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Biographical entry Cheyne, Sir William Watson (1852 - 1932)

Baronet 1908; K.C.M.G. 1916; C.B. 1900; M.R.C.S. and F.R.C.S. 12 June 1879; M.B., C.M. Edinburgh 1875; F.R.S. 1894; LL.D. Edinburgh 1905; D.Sc Oxford 1907; Hon. F.R.C.P Ed. 1927; Hon. F.R.C.S. Ed. 1927.

14 December 1852
Hobart's Town, Tasmania, Australia
19 April 1932
General surgeon, Member of Parliament and Naval surgeon


The only child of Andrew Cheyne of Ollaberry, Shetland and Eliza Watson, his wife (d. 1856), was born off Hobart's Town, Tasmania, on 14 December 1852. His father (d. 1867) was the owner of ships trading in the South Sea islands. His parents dying young, Cheyne was brought up by his uncle, who was the Minister of Fetlar, one of the Shetland Islands. He was educated in the name of William Watson at the local grammar school until 1864, when he went to the Aberdeen Grammar School. In November 1868 he entered King's College, Aberdeen, where he remained until the summer of 1870. He entered the University of Edinburgh in May 1871, resuming his full name of William Watson Cheyne, but symptoms of incipient tuberculosis prevented him from taking the full medical course. He devoted himself therefore to chemistry and obtained the first university prize in the subject in his first year and again in his second year. He was anxious to go to sea at this time but was unable to afford the preliminary expense, and he continued his medical studies, hoping to get the position of a ship's surgeon. In 1872 he won medals for anatomy, physiology, and chemistry, becoming the possessor of twelve such medals before he graduated.

The courses of surgery, physiology, and practical anatomy were so arranged in his second year as to leave the hour 12-1 free. One wet day in October 1872 during this interval he drifted for the sake of shelter and warmth into Joseph Lister's lecture room, was fascinated by what he heard, the chemistry of anaesthetics, and attended the full course in 1872-73. At the end of the course it happened that the examinations for the physiology and the Lister class prizes were held on the same day. Chyene entered for both, tied with his chief competitor in physiology, both obtaining 99 per cent marks, in the morning and gained the Lister prize with 96 per cent marks in the afternoon. This success brought him prominently under the notice of Lister, at whose suggestion he applied for a dressership and was selected out of a class of 200-300 students. Cheyne graduated M.B., C.M. with first-class honours in the university and, again at Lister's suggestion, applied for the post of house surgeon at the Royal Infirmary. As there was no vacancy for a year, Cheyne, who had been left a legacy of £150, visited Strassburg and Vienna in the autumn of 1875. On his return to Edinburgh he began some bacteriological experiments and won the Syme bacteriological scholarship, which was of the value of £100 a year and was tenable for two years. He served as house surgeon to Lister from October 1876 and was appointed demonstrator of anatomy in the university.

One spring morning in 1877 he awoke in his lodgings to find Lister standing beside his bed with the news that he was going to London as surgeon to King's College Hospital. He said that he had accepted the invitation on condition that he might bring his own house surgeon and he asked Cheyne to accept the post. Cheyne was overjoyed, and with him went John Stewart as senior assistant, W. B. Dobie and James Altham as dressers. Lister with this team took over the wards at King's College Hospital in the winter of 1877-78, and Cheyne acted as house surgeon until he was chosen additional surgical registar to the hospital in 1879, with special charge of Lister's patients, when he was succeeded by John Stewart as house surgeon. Cheyne's position as a resident in the hospital at first was neither easy nor pleasant. He had to contend with the open hostility of the nursing staff who were Sisters of St John and looked upon surgery as a hand-maid of nursing and an incentive to the high church ritual to which they were devoted; the other surgeons, his colleagues, were merely apathetic and the students, finding that the methods taught had no examination value, attended Lister's lectures in such small numbers that Cheyne was often present to assist in forming an audience. As there was no immediate prospect of making a living Cheyne entertained some thoughts of entering the Indian Medical Service. Lister, however, came to the rescue and gave Cheyne a retaining fee of £200 a year to administer anaesthetics for him and share with R. J. Godlee, F.R.C.S., the work as his private assistant. In 1879 he passed in immediate succession the examinations for the Membership and Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England; in 1880 he gained the Boyleston medical prize and gold medal; in 1881 he won the Jacksonian prize for his essay on the history, principles, practice, and results of antiseptic surgery, and in 1889 he was awarded the triennial Astley Cooper prize. Gerald F. Yeo, F.R.C.S., resigned his office of assistant surgeon at King's College Hospital in March 1880 to devote himself wholly to experimental physiology. Cheyne was appointed in his place, becoming surgeon in October 1887 and consulting surgeon on 25 October 1917.

