Lives of the fellows

William Richard (Sir) Gowers

b.20 March 1845 d.4 May 1915
MD Lond Hon MD Dubl Hon LLD Edin MRCS FRCP (1879) FRS Hon FRCPI

William Gowers was born in London, the only son of William Gowers of Hackney and his wife Ann Venables. He was educated at Christ Church School, Oxford, until starting an apprenticeship at Coggeshall, Essex. He completed his medical training at University College, London, where, after qualifying in 1862, he became, first, Jenner’s house physician and then his secretary. In 1870 he was made registrar at the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic, and after three years in this post was appointed to its staff as assistant physician, becoming physician in 1880. He was elected assistant physician to University College Hospital in 1872, physician in 1883 and consulting physician in 1888, and officiated as professor of clinical medicine in his last two years on the active staff. He delivered the Goulstonian Lectures in 1880 and the Bradshaw Lecture in 1896 at the Royal College of Physicians and the Lettsomian Lectures of 1890 at the Medical Society of London. He was knighted in 1897.

In his early years, Gowers devised an improved form of haemoglobinometer and published a valuable work on Medical Ophthalmoscopy (1879). Nervous diseases were the subject on which he became a leading authority. His short work on The Diagnosis of Diseases of the Spinal Cord (1880), dealt lucidly with a subject then obscure, and was followed by a similar book on The Diagnosis of Diseases of the Brain (1885). His magnum opus. Manual of Diseases of the Nervous System, appeared in 1886 and had a world-wide circulation. In this, by his own profound knowledge of the subject and with many original observations, he collated and expounded in clear and memorable language, the recent work of Hughlings Jackson, Fritsch, Hitzig and Ferrier, and made it available not only to the majority of general practitioners but to the rising generation of students. Gowers’ very brilliance as an observer tended to make him dogmatic as a teacher, impatient of criticism and unsympathetic to lesser minds; but such traits diminished as he mellowed with success and with age. His chief hobbies were etching—he illustrated many of his books and papers and exhibited at the Royal Academy—and the study of mosses. In his student days, with customary thoroughness and foresight, he taught himself shorthand which stood him in good stead throughout his career. He married in 1875 Mary, daughter of Frederick Baines of Leeds, and had two sons and two daughters. He died in London.

G H Brown

[Lancet, 1915; B.M.J., 1915; D.N.B., 1912-21, 221]

(Volume IV, page 264)

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