Lives of the fellows

William Boyd

b.21 June 1885 d.10 March 1979
CC(1968) MB ChB(1908) MD(1911) DPM(1912) MRCPE(1912) FRCP*(1932) FRCSC(1949) Hon FRCPE(1955) FRS Canada†

Distinguished as a teacher and writer in the field of pathology — both medical and surgical - Boyd was acclaimed by thousands of medical students wherever English was read.

His early education in Glasgow and at Trent College in Derby prepared him for entry into the University of Edinburgh where he graduated MB ChB in 1908 and MD in 1911. The following year he took his qualification in psychiatry. He never gave up his interest in the human nervous system, and was an admirer of the pioneer work of Rio-Hortega and the Spanish school.

After serving for a year in a field ambulance with the RAMC he accepted the chair of pathology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, following by twenty years the gifted Frank Fairchild Wesbrook, a Cambridge colleague of Sherrington, and first full-time professor, unpaid! Boyd loved to reminisce about his own occupancy of the professorship, and hoped that his early students had long since forgiven him his initial lectures. He claimed to have prepared these on the ocean liner taking him to Canada, and once established in Winnipeg he said he was only one lecture ahead of his students!

Whatever his beginnings as a teacher of pathology, three generations of students came to know him as an engaging lecturer -witty, wise and never petty. He was a showman with a flair for understatement — asking more questions on a subject than he could possibly answer. He saw himself as a humble fellow student, but his elegant turn of phrase gave him away. To say that he was ‘the students’ friend’ would be too trite. Students in Winnipeg (1915 — 1937), Toronto (1937 — 1951), and finally in Vancouver (1951-1954) worshipped him, as their philosopher sent to make pathology thrilling and meaningful. He never disappointed them.

Boyd wrote volumes for surgeons (1925), internists (1931), and then his Textbook of Pathology: Introduction to Medicine in 1932. It went into its eighth edition when he was 85 years of age. There can have been few students who were not transported by the beauty and appositeness of his prose.

A keen interest in pathology museums brought Boyd into contact with Maude Abbott and other Oslerians. Four such teaching facilities bear his name in North America. The superb library of the Academy of Medicine in Toronto was named in his honour. Honorary degrees and decorations pleased ‘the Professor’ but did not change his sterling simplicity. He was a particularly ‘unsplenetic’ man, and had no time for jealous gossip.

He suffered the removal of a parotid cancer during his busy life, and blindness at the end. Nevertheless he was a most buoyant soul, of the kind that makes a medical school an inspiration for young minds. In his long and happy life he was the touchstone of innumerable practitioners and researchers, generous in his praise, comforting in adversity.

WC Gibson

* Elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature.."

† The list of honorary degrees is too lengthy to include in entirety.

[Brit.med.J., 1979, 1, 959]

(Volume VII, page 59)

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