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Biographical entry Wilson, Sir William James Erasmus (1809 - 1884)

Knight Bachelor 1881; MRCS Nov 25th 1831; FRCS Dec 11th 1843, one of the original 300 Fellows; LSA 1830; FRS 1845; LLD Aberdeen 1881.

  • Image of Wilson, Sir William James Erasmus
25 November 1809
7 August 1884
Westgate-on-Sea, Kent


William James Erasmus Wilson, generally known as Erasmus Wilson, was the son of William Wilson, a native of Aberdeen, who had been a Surgeon in the Navy and had settled as a parish surgeon at Dartford and Greenhithe in Kent. He afterwards opened a private asylum at Denham in Buckinghamshire.

Erasmus was born on Nov 25th, 1809, in High Street, Marylebone, the house of his maternal grandfather, Erasmus Bransdorph, a Norwegian. He was educated at the Dartford Grammar School and afterwards at Swanscombe in Kent, but was soon called upon to help in his father's practice. At the age of 16 he became a resident pupil with George Langstaff (qv), Surgeon to the Cripplegate Dispensary, and began to attend the anatomical lectures given by John Abernathy at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. At his master's house he became acquainted with Jones Quain, Sir William Lawrence, and Thomas Wakley, whilst his skill in drawing and his neat dissections soon attracted general attention. Wilson was one of the first students at the Aldersgate School of Medicine, and won prizes for surgery and midwifery in the session 1829-1830. In 1831 he was asked by Jones Quain, Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at the London University, to become his Assistant. He accepted the post and was soon afterwards appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy. He filled this post until Jones Quain retired from the London University in 1836, when Wilson established a School of Anatomy, called Sydenham College, which proved unsuccessful. In 1840 he lectured upon anatomy and physiology at Middlesex Hospital, and in the same year he became assistant editor of the Lancet under Thomas Wakley, whose son, Thomas Henry Wakley (qv), he had 'coached'. He was also Consulting Surgeon to the St. Pancras Infirmary, and on Feb 20th, 1845, he was elected FRS.

Erasmus Wilson began to devote himself more particularly to dermatology about 1840, largely, it is said, at the suggestion of Thomas Wakley, who advised him to link himself so closely with skins that when he entered a room the company would scratch themselves. He did so with such success that he left a fortune of £200,000.

At the Royal College of Surgeons Erasmus Wilson sat on the Council from 1870-1884, was Vice-President in 1879 and 1880, and President in 1881. In 1870, at an expense of £5,000, he founded the Chair of Dermatology, of which he was the occupant till 1878. The Trust was varied in 1879, in 1881, and in 1908. The Professorship has now become the "Erasmus Wilson Lectureship". In 1870 he presented to the Museum his very extensive and valuable collection of drawings and models illustrative of diseases of the skin. In 1883 he gave to the Museum a valuable collection of anatomical specimens. The College marked its appreciation of these benefactions by presenting him with the Honorary Medal, which has only been bestowed thirteen times since it was instituted in 1802.

Wilson was particularly fond of foreign travel. He visited the East to study leprosy, Switzerland and the Vallais to examine goitre, and Italy to become more closely acquainted with tinea pellagra and other diseases of the skin in the underfed and dirty vegetarian peasantry. He became particularly interested in the study of Egyptian antiquities, and in 1877 he paid the cost (about £10,000) of the transport of 'Cleopatra's Needle' to London. He was President of the Biblical Archæological Society and was President of the Medical Society of London in 1878 after he had given the Oration in 1876.

One of the most notable incidents of Wilson's career occurred on the occasion of an inquest taking place at Hounslow upon the body of a soldier who had died from the effects of a regimental flogging. Owing greatly to Wilson's evidence a final verdict was returned by the jury, after ten adjournments, to the effect that the man had really died of his injuries. The coroner on this occasion was Wakley, and the result of the inquest was a Parliamentary inquiry, which led to the abolition of flogging in the army.

He married Miss Doherty in 1841. She survived him, but there were no children. He died on Aug 7th, 1884, at Westgate-on-Sea, after two years of ill health.

Erasmus Wilson ranks as one of the first and best of English specialists in diseases of the skin. He found the field of dermatology almost virgin. To his teaching we owe in a great measure the use of the bath which has since become a conspicuous feature in the life of our upper and middle classes, and to his advocacy is to be attributed the spread of the Turkish bath in England.

Skilful investments in the shares of gas and railway companies made him a rich man, and he devoted his wealth to various charitable objects, for he was a prominent Freemason. He restored Swanscombe Church; he founded a scholarship at the Royal College of Music; and was a large subscriber to the Royal Medical Benevolent College at Epsom, where he built a house for the head master at his own expense. At a cost of nearly £30,000 he built a new wing and chapel at the Sea-Bathing Hospital at Margate, where diseases of the skin were extensively treated, and in 1881 he founded the Erasmus Wilson Professorship of Pathology at the University of Aberdeen in memory of his father. The bulk of his fortune reverted to the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1884 on the death of Lady Wilson.

A bust by Thomas Brock, RA, stands in the Library of the College. It was ordered by the College on May 14th, 1885. A three-quarter-length portrait in oils in the robes of a Lecturer at the College of Surgeons is in the possession of the Medical Society of London.

The Silver Medal presented to him by the Royal Humane Society is in the possessioo of the College. It was awarded for saving the life of Olivia Green, who attempted to commit suicide by jumping into the Regent's Park Canal on April 22nd, 1857.


It is unquestionable that Wilson knew more about skin diseases than any man of his time. He identified the dermatological terms used by Celsus (vi, i-v) and thereby showed himself to be a learned as well as a practical physician. Hs works on dermatology, though they met with pretty searching criticism at the time of their appearance, have nearly all maintained their position as text-books. These works were: -
Diseases of the Skin, 1842; 4th ed., Philadelphia, 1857.
On the Management of the Skin as a Means of Promoting and Preserving Health.
, 8vo, London, 1847.
Atlas of Portraits of Diseases of the Skin, folio, London, 1848-55.
The Anatomist's Vade Mecum, 8vo, London; 2nd ed, 1842; 11th ed, 1892.
"Skin" in Cooper's famous Surgical Dictionary. He also prepared elaborate anatomical plates in conjunction with Jones Quain, and published various articles and reports in the scientific journals.
History of the Middlesex Hospital during the First Century of its Existence, 8vo, London, 1845.
In 1867 he established the Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Diseases of the Skin, and acted as editor until 1870.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict Nat Biog, sub nomine et auct ibi cit. MacCormac's Address of Welcome, 1900, 194. The Centenary Number of the Lancet, 1923, ii, 743, with portrait. Ann de Derm et Syph, Paris, 1884, 2nd ser, v, 514. An extensive bibliography will be found in the Index Catalogue of the Surgeon General's Library; several of his works were translated into German. The story of Cleopatra's Needle is told by Sir Wallis Budge in Cleopatra's Needles and Other Egyptian Obelisks, London, 1926].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England