having read the complete ‘Some points in the mechanics of respiration’ (he first responded to a newspaper summary), realised the extent to which Dr Spicer had plagiarised his technique whilst making disparaging remarks about how the whole subject was ‘too grave to be left in the hands of untrained amateurs and ignorant quacks. …The medical man should prepare himself to direct and control all such work on sound lines.’ Alexander wrote ‘Why we breathe incorrectly’ (November 1909), which, apparently, did not temper Dr Spicer whose next lecture, in December 1909, was entitled ‘Model by which the variation in effect of ‘back’ and ‘belly’ breathing on the stresses, strains, and frictions in the throat and larynx . . . ’ However, the harder Dr Spicer tried to pin-point the operating mechanism of the Technique with ‘scientific’ exactness, the easier his colleagues found it to fault him for ignoring other factors or simply for the inadequate mechanics of his model.
Spicer’s next attempt at gaining recognition for Alexander’s discoveries, though still claiming them as his own, was a lecture given in January 1910, ‘A clinical lecture on a new cardinal principle in the treatment of disease, and its application in disorders of the nose, throat, voice and speech.’ It is his best presentation of the principles involved and this is almost certainly due to his increased reliance upon Alexander’s descriptions and vocabulary; Dr Spicer departs from the anatomistic approach and employs terms such as ‘the use of his body,’ ‘co-ordinated actions,’ and ‘the postural mechanism’. Perhaps his colleagues did not notice the subtle change of argument or his listing of the procedures – a mimicry of Alexander’s – for achieving ‘a primary essential and basic foundation of correct posture and breathing.’ Whatever the reason, they remained silent. (The attitude of his colleagues is poignantly recorded in his obituary in BMJ: ‘… he held interesting and original views on posture and respiration as causative factors [of cancer], which, however, were not endorsed by his colleagues.’)
Alexander was increasingly annoyed, seeing that Dr Spicer had ignored his letter, ‘Breathing and cancer,’ his pamphlet, ‘Why we breathe incorrectly,’ and had continued to claim Alexander’s discoveries as his own, as well as undermining Alexander’s authority (with another debunking reference: ‘The requisite judgment, tact, knowledge … were hardly likely to be combined in … music-hall artistes…’). Alexander’s defence against this intransigent behaviour was the J’accuse-style ‘A protest against certain assumptions … by Dr R. H. Scanes Spicer’ (April 1910), in which Alexander accuses Dr Spicer of audacious plagiarism, of blatantly ignoring Alexander’s previous attempts at setting the record straight, and of attempting to usurp Alexander’s legitimate priority. Alexander flatly states that not only does Dr Spicer misrepresent the Technique but he is also insufficiently skilled ever to represent it: Dr Spicer could never become a capable exponent of the Technique as Alexander has been ‘unable to develop him to the high standard required in a teacher.’ Alexander insisted that his methods must be taught ‘as an art,’ and can be ‘taught only by an artist who alone is able to comprehend an art.’ This was Alexander’s last confutation. In his preface to MSI in August 1910 he merely summarized his view on Spicer’s suggestion that the Technique should be limited to (medical) experts: ‘I wish the scheme I have here adumbrated to be taken up universally, and not to be restricted to the advantage of any one body, medical or otherwise.’
Dr Spicer wrote a letter to BMJ on ‘Gastroptosis’ in June 1910 (still claiming Alexander’s discovery for himself) and an article in December in which he defends his priority by indicating that the main part of his methods had been established in 1893, although experience led to ‘many… improvements in detail for therapeutic application….’ This article, ‘The normal orthograde posture,’ discusses the relationship between gravity and posture and attempts to define good (‘most erect’) posture. The definition proposes that in good posture the centre of gravity of the head, of the trunk and of the ‘centre of the base of support’ are ‘actively distanced as much as possible from each other by fullest possible extension of the vertical axis.’ He names his ‘own’ method ‘psycho-postural-respiratory training’ in which the erect posture is achieved by ‘the willed extension of the vertical axis’… ‘with each in-breath until the extension becomes automatic and unconscious.’ In a long letter, also written in December to BMJ, Dr Spicer claims that evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of his ‘mechanico-biological theory,’ and that ‘faulty postural and respiratory efforts to comply with the demands of gravitation and oxygenation’ resulting in ‘irritation’ which causes cancer. 
Jeroen Staring is arguing that it was F. M. Alexander who was influenced by Dr Scanes Spicer, not the other way around. For criticisms of Staring’s view see the anonymous article, ‘Robert Henry Scanes-Spicer’ and ‘A review of Jeroen Staring’s writings on the Alexander Technique’ by Jean M. O. Fischer.
Picture: Caricature of Dr R. H. Scanes Spicer in Vanity Fair, April 1902.
(Courtesy Matthew Carrington.)