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Biographical entry Thorburn, Sir William (1861 - 1923)

KBE 1919; CB 1916; CMG 1919; MRCS July 24th 1883; FRCS June 10th 1886; MD Lond 1885; MD Malta (hon causa); DL for the County of Lancaster.

7 April 1861
18 March 1923
General surgeon and Neurosurgeon


Born in Manchester on April 7th, 1861, the son of John Thorburn, Professor of Obstetric Medicine at Owens College, Manchester, and Physician to the Manchester Royal Infirmary. He was educated at Owens College, and received his professional training at the Infirmary and in London, where his passage through the examinations of London University was brilliant. In 1884, on passing the BS, he obtained the gold medal in surgery, and on passing the MB he obtained the scholarship and gold medal for medicine and obstetric medicine. After admission as FRCS in 1886, he brought out the posthumous Treatise on the Diseases of Women, which his father, then recently dead, had already begun to pass through the press.

In 1883 he became House Surgeon to James Hardie (qv) at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, and so stimulated that rather retiring surgeon that his classes at once became famous. On obtaining the Surgical Registrarship at the Infirmary he came under the influence of Dr James Ross, who inspired him to investigate the distribution of the spinal sensory roots. His first articles, dealing with the cervical roots, were published in Brain in January, 1887, and October, 1888. Subsequently, in the Medical Chronicle of April, 1889, he dealt with the lumbosacral roots and first described the anaesthetic 'saddle-shaped' area on the buttocks and thighs caused by lesions of the lowest part of the spinal cord and its roots. In June, 1889, a tumour of the cauda equina was investigated by him, confirming his previous views. Subsequently, as years went by and clinical opportunities arose (for he never did animal experiments), he was able to map out the whole body in the sensory areas proper to each sensory root. Although slight correcting modifications in these areas have been made by others, yet Thorburn's work on this all-important part of neurology was not only pioneer work, but was a complete work.

Thorburn had already ventured a prediction which his own investigations and successful operations did much to verify - namely that, acting under strict antiseptic precautions and aided by modern knowledge, surgeons would probably, in the near future, open the spinal cord with as little danger and as little hesitation as they operated upon the cavity of the cranium. All of which has come to pass, but under the proviso laid down by Thorburn that the accuracy of diagnostic methods must be increased.

Thorburn also early investigated the nervous symptoms following accidents of various kinds - what was called 'traumatic hysteria', especially in relation to railway accidents, and in which no organic changes had been produced or were observable. The terms 'railway spine' and 'concussed spine' were then common, but are now assessed at their true clinical value (see PAGE, HERBERT WILLIAM). These early observations led directly to his great life work, and resulted in his reaching one of the highest positions as a sagacious, reliable, and successful surgeon, and he became well known as an authoritative referee in railway cases.

He won the Jacksonian Prize in 1890 with his essay on "The Nature and Treatment of Injuries of the Spinal Column and the Consequences arising there from". In 1894, as Hunterian Professor of Surgery and Pathology, he delivered a masterly course of lectures at the College entitled, "The Surgery of the Spinal Cord and its Appendages". In December, 1922, as Bradshaw Lecturer, he summed up his operative experience during thirty years and the modifications in his views thereby entailed.

After serving as House Surgeon in the Manchester Royal Infirmary, Thorburn filled various offices, and in 1889 was elected Assistant Surgeon, and succeeded Walter Whitehead (qv) as Surgeon in 1900. He retired in 1921 and became Consulting Surgeon. In the University of Manchester he was Professor of Clinical Surgery (Emeritus at the time of his death), and in the Council and Senate a trusted adviser.

At the Royal College of Surgeons his career was distinguished. He was a Member of Council from 1914-1923, and a Member of the Court of Examiners from 1913-1923. He was at one time Examiner in Surgery at the University of London. As President of the Manchester Medical Society he brought the Library of that body and the Medical Library of the Manchester University into closer touch. As a Member of the British Medical Association he was Vice-President of the Section of Surgery at the Manchester Meeting of 1902, and at the Cambridge Meeting of 1920 he opened the discussion on the end-results of injuries to the peripheral nerves treated by operation.

On the outbreak of the Great War he was placed in charge of the Surgical Division at the 2nd Western General Hospital. In 1915 he went out as Consulting Surgeon to the Expeditionary Force in the Mediterranean, and saw service in Malta, Gallipoli, and Salonika. At a later date he was Consulting Surgeon to the Forces at Le Treport, in the Rouen area, and proved a source of strength to the officers about him. For these services he was decorated in 1919 a Knight Commander of the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

In 1890 he married Miss Augusta Melland of Manchester (d1922), by whom he had three sons and three daughters. All his sons were killed in the Great War, the last in Gallipoli in 1915. Thorburn died at his London address, York Gate, Regent's Park, on March 18th, 1923, and was survived by three daughters.

He was a precise thinker and speaker who would probably have done equally well had he chosen the Bar as his profession. He possessed the faculty of summing up the points of a difficult subject and could crystallize the ideas expressed in a debate in a few well-chosen and clear words.

A Contribution to the Surgery of the Spinal Cord, 8vo, illustrated, and a bibliography, London, 1889; American edition, 1889.
"The Nature and Treatment of Injuries to the Spinal Column, and the Consequences
arising therefrom" (Jacksonian Prize Essay, 1890), MS, 4to, plates, 1890.
Course of Instruction in Operative Surgery in the University of Manchester, 12mo, Manchester, 1906.
The Evolution of Surgery, 8vo, Manchester, 1910.
"Operations upon the Spinal Cord" in Burghard's System of Operative Surgery, iii.
"On Injuries of the Cauda Equina." - Brain, 1887-8, x, 381.
"Spinal Localizations as illustrated by Spinal Injuries." - Ibid, 1888-9, xi, 289.
"Hypertrophic Pulmonary Osteo-arthropathy." - Brit Med Jour, 1893, i, 1155.
"Symptoms due to Cervical Ribs." - Med Chronicle, 1907-8, xiv, 165.
"The Sensory Distribution of Spinal Nerves." - Brain, 1893, xvi, 355.
"Cases of Injury to the Cervical Region of the Spinal Cord." - Ibid, 1886-7, ix, 510.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Lancet, 1923, i, 620. Brit Med Jour, 1923, i, 539, and with portrait and eulogies, 576].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England