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Biographical entry Lawrence, Sir William (1783 - 1867)

BART. (1783-1867). Baronet, 1867; M.R.C.S., Sept. 6th, 1805; F.R.C.S., Dec. 11th, 1843, one of the original 300 Fellows; F.R.S., 1813.

  • Image of Lawrence, Sir William
16 July 1783
Cirencester, UK
5 July 1867
London, UK
Anatomist, General surgeon, Medical Lecturer and Ophthalmic surgeon


Born on July 16th, 1783, at Cirencester, where his father, William Lawrence (1753-1837), was the chief surgeon of the town. His mother was Judith, second daughter of William Wood, of Tetbury, Gloucestershire. The younger son, Charles Lawrence (1794-1881), was a scientific agriculturist who took a leading part in founding and organizing the Royal Agricultural College at Circencester.

William Lawrence went to a school at Elmore, near Gloucester, until he was apprenticed in February, 1799, to John Abernethy, who was then Assistant Surgeon to St. Bartholomew's Hospital. Abernethy became Lecturer on Anatomy in 1801 and appointed Lawrence his Demonstrator. This post he held for twelve years, and was esteemed by the students as an excellent teacher in the dissecting-room. He was elected as Assistant Surgeon to the Hospital on March 13th, 1813, and in the same year was elected F.R.S. In 1814 he was appointed Surgeon to the London Infirmary for Diseases of the Eye, in 1815 to the Royal Hospitals of Bridewell and Bethlehem, and in 1824 he became full Surgeon to St. Bartholomew's, a post he did not resign until 1865. In 1829 he succeeded Abernethy as Lecturer on Surgery and he continued to lecture for the next thirty-three years. He had also lectured on anatomy for some years before 1829 at the Aldersgate Street School of Medicine.

He became a Member of the College in 1805, a Fellow in 1843, was a Member of Council from 1825-1867, a Member of the Court of Examiners from 1840-1867, Chairman of the Midwifery Board in 1854, Vice-President four times, and President in 1846 and 1855. He obtained the Jacksonian Prize in 1806 with an essay on "Hernia, and the Best Mode of Treatment", which went through five editions in its published form, and he delivered the Hunterian Oration in 1834 and 1846.

From 1816-1819 he was Professor of Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons. At his first lecture in 1816 he criticized Abernethy's exposition of Hunter's theory of life. His views on the "Natural History of Man" (1819) scandalized all those who regarded life as an entity entirely separate from, and above, the material organism with which it is associated. The lectures caused a serious breach between Abernethy and Lawrence, who was accused of "perverting the honourable office entrusted to him by the College of Surgeons to the unworthy design of propagating opinions detrimental to society, and of loosening those restraints on which the welfare of mankind depend."

Lawrence regarded life as the assemblage of all the functions and the general result of their exercise, that life proceeds from life and is transmitted from one living body to another in uninterrupted succession. In his lectures on comparative anatomy he endorsed the views of Blumenbach, and showed that a belief in the literal accuracy of the early chapters of Genesis is inconsistent with biological fact. The lectures on the "Physiology, Zoology, and Natural History of Man" - the beginning of modern anthropology in this country - were republished by Lawrence, but Lord Eldon characteristically refused to protect his rights in them on the ground that they contradicted Scripture. Lawrence valued the work so little that he announced its suppression, and having, in the satire of the day, been ranked with Tom Payne and Lord Byron, he was thereupon vilified as a traitor to the cause of free thought. This form of abuse pursued him still more fiercely when, like Burke, who changed his views after an introduction to the King's Cabinet, he became a Conservative in the College Council Room, after having headed an agitation against the rule of the Council of the College. In 1826 there appeared a "Report of the Speeches delivered by Mr. Lawrence as Chairman at two meetings of Members, held at the Freemasons' Tavern". On the occasion of his second Hunterian Oration in 1846 a new charter which had lately been obtained failed to satisfy the aspirations of the Members of the College. An audience mostly hostile had assembled, and Lawrence defended the action of the Council and spoke contemptuously of ordinary medical practitioners, thereby raising a storm of dissent. "All parts of the theatre", says Stone, "rose against him. So great was the storm that Lawrence leant back against the wall, folded his arms, and said, 'Mr. President, when the geese have ceased their hissing I will resume.' He remained imperturbable, displayed his extraordinary talent as an orator, and concluded his address in a masterly peroration which elicited the plaudits of the whole assembly."

