Browse Fellows


www Lives

Biographical entry Adams, William ( - 1900)

MRCS Feb 4th 1842; FRCS April 10th 1851.

1810 [1]
3 February 1900
London, UK
General surgeon


[2] Studied anatomy and physiology at the Webb Street School, which was then under the management of Richard Grainger (1798-1861), the younger brother of the talented but ill-used founder. In 1838 he entered as a medical student at St Thomas's Hospital, where he came under the influence of Joseph Henry Green (qv) (1791-1863), the philosophical surgeon whose memory he always held in the highest esteem. [3] In August, 1842, he was appointed Curator of the Museum and Demonstrator of Morbid Anatomy in the Medical School of St Thomas's Hospital, then situated in the Borough. These posts were held until 1854, when he joined the Grosvenor Place or Lane's Medical School in Kinnerton Street [4] near St George's Hospital. Here he lectured on Surgery and Hospital Practice, having Thomas Spencer Wells (qv) as a colleague. About this time Adams began to devote his attention more particularly to orthopaedic surgery, of which he became one of the leading exponents and most successful practitioners in this country. He was appointed Surgeon to the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital, Surgeon to the Great Northern Hospital, and Surgeon to the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic before it had specialized in brain surgery.

At the Great Northern (now the Royal Northern) Hospital he devised the operation which became known by his name - osteotomy of the neck of the femur within the capsule of the hip-joint. For this purpose he invented a saw with a short cutting surface and a long blunt shank - "my little thaw," as he always called it - by which the bone could be divided through a minute incision in the skin. He also brought into prominence the treatment of Dupuytren's contraction by subcutaneous division of the fibrous bands. In 1864 he was awarded the Jacksonian Prize for "Club-foot, its Causes, Pathology and Treatment". The essay is a classic, for it is an epitome of the knowledge of the time.

In 1872 he severed his connection with the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in consequence of a quarrel between the staff and the management, in which it was thought by his contemporaries that the staff was in the right. In 1876 he was President of the Medical Society of London, and in that capacity visited the United States and Canada as a delegate to the International Medical Congress held in September at Philadelphia. He was accompanied by Dr Lauder Brunton and Richard Davy (qv). With Lister (qv) he watched Professor Sayre excise the hip-joint in a boy. He lived and practised until 1896 at 5 Henrietta Street, Cavendish Square, where is now the College of Nursing. He retired to 7 Loudon Road, St John's Wood, and died there on Feb 3rd, 1900, the morning of his ninetieth birthday. [5] He never married. [6]

Adams was a careful but slow operator who maintained his interest in general surgery and pathology to the end of his life. He had been one of the promoters and first members of the Pathological Society of London as early as 1846. He was a good but prolix talker, with a soft voice and well-marked lisp. Sir James Paget used to complain of him that he never finished his sentences, and when one of us (D'A P) was curator of the Museum at St Bartholomew's Hospital, he would often come in later days and waste two or three hours of valuable time, having himself nothing to do. His talk, however, was interesting, for he would tell of his reminiscences of 'resurrection days' and the snatching of bodies for the purposes of anatomy. He took with him from Grainger's School Tom Parker as his dead-house assistant at St Thomas's Hospital. Tom Parker was a notorious resurrectionist, and there is good reason to suppose that he was the executioner who cut off the heads of the four men sentenced for high treason after the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820.

"Observations on Transverse Fracture of the Patella." Trans. Pathol. Soc., ii, 254.
"The Enlargement of the Articular Extremities of Bone in Chronic Rheumatic Arthritis." - Ibid., iii, 156. (He refuted in this paper the teaching of Rokitansky.)
Lectures on Orthopaedic Surgery, 1855-8.
"Presidential Address on Subcutaneous Surgery." - Proc. Med. Soc. Lond., 1857.
On the Reparative Process in Human Tendons after Subcutaneous Division for the Cure of Deformities, with a Series of Experiments on Rabbits and a Résumé of the Literature of the Subject, 8vo, plates, London, 1860. (A piece of good pathological work illustrating the method of repair of divided tendons.)
Lectures on the Pathology and Treatment of Lateral and other Forms of Curvature of the Spine, 8vo, 5 plates, London 1865; 2nd ed., 1882.
Club-Foot, its Causes, Pathology and Treatment (Jacksonian Prize Essay), 8vo, illustrated, London, 1866; 2nd ed, 8vo, 6 plates, London, 1873. (The original manuscript is in the Library of the Royal College of Surgeons.)
"Congenital Dislocation of Hip-Joint." - Brit. Med. Jour., 1885, ii, 859; 1887, i, 866; 1889, i, 243; and Trans. Amer. Orthop. Cong., 1895.
"Congenital Wry-Neck" - Trans. Amer. Orthop. Assoc., 1896.
"Rotation of the Spine in the so-called Lateral Curvature." - Ibid., 1899, etc.

