Lives of the fellows

William Frederic Chambers

b.1786 d.17 December 1855
KCH AB Cantab(1808) AM(1811) MD(1818) FRCP(1819)

William Frederic Chambers, M.D., was descended from a family of good standing in Northumberland. He was born in India in 1786, and was the eldest son of William Chambers, esq., a distinguished oriental scholar in the civil service of the East India company, by his wife, a daughter of Thomas Fraizer, of Balmain, esq. Dr. Chambers was brought to England in 1793 on the death of his father, and placed in the first instance at the grammar school of Bath, whence he was transferred to Westminster, and in due course to Trinity college, Cambridge, where he proceeded A.B. 1808, A.M. 1811, M.D. 1818. His medical knowledge was obtained at St. George’s hospital, the Windmill-street school of medicine, and the Public dispensary, Bishop’s court, Lincoln’s inn; and he spent one year in Edinburgh.

Dr. Chambers was admitted an Inceptor-Candidate of the College of Physicians 22nd December, 1813, a Candidate 30th September, 1818, and a Fellow 30th September, 1819. He was Censor in 1822, 1836, Consiliarius 1836, 1841, 1845, and was named an Elect in 1847. On the 20th April, 1816, Dr. Chambers was elected physician to St. George’s hospital. His progress to fame and fortune, though at first slow, was steady and assured. On the death of Dr. Maton in 1835, he succeeded to much of that physician’s practice, and the increasing age of Sir Henry Halford, and his death in 1844, left Dr. Chambers at the head of his profession in London. He had for many years the most extensive business of any physician in the town, and his income from 1836 to 1851 or thereabouts is known to have ranged between seven and nine thousand guineas a year.

The mental character to which he owed this distinction is interesting as a subject of psychological study, and valuable as an example and encouragement to those who desire to lead a similar life of usefulness. His intellectual powers were not of that order to which it is usual to apply the term "genius," no original discovery, no striking innovation marked his career. Nor was he a man of very sparkling talent—there was nothing that could be called brilliancy in his thought his writing, or his mode of action. What he possessed in an eminent degree was wisdom, judgment—that peculiar balance of faculties which enables a man to think soundly, and to be a safe adviser and guardian.(1)

But Dr. Chambers was also a person of great energy, industry, and of indomitable perseverance. When he commenced practice he made clear and concise memoranda in Latin of every case that came before him, and he continued that habit to the last. The books he used for this purpose were quarto volumes of about four hundred pages each. He filled no less than sixty-seven of these volumes, besides numerous thinner quartos in the shape of indices. All his cases and every-day’s work were regularly entered and indexed as carefully as in a merchant’s ledger. His case books also contained notes of consultations and post-mortem examinations in striking cases.

As part of his notes of cases he had a method of sketching diagrams of his patients and their maladies. His books were filled with outlines of figures, with here a dot to indicate a cavity in the lung, there a portrait of hydrothorax with the heart bulging towards the right ribs, and here a case of hepatic enlargement, or a case of diffused tubercle. All these things were done in such a manner as to indicate to him at a glance the very spot and extent of any disease which had passed under his diagnosis. His plan was to insert his home cases leisurely at the time he prescribed for them, and after his return home in the evening he would from memory enter the cases he had visited.(2)

On the 2nd October, 1836, Dr. Chambers was sent for to see the queen (Adelaide) at Windsor, and on the 25th October was gazetted physician in ordinary to the queen. Upon the illness of the king in May of the following year he was appointed physician in ordinary to his majesty, who created him K.C.H., but allowed him to decline the honour of ordinary knighthood which had until that time been considered a necessary accompaniment of the commandership of the Guelphic Order. On the accession of her present majesty Dr. Chambers was gazetted one of the physicians in ordinary to the queen, and in 1839 he was appointed physician in ordinary to the duchess of Kent.

About 1837 Dr. Chambers ceased to lecture on the practice of physic, which he had done for many years, first in Windmill-street, and afterwards at St. George’s hospital, and two years later he resigned his physicianship to the hospital. About 1851, his health having given way, he withdrew from professional life and from London. He retired to his country seat, Hordlecliffe, near Lymington, and died there the 17th December, 1855, aged sixty-nine.

"Dr. Chambers," wrote his friend and colleague, Sir Benjamin Brodie, "was a thorough gentleman in the best sense of the word; an accomplished scholar, and had been a diligent student in his profession. Although Sir Henry Halford continued to be in attendance on king William, the queen seemed to prefer Dr. Chambers’s straightforwardness to the courtier-like manners of the other. Latterly Chambers was consulted by the king himself, and he was in attendance on his majesty during his last illness, in conjunction with Sir David Davis, the king’s domestic physician. From this time Dr. Chambers had the largest share of medical practice in the metropolis, and he well merited the estimation in which he was held by both the public and the members of his own profession. But his physical powers were scarcely equal to the labours which were thus imposed on him. One forenoon, continues Sir Benjamin Brodie, when I was occupied in seeing patients at my own house, he called on me in a state of considerable alarm, having been suddenly affected with difficulty of articulation. This attack was not of long duration. But it was the first symptom of a disease of the brain which, though for a long time imperceptible to others, was too plain to those who were intimately acquainted with him, and which caused his death several years afterwards. He had purchased a house with a small estate, on the sea coast in Hampshire, to which, when no longer in a fit state to pursue his profession, he retired, and where he passed the few remaining years of his life. Dr. Chambers had an extensive knowledge of his profession, and his great natural sagacity enabled him readily to apply what he knew to the investigation and treatment of the cases which were presented to him. He was altogether an excellent practitioner, but he never ventured to communicate the result of his observations to the public, and thus has left nothing behind him by which he will be known to the next generation. But the same thing maybe said of many others."(3)

Dr. Chambers’s portrait is in the Board room of St. George’s hospital.

William Munk

[(1) Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, vol. viii, p. 268.
(2) Lives of British Physicians, 2nd Edition. 12mo. Lond., 1857.
(3) Autobiography of Sir Benjamin Brodie, Bart., prefixed to his works, in 3 vols. Edited by Charles Hawkins. London. 1865. Vol. I, p. 110.]

(Volume III, page 196)

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