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Biographical entry Watson, Archibald (1849 - 1940)

MRCS 23 January 1882; FRCS 11 December 1884; LSA 1880; MD Göttingen 1878; MD Paris 1880; MD Adelaide 1885.

27 July 1849
Tarcutta, New South Wales, Australia
30 July 1940
Thursday Island, Queensland, Australia
Anatomist and General surgeon


Born in 1849 at Riverina, New South Wales, son of Sydney Grandison Watson, RN, pastoralist on the Upper Murray. He was educated at the Scotch College, Melbourne, where he won the scripture prizes and was noted as an athlete. He was destined for the Church, but after a visit to the Pacific islands, where he lived at the court of Thackabu, King of Fiji, he decided to study medicine, and went to Europe for the purpose in his middle twenties. He studied at Bonn and Göttingen, qualifying MD cum laude from the latter in 1878, with a thesis Ueber das Fibro-Adenom der Mamma, and in Paris where he received the MD in 1880 for his thesis Étude sur le traitement des hernies étranglées inguinales et crurales vulgaires. Here he made friends with Pierre Marie (1853-1940), the neurologist and describer of acromegaly, whose career he followed with admiration.

Coming to London, he took the LSA in 1880, the Membership of the College in 1882 and the Fellowship in 1884. He was for a time demonstrator of anatomy at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, and taught at the London School of Anatomy kept by Thomas Cooke at Handel Street, Brunswick Square. He also took a course at Moorfields. In 1883 he went to Egypt to study cholera. In London he had made the acquaintance of Edward Stirling (1848-1919), like himself a native of Australia, who returned to Adelaide in 1881 as lecturer in physiology, afterwards becoming professor and FRS and a knight. When Sir Thomas Elder endowed a chair of anatomy in 1884 at Adelaide University, Watson was appointed on Stirling's advice as the first professor. Watson held the chair from 1885 to 1919, when he retired with the title of emeritus professor; he had also taught pathology, surgical anatomy, and operative surgery. A dispute at the Adelaide Hospital and the consequent retirement of many of the staff led to his appointment as surgeon there, and he subsequently became consulting surgeon. He eagerly applied his anatomical knowledge to surgical problems, and his surgical teaching was influential throughout Australia, while he criticized surgery "throughout the world".

He had a passion for the preservation of the tissues, and would denounce the unnecessary destruction of even the smallest subcutaneous vein. Watson had an unusual appreciation of the anatomical planes of the body and the possibilities they gave of a bloodless approach or mobilization of a viscus. He drew attention to, if he did not discover, the value of the division of the lateral blade of the mesentery of the colon as a means of mobilizing it. His anatomical knowledge of the blood supply of the uterus, and his teaching that the vessels could be exposed by division of the peritoneum, made hysterectomy a precise and safe operation. He was also associated with Professor Stirling in the pioneer work on hydatid disease. During the South African war, Watson served as consulting surgeon to the Natal Field Force in 1900, and in the first world war was pathologist to the Australian Imperial Forces in Egypt, 1914-16.

Watson was an imaginative talker and a dramatic lecturer. He was a man of many interests, a student of electricity, a good linguist, and an experienced sailor with a knowledge of the migrations of fish. In 1935 his past pupils presented him with his portrait painted by W B Mclnnes, and founded the Archibald Watson annual prize of six guineas in applied surgical anatomy, for an undergraduate of the Adelaide University Medical School. The portrait shows him as a bearded man of fine presence. Watson travelled widely in the outlying parts of Australia and Australasia. His exploits and adventures became legendary even in his life-time. He died at Thursday Island off Cape York, the northern-most point of Queensland, on 30 July 1940. He left a legacy of £1,000 to the pupils who had subscribed for his portrait; they used it to endow a scholarship in the University.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Med J Austral 1940, 2, 361, with portrait; Lancet, 1941, 1, 96, with portrait; further information given by Miss Violet Plummer, MB, of Adelaide, through Sir Thomas Dunhill, GCVO, Hon FRCS].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England