The following are in the Library of the Royal College of Surgeons:-
A New Operation for Bony Anchylosis of the Hip Joint by Subcutaneous Division of the Neck of the Thigh Bone, 8vo, 4 plates, London 1871.
"On the Successful Treatment of Hammer-Toe by the Subcutaneous Division of the Lateral Ligaments", 8vo, plate, London, 1868, from Proc. Med. Soc. Lond., ii; 2nd ed., 1892.
"On the Successful Treatment of Cases of Congenital Displacement of the Hip-Joint", 8vo, 2 illustrations, London, 1890, from Brit. Med. Jour.
"Subcutaneous Surgery: its Principles, and its Recent Extension in Practice" (Sixth Toner Lecture), 1876, in Smithsonian Miscell. Collections, xv, 8vo, Washington, 1877.
Observations on Contractions of the Fingers (Dupuytren's Contraction), and its Successful Treatment by Subcutaneous Divisions of the Palmar Fascia and Immediate Extension; also on the Obliteration of Depressed Cicatrices after Glandular Abscesses or Exfoliation of Bone by a Subcutanous Operation, 8vo, 4 Plates, Washington, 1879. The 2nd edition appeared with the title, On Contractions of the Fingers (Dupuytren's and Congenital Contractions) and on 'Hammer-toe', etc., 8vo, 8 plates, Washington, 1892.
"The International Medical Congress in Philadelphia" (Presidential Address before the Medical Society of London). - Proc. Med. Soc. Lond., 1875-7, iii, 97; printed as an 8vo volume, London 1876.
Royal Orthopaedic Hospital. Letters and Documents in reference to the recent Arbitration by a Committee appointed by the Council of the Metropolitan Branch of the British Medical Association to investigate Certain Charges made by Mr W Adams against Mr Brodhurst, in connection with the Events which have lately occurred at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital, 8vo, London, 1872.
Principles of Treatment applicable to Contractions and Deformities, 1893.
Special section contributed to the 2nd edition of William Spencer Watson's Diseases of the Nose and the Accessory Cavities, 8vo, London, 1890.

Adams delivered the Lettsomian Lectures before the Medical Society of London in 1869, his subject being the "Rheumatic and Strumous Diseases of the Joints and the Treatment for the Restoration of Motion in Partial Ankylosis." In the same year he cut through the neck of the thigh bone, but Mr Brodhurst had already performed this operation several times.

[Amendments from the annotated edition of Plarr's Lives at the Royal College of Surgeons: [1] 1820 (1st February); [2] Son of James Adams L.S.A. of 39 Finsbury Square, a Governor of S. Thomas's Hospital.; [3] His eldest brother, James, was also a pupil of J.H. Green, became an ophthalmic surgeon & died aged 31.; [4] 'Kinnerton Street' is deleted and 'Grosvenor Place' added; [5] 'the morning of' is deleted and '2 days after' is added, and 'ninetieth' is deleted and '80th' added; [6] 'He never married.' is deleted, and the following added 'He married 21 August 1847, Mary Anne MILLS, who died in 1897, and had 2 sons & 1 daughter - all now (1931) dead without descendants (information from P.E. Adams MRCS, nephew). the last surviving son died in 1920. He is also reported to have had "two harems(?)"'; Portrait (No.1) in Small Photographic Album (Moira & Haigh).]

Sources used to compile this entry: [Lancet, 1900, i, 812. Brit. Med. Jour., 1900, i, 859. Med. Circular, 1852, i, 12. Sprigge's Life and Times of Thomas Wakley, 8vo, London, 1899, 40-50, gives some interesting information about Tom Parker. Personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England