Lives of the fellows

Herbert Isambard (Sir) Owen

b.28 December 1850 d.14 January 1927
MA MD Cantab MD Hon DCL Durh Hon LLD Wales Bristol MRCS FRCP(1885)

Isambard Owen was born near Chepstow, the son of William George Owen, chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. He was sent to King’s School, Gloucester, and Rossall for his schooling, and read natural sciences at Downing College, Cambridge. He studied medicine at St. George’s Hospital, qualifying in 1875, and held the usual resident appointments there before being elected assistant physician in 1882. He was appointed to the same post at the Brompton Hospital in 1883 but resigned after a year on being made dean of the St. George's Medical School. Already deeply interested in educational matters, he did much to improve the School, while at the same time, in a larger sphere, he was busily engaged in forwarding the project of a National University in Wales. He organised conferences to formulate a scheme for the proposed university, and when its charter was granted in 1893 it was found to be based on the drafts prepared by him. He was appointed senior deputy chancellor of the new University of Wales in 1894. He also associated himself with proposals for a University of Westminster in 1897, but, on their abandonment after the passing of the London University Commission Bill, accepted office as vicedean of the faculty of medicine of London University in 1901.

In 1904 Owen, now physician to St. George’s Hospital, gave up the practice of medicine and devoted himself to university administration. He was principal of Armstrong College, Newcastle, for five years and successfully promoted the University of Durham Act of 1908 which placed the College on an equal footing with the Durham colleges within the University. In 1909 he was chosen as vice-chancellor of the newly-constituted Bristol University. He found difficult tasks of integration awaiting him, but, with his unique experience, genius for conciliation and administrative powers, he succeeded in establishing a new concord and steering the young University into strength and prosperity. Owen, who had been knighted in 1902, represented Bristol on the General Medical Council from 1910 to 1925. Though of frail appearance, he was a man of great physical energy, a warm and persuasive speaker, and a lover of art and music, and he united a strong determination of character with the tact and charm of a born diplomat. Owen married in 1905 Ethel, daughter of Lewis Holland-Thomas of Caerfynnon, Merioneth, and had two daughters. He died in Paris.

G H Brown

[Lancet, 1927; B.M.J., 1927]

(Volume IV, page 305)

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