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Biographical entry Turner, Sir William (1832 - 1916)

Knight Bachelor 1886; KCB 1900; MRCS July 1st 1853; FRCS (by election) April 13th 1893; MB Lond 1857; FRCS Edin 1861; FRS 1877; DL for the City and County of Edinburgh.

7 January 1832
15 February 1916
General surgeon


Born at 7 Friar Street, Lancaster, on Jan 7th, 1832, the second son of William Turner (1797-1837) and his wife, Margaret Aldren (1793-1869), of the neighbouring parish of Skerton. His father, an upholsterer and cabinet-maker in partnership with John Battersby, died young, leaving slender provision for his wife and family.

William Turner was educated at a dame's school in Lancaster until 1842, when he became a pupil of the Rev William Shepherd, who had a small school at Longmarton, near Appleby, in Westmorland. He remained there until 1846, when he was articled for a short time to his uncle, John Aldren, a chemist in Lancaster, and was then apprenticed to Dr Christopher Johnson, junr, a member of the leading and most enlightened firm of medical practitioners in the city of Lancaster.

He entered as a medical student at St Bartholomew's Hospital on Oct 1st, 1850, the choice of hospital being made (perhaps) because Richard Owen (qv), also a Lancastrian, was already connected with the Medical School. Here he came under the influence of Sir James Paget (qv), and was intimate with Thomas Smith (qv) and George Rolleston, afterwards Linacre Professor at Oxford, with both of whom he maintained a lifelong friendship. His student career at the Hospital was brilliant. He won the first prize in chemistry and botany at the end of the first session; the Scholarship of £45 for two years in anatomy, physiology, and chemistry in May, 1853; and was bracketed equal with J L Delagarde (qv) for the practical anatomy prize in the same year. In October, 1853, he gained the Gold Medal of the Apothecaries' Society for materia medics and therapeutics, and in August, 1854, he received the Gold Medal and Exhibition in materia medics and pharmaceutical chemistry at the intermediate examination for the MB at the University of London; finally in 1861 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Pharmaceutical Society. In 1854 he contributed to the Royal Society a paper upon "An Examination of the Cerebrospinal Fluid" (Proc Roy Soc, 1854, vii, 89). In 1854, too, he succeeded Dr Kirkes, who had just been appointed an Assistant Physician, as Demonstrator of Morbid Anatomy at St Bartholomew's Hospital.

John Goodsir, the Professor of Anatomy in the University of Edinburgh, fell into ill health in the autumn of 1853, and John Struthers, Teacher of Anatomy at Surgeons' Hall, acted for a year as his substitute. Goodsir found it necessary to obtain a fresh staff when he returned to work in September, 1854. He applied therefore to James Paget and William Sharpey, asking whether any of the brilliant younger men in London would be willing to act as his demonstrators. Paget suggested the names of Henry Gray (qv), of St George's Hospital, Henry Power (qv), of the Westminster Hospital, for the senior posts; William Newman (qv), afterwards of Stamford, and William Turner, as juniors. Gray, Power, and Newman found themselves for various reasons unable to accept office, and Professor Goodsir appointed Turner as his Senior Demonstrator at a salary of £200 a year on Oct 24th, 1854, whilst Alexander McKenzie Edwards (d1868), Demonstrator of Anatomy at King's College, London, and Frederick W Sayer, of University College, became the Junior Demonstrators.

Turner began his work at once in Edinburgh, and whilst acting as Demonstrator took his MB at the University of London in 1857 and published an Atlas and Handbook of Human Anatomy and Physiology (fol, Edinburgh) in the same year, a useful work which was afterwards translated into Arabic (Beyrout, 1874). From 1859 onwards he issued a constant stream of scientific papers on pathological anatomy and on anthropology. He edited the second edition of Sir James Paget's Lectures on Surgical Pathology in 1863, and the third edition in 1870. In November, 1866, he founded with Sir George Murray Humphry (qv) the Journal of Anatomy and Physiology.

In August, 1858, he made the acquaintance of Professor du Bois Reymond at Berlin, taking with him as a propitiatory gift a live specimen of the electric eel. He joined the Volunteers as an Ensign in No 4 Company of the Queen's Edinburgh Brigade in 1859, became a Lieutenant-Colonel in 1889, and resigned with the Volunteer Decoration in 1890.

