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Biographical entry Walsham, William Johnson (1847 - 1903)

MRCS Nov 17th 1871; FRCS June 10th 1875; LSA 1870; MB CM Aberdeen 1871.

27 June 1847
5 October 1903
General surgeon


Born in London on June 27th, 1847, the elder son of William Walker Walsham, who had a farm in Cambridgeshire, by his wife Louisa Johnson. Educated privately at Highbury, he early showed a mechanical bent and was apprenticed to the engineering firm of Messrs Maudslay. The early hours and physical strength required proved too much for his delicate body and he turned first to chemistry and then to medicine. He entered St Bartholomew's Hospital in May, 1867, and obtained the chief school prizes in the first and second years of his studentship. In 1869 he won the Gold Medal at the Society of Apothecaries for proficiency in materia medica and pharmaceutical chemistry. He proceeded to Aberdeen - as was then a custom with London medical students - and graduated MB, CM with the highest honours in 1871. Returning to London he was nominated in May, 1871, to act for a year as House Physician to Dr Francis Harris, but exchanged nine months later with Charles Irving and became House Surgeon to Holmes Coote (qv). He then thought of entering private practice, but, an opportunity occurring in 1872, he was appointed Assistant Demonstrator of Anatomy, a position which he was particularly well fitted to occupy, for he was a skilled anatomist and a beautiful dissector. He became full Demonstrator in 1873 and held office until 1880. From 1880-1889 he was Demonstrator of Practical and Operative Surgery; from 1889-1897 he lectured on anatomy; and from 1897 to the time of his death he lectured on surgery. From 1890 onwards he was Surgical Instructor in the Nursing School of the Hospital.

Walsham was elected Assistant Surgeon to St Bartholomew's Hospital on March 10th, 1881, after a severe contest with William Harrison Cripps (qv) and James Shuter (qv), both of whom afterwards became his colleagues. He obtained 56 votes and his competitors 53 apiece. He was placed in charge of the Orthopaedic Department in 1884, where he soon made a reputation, as the subject allowed full scope for his mechanical skill, and it was his constant object to abolish the complicated apparatus of screws, springs, and levers used by the older school of orthopaedic surgeons. He published in 1895, with W Kent Hughes, The Deformities of the Human Foot with their Treatment. In 1897 he became full Surgeon.

He was Surgeon to the Metropolitan Hospital from 1876-1896, and there had charge of the Department for Diseases of the Nose and Throat. He served as Surgeon to the Royal Hospital for Diseases of the Chest from 1876-1884. He was also a Consulting Surgeon to the Bromley Cottage Hospital and to the Hospital for Children with Hip and Spine Disease at Sevenoaks.

At the Royal College of Surgeons he was an Examiner in Anatomy on the Conjoint Board from 1892-1897 and a Member of the Court of Examiners from 1897-1902, but he did not survive to be elected to the Council.

He married in 1876 Edith, the elder daughter of Joseph Huntley Spencer, of Hastings, who outlived him. There were no children. He died of arteriosclerosis - for years indicated in the radial arteries - at 77 Harley Street on Oct 5th, 1903, and was buried at Highgate Cemetery. He had a country house at Forest Row, Sussex.

Walsham spent the whole of his professional life in the pursuit of surgery, and attained eminence - but at a great cost, for he overworked a fragile body, and though he gained much money he never lived to enjoy it. As an anatomist and as a teacher he was facile princeps. The dissections which he made are still preserved in the anatomical rooms of the Hospital, and his pupils passed easily at the College examinations.

He stood about five feet four inches in height and was beautifully proportioned, his hand so small that he could easily pass it through an incision where another could not introduce more than three fingers, nevertheless he undertook the larger operations of surgery like the removal of the upper jaw or amputation on a muscular patient. He was neat, rapid, dexterous, and extremely delicate in his manipulations, although his hands trembled before he began to operate. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, and hardly ever failed to carry out his design. In cases of grave emergency he rose to the occasion with promptitude. He kept himself in touch with the most recent developments of surgery, carried out the later Listerian methods, and was one of the first surgeons in the Hospital to use gloves - first of cotton, afterwards of rubber - whilst operating; he was also one of the first surgeons in the Hospital to practise general abdominal surgery. He contributed a paper entitled, "Some Remarks on the Surgery of the Gall-bladder and Bile-ducts" (St Bart's Hosp Rep, 1901, xxxvii, 321), which gave details of his first twenty cases.

Walsham had keen hazel eyes, and spoke in short incisive sentences with a degree of energy and vivacity which sometimes seemed out of proportion to the subject, though it served to arrest the attention of his hearers. He held high rank in Freemasonry, and when the project of founding the Rahere Lodge No 2546 for the convenience of masons belonging to St Bartholomew's Hospital was mooted in 1895, Walsham at once interested himself, and it was chiefly by his endeavours, ably seconded by those of Sir Alfred Cooper (qv) and Dr Clement Godson, that the Lodge was so rapidly successful as to become a model for others on the same lines.

A Manual of Operative Surgery on the Dead Body (with Sir Thomas Smith), 8vo, 2nd ed, 1876.
Handbook of Surgical Pathology for the Use of Students in the St. Bartholomew's Hospital Museum, 8vo, 1878; 2nd ed conjointly with D'Arcy Power, 8vo, 1890. This was more than a mere guide to the Museum, for it was practically a manual of surgical pathology to be read with selected specimens whose numbers were given.
Surgery: its Theory and Practice, 12mo, 1887; 8th ed, 1903. It contained a concise statement of the whole existing knowledge of surgery and was for many years the text-book most used by students for the pass degrees. It is said that Walsham wrote the first edition four or five times before it was printed, and the whole of his leisure time was spent in bringing the succeeding editions up to date. Posthumous editions were edited by W G Spencer, FRCS.

Sources used to compile this entry: [St Bart's Hosp Jour, 1903, xi, 17, 18, with a good full-page portrait. St Bart's Hosp Rep, 1903, xxxix, p. xxxiii, with a bibliography. Dict Nat Biog, Supplement ii, sub nomine et auct ibi cit. Norman Moore's History of St Bartholomew's Hospital, ii, 696. Personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England