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Biographical entry Power, Sir William Henry (1842 - 1916)

CB 1902; KCB 1908; MRCS Jan 26th 1864; FRCS (by election) April 10th 1902; LSA 1864; FRS 1895.

15 December 1842
28 July 1916
East Molesey


Born at Bosworth on Dec 15th, 1842, the eldest son of William Henry Power, MD, who was himself fifth in a medical line of descent. He was educated at University College, London, and was apprenticed to his father, who was a well-known and successful medical coach. He was then apprenticed to Frederick Wood, Apothecary to St Bartholomew's Hospital, and in due course served as House Surgeon to Holmes Coote (qv). He became Resident Medical Officer at the Royal Albert Hospital, Devonport, and afterwards at the Victoria Hospital for Diseases of the Chest, where he acquired the intimate knowledge of tuberculous disease which he used to such good purpose at the Local Government Board. He was appointed a temporary Medical Inspector under the Local Government Board in 1871 when the medical staff of the Privy Council was transferred to that newly created body. Sir John Simon (qv) held the senior post and had as his colleagues Seaton, Buchanan, Thorne-Thorne, Netten Radcliffe, and Ballard.

Power proved extraordinarily good as an Inspector. He observed the small-pox epidemics of 1871-1872 and 1881 in London, and formulated the theory of the aerial conveyance of the disease. In 1886 he reported upon the "Statistics of Small-pox Incidence in the Registration Districts of London relatively to the Operation of Small-pox Hospitals in the Metropolis", and this led to the removal of all small-pox cases to hospitals outside the metropolis instead of treating them in the neighbourhood of densely populated areas as had been the custom hitherto.

In 1876 and 1877 he reported upon outbreaks of diphtheria at Brailes in Warwickshire and at Radwinter in Essex, showing, before bacteriological evidence was available, that the disease was transmitted through mild sore throats in school-children. He also drew attention to the spread of diphtheria by contaminated milk, as a result of his observations during the diphtheria epidemic of 1878 in Kilburn and St John's Wood, and did useful work at Sheffield in showing the effects of different kinds of water on leaden pipes.

His knowledge of natural history was usefully applied in 1887 when eels began to appear in the water supplied by the East London Water Company, and he showed that they gained access to the reservoirs during their autumnal migrations, when they travelled overland and entered the manholes. Two years later he investigated the outbreak of 'fever' on the Reformatory ship Cornwall and showed it to be due to Pelodera, a parasite which had not hitherto been recognized as invading the human body.

Power was appointed Assistant Medical Officer to the Local Government Board in 1887, and became Senior Medical Officer on the death of Sir R Thorne-Thorne in 1889; in both these positions much of his time was occupied in the training of a succession of very efficient subordinates. In 1905, chiefly on his recommendation, the Local Government Board established a department to exercise supervision over food and to advise as to the administration of all Acts relating to the sale of food and drugs. He also kept in close touch with the Proceedings of the Royal Commission on Tuberculosis (Human and Bovine) which was appointed in 1901, and published a report upon the subject in 1908 and a final report in 1912. He had acted as Chairman of the Commission from 1907 after the death of Sir Michael Foster. He resigned the office of Principal Medical Officer to the Local Government Board in 1908.

He was the recipient of the Jenner Medal of the Epidemiological Society of London in 1898, the Bisset Hawkins Medal of the Royal College of Physicians of London, the Stewart Prize of the British Medical Association, and the Buchanan Medal of the Royal Society in 1907. He acted as Crown nominee at the General Medical Council until he retired from the office of Medical Officer of the Local Government Board. He was decorated CB in 1902 and promoted KCB in 1908.

He married in 1876 Charlotte Jane Godwin, the third daughter of Benjamin Charles Godwin, of Winchester, by whom he had two daughters, the elder of whom, Mildred Olive, married in 1916 Mervyn Henry Gordon, CMG, CBE, MD, FRS. He died at his residence, East Molesey, on July 28th, 1916, after a long illness, and was buried at Brookwood Cemetery.

Power was a man of fine physique, standing 6 feet 5 inches in height, an athlete in his younger days and a keen cricketer. He was a good shot and had an exceptionally fine collection of English birds. Extraordinarily shy, he had an almost morbid dread of notoriety. As an official he was ideal, being full of ideas, a good judge of men, and generous to his subordinates, always giving them full credit for their work. He had thus raised his department to a high pitch of excellence when it became a part of the Ministry of Health.

Sources used to compile this entry: [St Bart's Hosp Rep, 1916, lii, 11, with a portrait reproduced from a water-colour sketch, and a genealogy of the family. Brit Med Jour, 1916, ii, 203, 223. Lancet, 1916, ii, 244, with the water-colour portrait. Additional information kindly given by Mrs Mervyn Gordon].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England