At the Royal College of Surgeons Cheyne was a Hunterian professor of comparative anatomy and physiology in 1888, 1890, and 1891, and a Hunterian professor of surgery and pathology in 1892. He delivered the Bradshaw lecture in 1908 and the Hunterian oration in 1915. From 1902 to 1907 he was a member of the Court of Examiners and a member of the Council from 1897 until 1918, becoming President in 1914-16. In 1924 he was awarded the first Lister medal in recognition of his contributions to surgical science, and in the same year he delivered the Lister memorial lecture which was afterwards published. His war service was considerable. During the South African war he served as a civil consulting surgeon to the forces and was created C.B. In 1908 he received a commission as surgeon rear-admiral in the Royal Naval Reserve and saw active service during the war of 1914-18, first with the fleet in the Dardanelles and afterwards at the naval hospital in the lines at Chatham. For these services he was created a K.C.M.G., and in 1919 was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Orkney and Shetland with the rank of vice-admiral.

He retired from practice in 1917, and was then elected M.P. for the Universities of Edinburgh and St. Andrews; from 1918 to 1927 he represented the combined Scottish universities. He spoke rarely and confined himself strictly to medical subjects. The House always listened to him with attention not unmixed with amusement, for he addressed it as though he was lecturing to a class. He married: (1) in 1887 Mary Emma (d. 1894), daughter of William Servanté, of Plumstead, by whom he had two sons, Joseph Lister Cheyne, lieutenant-colonel, Military Cross, in command of the 16/5th Lancers until 18 Janaury 1933, who succeeded to the title, and Hunter Cheyne; (2) in 1894 Margaret (d. 1922), daughter of George Smith of Lerwick, by whom he had one son, who predeceased his father, and a daughter. He died in a nursing home after a prolonged illness on 19 April 1932.

Watson Cheyne rose to the top of his profession. He owed his position in part to the accidents of fortune, but mainly to his indomitable pluck and perserverance. An early and favoured disciple of Lister, he did much to promote the spread of antisepsis both by example and precept. He was not endowed by nature with a great degree of originality and was sometimes wrong in his deductions, but he clung firmly to the principles he had learnt from his great master. A good and safe surgeon, he was not a brilliant operator; as a speaker a certain shyness taught his hearers to look to the matter rather than to the manner of what he said. Accident made him a London surgeon. His blue eyes, open countenance, bluff and hearty manner showed him to be a Norseman by heredity and that his real home was the sea. W. G. Spencer, F.R.C.S. wrote of him: "He gave at King's College Hospital a flamboyant account of Koch's tuberculin to those invited, including C. Macnamara, F.R.C.S. and myself. There were two children in Macnamara's ward at Westminster Hospital with advanced hip-joint disease. On repeating Watson Cheyne's prescription and injecting tuberculin, both had acute suppuration and quickly died; no further use was made of the remedy. Operations for cancer of pharynx: he operated very well, but by removing the pillars of the fauces rendered the patients liable to fatal pneumonia by deglutition, as distinguished from the tongue operations then done in front of the fauces."

For reprints of his articles up to 1896 see Surgeon General's Library, Washington, Index Catalogue 2nd Series, v.3, p.413.
Antiseptic surgery: its principles, practice, history, and results. London, 1882; German translation 1883. Jacksonian prize essay; original MS. in College library.
Manual of antiseptic treatment of wounds, Ibid. 1885.
Suppuration and septic diseases. Edinburgh, 1889.
Abstract of all cases of tubercular disease…treated..with tuberculine. London, 1891.
The treatment of wounds, ulcers, and abscesses. Edinburgh, 1894; Philadelphia, 1895.
Tuberculous disease of bones and joints, its pathology, symptoms, and treatment. Edinburgh, 1895; 2nd ed. London, 1911.
The objects and limits of operations for cancer. Lettsomian lectures. London, 1896; New York, 1896.
Treatment of wounds (Bradshaw lecture R.C.S.). London, 1908.
Lister and his achievements (1st Lister lecture R.C.S.). Ibid. 1925.
Three orations: the Lister centenary. Ibid. 1927.
Manual of surgical treatment, with F. F. Burghaard, 6 parts. London, 1899-1903; new edition, 5 volumes. Ibid. 1912-13.
Editor of Recent essays by various authors on bacteria in relation to disease.New Sydenham Society, London, 1886.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 20 April 1932, p.19a and 26 April, p.19c; Lancet, 1932, 1, 963, with portrait; J. 1932, 1, 821, with portrait, a poor likeness; Nature, 28 May 1932, p. 785; King's Coll. Hosp. Gaz. 1932, 11, 59, with portrait, a moderately good likeness; Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1932, 1, 26, with portrait, a very poor likeness; information given by Lieut.-Col. Sir Joseph Lister Cheyne, Bt and by S. C. Ranner, secretary of King's College Hospital; personal knowledge.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England