He appears to have been somewhat unsettled and desirous of returning to London about 1860, for in 1861 he thought of applying for the post of Warden of the College of St Bartholomew's Hospital; in 1862 of becoming Assistant in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, and of applying for the Chair of Anatomy and Physiology in the College of Medicine at Melbourne, Victoria, each of which was better paid than the post he held. The University of Edinburgh, however, was unwilling to lose the services of a valuable teacher; he was created Dean at an additional stipend of £150, and on April 21st, 1863, he married Agnes (d1908), the eldest daughter of Abraham Logan, farmer, of Burnhouses, Berwickshire, and settled in Edinburgh for the rest of his life. He moved on his marriage from 2 South Frederick Street, afterwards to 25 Royal Crescent, thence to 7 Brunswick Street, Hillside, and finally to 6 Eton Terrace.

Turner was elected Professor of Medicine and Anatomy in the University of Edinburgh by five votes to one on April 11th, 1867, in succession to Professor John Goodsir. The other competitors were John Bell Pettigrew, who became Professor of Anatomy at St Andrews, and John Struthers, who afterwards held a similar position at the University of Aberdeen.

Turner became a member of the Edinburgh Senatus Academicus on April 24th, 1867, President of the Royal Medical Society in 1868, Dean of the Medical Faculty in 1877, and Principal of the University in 1902, Sir William Muir being his predecessor. He continued to lecture until the end of the session 1908. In October, 1882, he was elected President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, but resigned in the following year on finding his position as President was incompatible with his University interests.

He was Arris and Gale Lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1875 and 1876, when he delivered six lectures on the "Comparative Anatomy of the Placenta". He served on the General Medical Council from 1873-1883 as the representative of the Universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh, and a second term from 1886-1905 as representative of the University of Edinburgh alone, being elected President in succession to Sir Richard Quain on April 5th, 1898, and remaining in office until 1904, when he presented the Council with a mace to render the proceedings more formal.

Sir William Turner died after a short illness on Feb 15th, 1916, full of years and of honours, leaving three sons and two daughters. Of the sons, Dr William Aldren Turner became Physician to King's College Hospital, Dr Arthur Logan Turner, Lecturer on Diseases of the Throat and Ear at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, and Francis Robert, a farmer in Roxburghshire.

William Turner became free of the City of Lancaster by patrimony and took the oath of a Free Burgess on April 8th, 1848; in December, 1909, the freedom of the City of Edinburgh was conferred upon him, and he was made an honorary member of the Edinburgh Merchant Company. He was also Deputy Lieutenant of the City and County of Edinburgh. The Royal Scottish Academy chose him Honorary Professor of Anatomy; he held the post for thirty-eight years and received the Silver Medal of the Academy. In 1908 he succeeded Lord Kelvin as President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, having been awarded the Neil Prize in 1871 and the Keith Prize in 1903. He followed Sir George Humphry as President of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland in 1892, and in 1900 he was elected President at the Bradford Meeting of the British Association. Many universities at home and abroad conferred honorary degrees upon him, and in 1912 he was made a Knight of the Royal Prussian Order 'pour le Mérite'.

A three-quarter-length portrait in academic robes by Sir George Reid, PRSA, was presented to him by his colleagues and old pupils in 1895. A seated portrait by Sir James Guthrie, PRSA, was presented by subscribers in 1918 and placed in the Senate Hall of the University of Edinburgh. Both portraits are said to be excellent likenesses.

Sir William Turner takes a foremost place in English medicine during the Victorian age. Coming to London poor and friendless, he made his way by sheer force of character to the highest positions, first as a good teacher and original investigator of anatomy - his lectures on the placenta are a classic - then as an anthropologist, and finally as a great administrator. Honest and fearless, he was possessed of a robust common sense which enabled him to take a wide view of the controversial subjects which came before him. As a teacher of experience in the great University of Edinburgh and as a member of the General Medical Council he did much to secure that every medical student should be examined in medicine, surgery, and midwifery before he was allowed to practise his profession. He approved of the amalgamation of various diploma-giving bodies to form conjoint boards; he disapproved of a 'one-portal' system. He was not in favour of men and women being taught anatomy in mixed classes.

His fine presence lent dignity to all occasions when he was called upon to preside or speak. As a man he was courteous, humorous, friendly, and well read, of the simplest habits and fond of travel.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Logan Turner's Life of Sir William Turner, 8vo, Edinburgh and London, 1919, with portraits. List of Published Writings by Sir William Turner, 1854-1910, 8vo, Edinburgh. St Bart's Hosp Rep, 1916, lii, 452. Brit Med Jour, 1916, i, 326, and 1927, i, 751].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England