Lives of the fellows

William Smoult Playfair

b.27 July 1835 d.13 August 1903
MD Hon LLD Edin Hon LLD St And FRCS Edin FRCP(1870)

William Playfair was born at St. Andrews, the son of George Playfair, inspector-general of hospitals in Bengal, by his wife Jessie Ross of Edinburgh. He was educated in St. Andrews and then studied medicine at Edinburgh, where he graduated in 1856. After a visit to Paris, he enlisted, in 1857, in the Bengal Medical Service and served as an assistant surgeon at Oude during the Mutiny and as professor of surgery at Calcutta Medical College from 1859 to 1860. Ill health, however, caused his early retirement, and in 1863, following a brief period of practice in St. Petersburg, he settled in London and was elected assistant physician for diseases of women and children at King’s College Hospital. Nine years later he became full physician and professor of obstetric medicine. He acquired a large midwifery practice and was appointed Physician-Accoucheur to the Duchess of Edinburgh and the Duchess of Connaught. He was the author of a popular Treatise of the Science and Practice of Midwifery (1876) and co-editor, with Allbutt, of a System of Gynaecology (1896), as well as a contributor to Quain’s Dictionary of Medicine. Two years before he retired from King’s in 1898, he was involved in a slander action, brought by a patient who was also his relative, in which damages of £12,000 were awarded against him — an amount reduced to £9,200 by a settlement between the parties. The case was a cause celebre at the time. But although opinions were strongly divided, nothing more than an indiscretion by Playfair was concerned, and his professional reputation did not suffer.

Playfair was an efficient practical lecturer. He was an ardent advocate of improved conditions for nurses, especially for those engaged in midwifery. He married in 1864 Emily, daughter of James Kitson of Leeds and sister of the first Lord Airedale, and had three daughters and two sons. One of his sons was Sir Nigel Playfair, the actor-manager. One of his brothers was the first Lord Playfair and another Sir Robert Lambert Playfair. H. J. M. Playfair, F.R.C.P, of King’s, was his cousin. Playfair himself died at St. Andrews.

G H Brown

[Lancet, 1896 (for the Playfair case), 1903; B.M.J., 1903; Lyle, 293; D.N.B., 2nd Suppl., iii, 120; Roll of I.M.S.]

(Volume IV, page 184)

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