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Biographical entry Bowman, Sir William (1816 - 1892)

Baronet, 1884; MRCS June 10th 1839; FRCS (by election) Aug 26th 1854; Hon MD Dublin 1867; Hon FRCSI 1887; Hon LLD Cantab 1880; Hon LLD Edin 1884; FRS 1841.

Born
20 July 1816
Nantwich
Died
1892
Occupation
General surgeon

Details

Born at Nantwich on July 20th, 1816, the third son of John Eddowes Bowman, banker, and Fellow of the Linnean Society, by Elizabeth, daughter of William Eddowes, of Shrewsbury. His father was a good artist, drawing the illustrations for his scientific papers, whilst his mother had some talent as a draughtsman. He was educated at Hazelwood School, near Birmingham, then kept by Thomas Wright Hill, father of Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879), the inventor of penny postage. He was apprenticed in 1832 to Joseph Hodgson (qv), who was Surgeon to the General Hospital, Birmingham, and came to London in 1837 to join the medical department at King’s College. There he served the office of Physiological Prosector, and was admitted a MRCS after returning from a visit to the hospitals in Holland, Germany, Vienna, and Paris. In October, 1839, he was appointed Junior Demonstrator of Anatomy and Curator of the Museum at King’s College, and in the following year he was elected Assistant Surgeon to King’s College Hospital, then situated in the slums of Clare Market, having Richard Partridge (qv) as his senior.

Bowman became full Surgeon in 1856, but he had by this time devoted himself to ophthalmic surgery and acquired so large a practice that he soon resigned. Elected Professor of Physiology and of General and Morbid Anatomy at King’s College in 1848, he became an Hon Fellow of King’s College in 1855 and a Member of the Council in 1879. He was appointed Assistant Surgeon to the Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital, Moorfields, in 1846, becoming full Surgeon in 1851, and retiring under an age limit in 1876. He was elected FRS in 1841, and was awarded the Royal Medal in 1842 for his work upon the minute anatomy of the liver. He afterwards served on the Council and was one of the Vice-Presidents of the Society. In 1886 he was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society.

Bowman became the leading ophthalmic surgeon in England after the death of John Dalrymple, FRS (1804-1852), and for this position he was eminently fitted both by his knowledge and by his manual dexterity. He was amongst the first to become expert in the use of the ophthalmoscope, which had been invented by Helmholtz in 1851 after Wharton Jones had failed to appreciate its possibilities a few years earlier. He employed and advocated strongly von Graefe’s treatment of glaucoma in 1857, and he was busy during the years 1864 and 1865 in devising new methods of treating detached retina and cataract. He suggested improvements in the treatment of epiphora, and the probes used in this affection are still known as ‘Bowman’s probes’. In 1880 he was elected the first President of the Ophthalmological Society of the United Kingdom, a post he held for three years. His services were so highly valued that the Society established an annual oration in his honour called ‘The Bowman Lecture’. He was created a baronet in 1884.

Bowman took a great interest in the welfare of his hospital patients, and, in conjunction with Robert Bentley Todd (1809-1860) and others, established the St John’s Home and Sisterhood, an institution which provided trained nurses for the sick poor. A few years later he was able to help Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) by sending her out trained nurses during the Crimean War, and he remained a member of the Nightingale Fund till his death.

Bowman’s work divides itself sharply into two periods – one of pure scientific investigation, the other concerned with the practice of ophthalmic surgery. His scientific and literary work was chiefly carried out between the years 1839 and 1842. It included original investigations on “The Structure of Striated Muscle”, read before the Royal Society (1840-1841); on “The Structure of the Mucous Membrane of the Alimentary Canal”, which appeared in Dr Robert Todd’s illustrated Cyclopoedia of Anatomy and Physiology; and on “The Structure of the Kidney”, read before the Royal Society in June, 1842. This classic research is still borne in mind when ‘Bowman’s capsule’ is mentioned. It is a clear exposition both of the minute structure and of the function of the kidney, and entitled Bowman to so high a place as a physiologist that he was unanimously chosen as an Hon Member of the Physiological Club (now Society) in 1882. He was associated in 1839 with Dr Todd in the production of Todd and Bowman’s Cyclopoedia (1836-1859, 5 volumes), and he also co-operated with Todd in producing Anatomy and Physiology of Man (1843-1856), the first physiological work in which histology was given a place. Both works contain numerous illustrations by Bowman, whose drawings were made directly upon the block without the intervention of an artist.

The first important communication made by Bowman in connection with the eye was read before the British Association at the Oxford meeting in 1847. It was entitled “On some Points in the Anatomy of the Eye, chiefly in Reference to the Power of Adjustment”. This paper, like that on the kidney, is a classic, for it demonstrates, simultaneously with, but independent of, Ernst Wilhelm Brücke (1819-1892), the structure and function of the ciliary muscle.

Bowman died of pneumonia at Joldwynds, near Dorking, which he had built in 1870 from designs by Aston Webb and William Morris as a country house, on March 29th, 1892, and was buried in the neighbouring churchyard of Holmbury St Mary. He married on Dec 28th, 1842, Harriet, fifth daughter of Thomas Paget (qv), of Leicester, by whom he had seven children. She died at Joldwynds on Oct 25th, 1900. He was succeeded in the title by his eldest son, Sir William Paget Bowman, who was for many years Registrar of the Clergy Orphan Corporation.

Sir William Bowman was the ‘Father of General Anatomy’ in England, and the brilliant results of his investigations into the structure of the eye, of the kidney, and of the striped muscles were of themselves sufficient to establish a reputation of the highest order. But Bowman had other and equal claims to distinction, for his practical gifts were as great and as fruitful as his scientific attainments. He enjoyed a unique position as an ophthalmic surgeon, and his evolution from science through general surgery to his speciality was interesting. Unrivalled in his knowledge of the ocular structures, fortunate in time as regards the invention of the ophthalmoscope, and trained in manipulation and observation by his histological work, he was equally good in the theory, in the clinical, and in the operative parts of ophthalmic practice. He was gentle, patient, and thoughtful: alive to and quickly seizing the salient points of every case, he was yet very reserved, giving his opinion in a few words, but decisively both as to forecast and treatment. He was possessed of a singularly pleasing and modest disposition, and no one who had the honour of his acquaintance could fail to hold him in affectionate regard.

A kitcat portrait of Bowman at the age of 48 was painted by G F Watts, RA. A photograph of it is reproduced as a frontispiece to the first volume of the Collected Papers. A presentation portrait by W W Ouless, RA, was painted in 1889 for the Bowman Testimonial Fund. It was engraved by John Clother Webb and is an excellent likeness. A lithograph by Maguire represents him as a younger man. His photograph in the Council Album. Copies of each portrait are in the possession of the College.

Publications:
Bowman’s Collected Papers, with a prefatory memoir by Henry Power (qv), were edited for the Committee of the Bowman Testimonial Fund by Sir John Burdon Sanderson and J W Hulke (qv), and published in two quarto volumes in 1892. Bowman himself took an interest in their preparation. He revised every proof sheet and added many notes.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict. Nat. Biog. Supplement, et auct. ibi cit. Burton Chance, The Annals of Medical History, 1924, vi, 143, with illustrations and reproductions of the portrait by G F Watts, RA. Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer, FRS, History of the Physiological Society during its First Fifty Years (1876-1926), 8vo, Cambridge University Press, 1927, 15, 16, with portrait. E T Collins, History of Moorfields, 1929, with portrait. Personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England