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Biographical entry Atherstone, William Guybon (1814 - 1898)

MRCS May 11th, 1838; FRCS (by election) Nov 12th, 1868; MD Heidelberg 1839.

27 May 1814
Nottingham, UK
26 June 1898
Grahamstown, South Africa
General surgeon


Eldest son by his first wife of Dr John Atherstone, who married Elizabeth Damant, of Fakenham. He probably came from Atherstone in Warwickshire, she of a Flemish family settled in Norfolk after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Commissary-General John Damant married into the Korsten family, of Cradock Place, Port Elizabeth, and induced John Atherstone and Lieut Damant, of Fakenham, in Norfolk, to emigrate in 1820 in the ss Ocean as one of the settlers whom the Earl of Bathurst was introducing into the Colony. John Atherstone had been House Surgeon at Guy's Hospital, and he brought his wife, William Guybon, and three daughters with him. In August, 1820, he became District Surgeon of Uitenhage for a year, and then went to Cape Town in 1828, where he practised successfully for five years. In 1828 he was District Surgeon at Grahamstown and practised there until he was killed by falling out of a cart in 1858. Two of his sons by a second wife, and therefore half-brothers to William Guybon Atherstone, also practised medicine in the Colony.

William Guybon Atherstone, born at Sion Hill, Nottingham, on May 27th, 1814, accompanied the family to South Africa and was educated at Grahamstown School in the old 'Messenger House' and afterwards at Uitenhage. He went with his father to Cape Town, where he attended the natural history lectures given by Dr Andrew Smith (afterwards Sir Andrew Smith, who, many years later, as Director-General of the Army Medical Department, was made a scapegoat for the medical scandals of the Crimean War). In 1829 he returned to Uitenhage, where he attended the academy kept by Dr Rose Innes, and seems to have stayed there for two years, as he was apprenticed to his father in 1831. In 1834 he acted as staff medical officer under Sir Benjamin D'Urban on the outbreak of the second Kafir war, and in 1886 he received his certificate as a qualified medical man. He then went to Europe and attended the lectures of Stokes and Graves in Dublin during the year 1887, and qualified MRCS Eng in the following year after being one of Michael Faraday's pupils. He was joined by his friend Fred W Barber, spent a year in Paris, and took the degree of MD at Heidelberg in 1839. He then returned to England, and having on April 13th, 1839, married his cousin, Catherine Atherstone, sailed back with her in the Robert Small, a vessel of 1000 tons. He settled in practice with his father in Grahamstown in December, 1839, and spent the rest of his life in the Colony except for a short period in 1876, when he again visited England. He at first acted as Gaol and District Surgeon at Grahamstown, and in 1847 he performed an operation under ether which must have been one of the first administrations in South Africa. He also did some original work jointly with his father in investigating horse-sickness and tick-fever.

In 1857 and again in 1866 he was keenly interested in the development of railways, urging the annexation of the Congo area so that a line might be carried from the Cape to Cairo, and in 1878 he tried to get a telegraph line carried overland to Egypt. Both projects were defeated, but he familiarized his contemporaries with these schemes, which were afterwards carried into effect. Although Cecil J Rhodes was in South Africa during his lifetime there is no evidence that the two kindred spirits ever met. He fostered, too, the infancy of ostrich-farming at Heathertown Towers and Table Farm. As a prospector with a sound working knowledge of geology he made many important journeys, visiting Namaqualand in 1854; Stormberg in 1870; Kimberley and the Lydenburg goldfields in 1871. In 1867 he identified the first diamond found at Colesberg Kop - now Kimberley - examining it under a polariscope and trying its hardness on glass. The window pane on which he experimented has been framed and preserved. In 1888 the Kimberley Companies clubbed together and presented him with a 4-carat diamond in recognition of his services.

Atherstone maintained his interest in science to the end of his life, for he was much more than a prospector, being a good field botanist, an artist, and a very competent musician. He founded in 1855 the Medico-Chirurgical Society which afterwards became the Albany Museum, esteemed the second best in the Dominion. In 1887 he helped to found the Bacteriological Institute in Grahamstown, and in 1888 he initiated the South African Geologists' Association. He became a member of the Legislative Assembly for Grahamstown in 1881, and in 1884 he was elected to the Legislative Council (the Upper House) for the Eastern District, a position he retained until 1891. His eyesight having failed about 1887 he retired from practice, but in 1896 he consented to serve as President of the South African Medical Congress when it met in Grahamstown. He died at Grahamstown on June 26th, 1898, his family consisting of two sons and three daughters.

Atherstone was a man brimful of original ideas, who must be looked upon as one of the great pioneers of South Africa. He was energetic to a marvellous degree and he had the knack of imparting his enthusiasm to all about him. No one excelled him in patriotic feeling; he loved South Africa and everything in it. Geology was his particular branch, and his observations were keen and practical. There were few persons at the Cape in the early seventies of the nineteenth century who understood the bearing of geology on economics; but Atherstone fully appreciated the importance of thoroughly unravelling the geological problems of the country and thus assisting in its development. He had often to battle against adverse influences, but his good work lives after him and science in South Africa owes him much. He received no great recognition:- The Royal College of Surgeons elected him a Fellow of twenty years' standing in 1888, and he was made an Honorary Corresponding Secretary of the Royal Colonial Institute and a Fellow of the Geological Society. He left behind him an account of his life and works in 155 closely written notebooks. They begin in 1843, have not been published, and are still in possession of the family.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Professor E H L Schwarz, "The Discoveries of Economical Importance made by Albany Pioneers", being the Presidential Address delivered before the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, Grahamstown, 1908, with portrait. Additional information kindly given by Dr E G Dru Drury, of Grahamstown; Sources added to the annotated edition of Plarr's Lives at the Royal College of Surgeons: For additional facts see E. G. Dru Drury 'Choosing a wife', Lewis & Co. 1932 pages 145 et seq. and 158 et seq.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England