Lives of the fellows

John Scott Burdon (Sir) Sanderson

b.21 December 1828 d.23 November 1905
BART MD Edin(1851) MA DM Oxon Hon LLD Edin Hon DSc Dubl FRCP(1863) FRS FRS Edin

John Burdon Sanderson was born at Jesmond, Northumberland, the second son of Richard Burdon Sanderson, a barrister and former fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and a nephew of Lord Eldon and Lord Stowell ; his mother was Elizabeth, daughter of Sir James Sanderson, Bart, M.P. His father having severed his connection with the Church of England, he was sent neither to a public school nor to Oxford or Cambridge, but was educated at home and occupied much of his boyhood with country pursuits. His medical studies took place at Edinburgh, where he was awarded a gold medal for his M.D. thesis in 1851. He then studied chemistry and physiology in Paris before settling in practice in London in 1853. He obtained a registrar’s appointment at St. Mary’s Hospital in 1854 and lectured to its students on botany and medical jurisprudence. In 1856 he became medical officer of health for Paddington, and in the next eleven years made notable sanitary improvements and compiled valuable reports on public health; from 1860 to 1865 he was also an inspector in the medical department of the Privy Council. From 1859 to 1867, with a break of two years, he was assistant physician, and from 1867 to 1871 physician, to the Brompton Hospital. He was assistant physician to the Middlesex Hospital from 1863 to 1870, being also lecturer on physiology for the last four years of this period.

By 1871, however, Burdon Sanderson had decided to devote himself to physiology and pathology, and he gave up his hospital appointments and his practice to begin a seven years’ term as professor superintendent of the Brown Institution. In the same year he was made professor of practical physiology at University College, London, and three years later succeeded Sharpey in the Jodrell chair of physiology.

A new phase in his career began in 1882 when he was invited to Oxford as the first Waynflete professor of physiology. There, in the face of violent opposition organised by the anti-vivisectionists who feared the establishment of a "chamber of horrors," he secured proper facilities for the teaching of physiology in Oxford. In 1895 he succeeded Acland as Regius professor of medicine and in eight years did much to place the teaching of pathology on a sound footing. He was consulting physician to the Radcliffe Infirmary, for the same period.

He received many honours in the course of his career. He delivered the Croonian Lectures at the Royal Society on three occasions and once, in 1891, at the Royal College of Physicians, where he was also Harveian Orator in 1878, Baly Medallist in 1881 and Lumleian Lecturer in 1882. He served on three Royal Commissions — on hospitals for infectious diseases in 1881, on tuberculous meat and milk in 1891 and on London University in 1893. He was president of the B.M.A. in 1893. He received his baronetcy in 1899.

Although Burdon Sanderson was responsible for much original work in fields ranging from the recording of blood-pressure to the electromotive phenomena associated with muscular contraction and the reactions of certain plant fibres, and for editing a useful Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory (1873), it is chiefly as a teacher of experimental methods and as an inspirer of others that his fame will survive. He opened up, by his own vision, a score of fruitful vistas of research, and, when he died, he was the unchallenged master in experimental physiology in his own country. Personally, he was a man of striking appearance and dignity. He could be a strong critic yet displayed magnanimity towards his opponents.

He married in 1853, Ghetal, daughter of Ridley Haim Herschell and sister of Lord Chancellor Herschell, but had no children. One of his nephews was Lord Haldane and another J. S. Haldane, F.R.S. He died at Oxford.

G H Brown

[Lancet, 1905; B.M.J., 1905; Times, 25 Nov. 1905; D.N.B., 2nd Suppl., i, 267; Al.Oxon., iv, 1251; Lady G. Sanderson, Sir John Burdon Sanderson: a memoir, 1911]

(Volume IV, page 137)

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