Lawrence was at one time much in the councils of Thomas Wakley, the founder of the Lancet, with whom he conducted a weekly crusade against privilege in the medical world. This, of course, had not been forgotten when he appeared as the advocate of the College in 1846.

As a lecturer on purely medical subjects Lawrence had a long career, during which he was without superior in manner, substance, or expression. He republished his lectures on surgery in 1863, and the work was praised by Sir William Savory and Sir Jonathan Hutchinson, who said of them that, "though superseded by other works, they are still a mine of carefully collected facts to which the student refers with pleasure and profit". Sir G. M. Humphry (q.v.) and Luther Holden (q.v.) have also borne witness to his powers as a lecturer and to his genius as a clinical exponent. Sir James Paget (q.v.), who attended his lectures, did not at the time, he says, esteem them enough, but when he came to lecture himself he followed their method and thought it the best method of scientific speaking he had ever heard: "every word had been learned by heart and yet there was not the least sign that one word was being remembered. They were admirable in their well-collected knowledge, and even more admirable in their order, their perfect clearness of language, and the quietly attractive manner in which they were delivered."

Brodie described William Lawrence as remarkable for his great industry, powers of acquirement, and inexhaustible stores of information. He had a considerable command of correct language, a pure style of writing free from affectation, was gifted with the higher qualities of mind, and possessed a talent seldom surpassed. He was a vigorous, clear, and convincing writer. In addition to many contributions to the Lancet, the Medical Gazette, and the Transactions of the Medical and Chirurgical Society, of which he was President in 1831, he published in 1833 A Treatise on Diseases of the Eye, which embodied the results and observations obtained in his large ophthalmic practice.

Lawrence lived to a great age and enjoyed a high degree of physical strength combined with an intense mental activity. On one occasion a friend ventured to congratulate him on looking so well. "I do not know, sir," replied Lawrence, "why I should not look as well as you do." At the age of eighty he was photographed by Frank Hollyer, and the picture, now in the College Collection, well displays his magnificent physical qualities.

He became Serjeant-Surgeon to H.M. the Queen in 1858, was created a Baronet on April 30th, 1867, and died in harness in July, 1867. As he was mounting the College stairs in his capacity of Examiner, he had a stroke of paralysis, which deprived him of the power of speech. He was helped down to the Secretary's office from the second landing on the main staircase, where the seizure took place, by Mr. Pearson (the College Prosector) and others. "When taken home, he was given some loose letters out of a child's spelling-box," says his biographer, Sir Norman Moore, "and laid down the following four: B, D, C, K. He shook his head and took up a pen, when a drop of ink fell on the paper. He nodded and pointed to it. 'You want some black drop, a preparation of opium,' said his physician, and this proved to what he had tried to express."

He married Louisa, daughter of James Trevor Senior, of Aylesbury, and left one son and two daughters. His son, Sir Trevor Lawrence, became Treasurer of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, the daughters died unmarried at a very advanced age. His grandson, Sir William Lawrence, was for many years an almoner at St. Bartholomew's Hospital.

Lawrence died on July 5th, 1867, at 18 Whitehall Place, S.W., where he had lived for many years. His children founded a scholarship and medal in his memory in 1873. The former was increased by his daughter to the annual value of £115 and is tenable at St. Bartholomew's Hospital as the chief surgical prize. The medal was designed in 1897 by Alfred Gilbert, R.A., and is a fine example of numismatic portraiture. A three-quarter-length portrait in oils by Pickersgill hangs in the Great Hall of St. Bartholomew's Hospital; it was painted by subscription and has been engraved. A bust by H. Weekes, R.A., is in the College; it was ordered in 1867 and is placed near the head of the staircase. It is a fine likeness. A crayon portrait by Samuel Lawrence is in the possession of the family.

Lawrence was a masterful man who, by virtue of his energy and long life, impressed himself upon the growing Medical School at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, where, almost in spite of himself, he carried on the tradition of Abernethy; Paget, Savory, Humphry, and to a lesser extent Sir Thomas Smith and W. Harrison Cripps, fell under his sway and were influenced by him. He was a great surgeon, though not an operator equal to Astley Cooper, Robert Liston, or Sir William Fergusson; but his powers of speech and persuasion far exceeded the abilities of the rest of the profession. It was truly said of him that had he gone to the bar he would have shone as brilliantly as he did in surgery.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict. Nat. Biog., sub nomine et auct. ibi cit. Norman Moore's History of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, ii, 660.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England