Browse Fellows


www Lives

Biographical entry Fergusson, Sir William (1808 - 1877)

Baronet, 1866; M.R.C.S., Nov. 18th, 1840; F.R.C.S. (by election), Aug. 26th, 1844; L.R.C.S. Edin., 1828; F.R.C.S. Edin., 1829; F.R.S., 1848; LL.D. Edin,, 1875.

  • Image of Fergusson, Sir William
20 March 1808
Prestonpans, Scotland, UK
10 February 1877
London, UK
General surgeon


Born at Prestonpans on March 20th, 1808, the son of James Fergusson. He was educated at Lochmaben, Dumfriesshire, at the High School, and at the University of Edinburgh. He was placed by his own desire in a lawyer's office at the age of 15, but finding the work uncongenial he changed law for medicine when he was 17. He became a pupil of Robert Knox, the anatomist, then at the height of his reputation, who appointed him demonstrator in 1828, when the class consisted of 504 students and the lectures had to be repeated thrice daily. Fergusson quickly became a skilled anatomist, and it is said that he often spent sixteen hours a day in the dissecting-room, and he soon began to lecture in association with Knox.

He was elected Surgeon to the Edinburgh Royal Dispensary in 1831, and in that year tied the third part of the right subclavian artery for an axillary aneurysm, an operation which had been published only twice previously in Scotland. He described the appearances seen at the post-mortem examination in the London and Edinburgh Journal of Medical Science (1841, i, 617). In 1855 he employed the dangerous method of direct compression of a subclavian aneurysm (Lancet, 1855, ii, 197).

He married Helen Hamilton Ranken on Oct. 10th, 1833. She was the daughter and heiress of William Ranken, of Spittlehaugh, Peebleshire, and the marriage at once placed Fergusson in easy circumstances. He continued zealous in his profession, and in 1836, when he was elected Surgeon to the Royal Infirmary and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, he shared with James Syme (q.v.) the best surgical practice in Scotland.

In 1840 Fergusson accepted the Professorship of Surgery at King's College, London, with the Surgeoncy to King's College Hospital, which was then situated in the slums of Clare Market. He settled at Dover Street, Piccadilly, whence he removed in 1847 to George Street, Hanover Square. His fame brought crowds of students to King's College Hospital to witness his operations.

He became Member of the College of Surgeons in 1840, Fellow in 1844, was a Member of Council from 1861-1877, and of the Court of Examiners from 1867-1870, Vice-President in 1869, President in 1870, and Hunterian Orator in 1871. As Arris and Gale Lecturer he delivered two courses on "The Progress of Anatomy and Surgery during the Present Century", in 1864 and 1865. In these lectures Fergusson mentioned three hundred successful operations for hare-lip performed by himself.

In 1849 he was appointed Surgeon in Ordinary to Prince Albert, and in 1855 Surgeon Extraordinary to H. M. the Queen. He was made a baronet in 1866, and Serjeant-Surgeon in 1867. The occasion of his receiving a baronetcy was seized upon to make a presentation of a dessert service of silver plate which was subscribed for by three hundred of his old pupils. He was elected F.R.S. in 1848, President of the Pathological Society in 1859-1860, and of the British Medical Association in 1873, and Hon. LL.D of Edinburgh in 1875.

He resigned the office of Professor of Surgery at King's College in 1870, but retained the post of Clinical Professor of Surgery and Surgeon to the hospital until his death.

He invented the term 'conservative surgery', by which he meant the excision of a joint rather than the amputation of a limb. He introduced great improvements in the treatment of hare-lip and cleft palate, and his style of operating attracted general attention and admiration. As an operator, indeed, he is justly placed at the pinnacle of fame. Lizars said he had seen no one, not even Liston himself, surpass Fergusson in a trying and critical operation, and his biographer, Mr. Bettany, says in the Dictionary of National Biography: "His manipulative and mechanical skill was shown both in his mode of operating and in the new instruments which he devised. The bulldog forceps, the mouth-gag, and various bent knives for cleft palate, attest his ingenuity. A still higher mark of his ability consisted in his perfect planning of every detail of an operation beforehand; no emergency was unprovided for. Thus, when an operation had begun, he proceeded with remarkable speed and silence till the end, himself applying every bandage and plaster, and leaving, as far as possible, no traces of his operation. So silently were most of his operations conducted, that he was often imagined to be on bad terms with his assistants."

Fergusson was celebrated as a lithotomist and lithoritist, and it was said that to wink during one of his cutting operations for stone might involve one's seeing no operation at all, so rapidly was the work performed by that master hand. On one occasion when performing a lithotomy the blade of the knife broke away from the handle. He at once seized the blade in his long deft fingers, finished the operation, and quietly told the class: "Gentlemen, you should be prepared for any emergency."

He died in London of Bright's disease on Feb. 10th, 1877, and was buried at West Linton, Peebleshire, beside his wife, who died in 1860. He was succeeded in the title by his sons, James Ranken; a younger son, Charles Hamilton, entered the Army, and there were three daughters.

Fergusson's personality was marked. Tall and of fine presence, with very large and powerful hands, he was genial and hospitable. He was beloved by hosts of students whom he had started in life, and of patients whom he had aided gratuitously. Those who could afford to pay sometimes gave him very large sums for an operation. Like John Hunter, he was a good carpenter, and had besides a number of social pursuits and accomplishments. He was a staunch friend, forgiving to those, such as Syme, who opposed him, and his best monument is the life and work of the many pupils whom he influenced and stimulated as few have ever done. He made many contributions to surgical literature, and wrote a System of Practical Surgery, of which a fifth edition appeared in 1870. An expressive and nearly full length oil painting of Fergusson by Rudolf Lehmann hangs in the Secretary's office at the College, and there are numbers of portraits in the College Collection. The portrait was painted in 1874, and a replica hangs in the Edinburgh College of Physicians.

He was extremely social and given to kind and friendly hospitality in private life. He sometimes invited a small circle of friends to dine at a well-known city hostelry, The Albion Tavern. On one of these occasions he invited the then Editor of Punch, who responded in these terms: "Look out for me at seven, look after me at eleven. - Yours, Mark Lemon."

A System of Practical Surgery, of which the first edition in 18mo was published in London, 1842; 2nd ed., in 12mo, 1846; 3rd., 1852; 4th ed., 1857; 5th ed., 1870. The work deals with the art rather than the science of surgery, and was a good text-book for medical students.
Paper on lithotrity in the Edin. Med. and Surg. Jour., 1835, xliv, 80.
Paper on cleft palate in the Med.-Chir. Trans., 1845, xxviii, 273.
The Hunterian Oration, 8vo, 1871, is chiefly remarkable for the generous eulogium of James Syme, his former colleague, with whom relations had been somewhat strained.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict. Nat. Biog. et auct. ibi cit. MacCormac's Address of Welcome, 1900, 157, with portrait. Middlesex Hosp. Jour., xvi, 1912, 122. Comrie's History of Scottish Medicine, 1927, 261, with a copy of Lehmann's portrait. See also s.v. Bond, Thomas.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England