Hewson, William (1739-1774) (DNB00)

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HEWSON, WILLIAM (1739–1774), surgeon and anatomist, son of William Hewson, surgeon, was born at Hexham, Northumberland, on 14 Nov. (O. S.) 1739. After attending Hexham grammar school, he was apprenticed to his father, and was also pupil to Mr. Lambert of Newcastle. In 1759 he came to London, lodged with John Hunter while attending the anatomical lectures of Dr. William Hunter [q. v.], and studied at St. Thomas's and Guy's hospitals. When John Hunter went abroad with the army in 1760 he left Hewson to instruct the other pupils in the dissecting-room. William Hunter afterwards proposed to Hewson to take him into partnership as a lecturer if he would study one year in Edinburgh. This arrangement was carried out, and in the autumn of 1762 Hewson returned to London, and began to share in the lectures and the profits of William Hunter's anatomical school, which was then in Litchfield Street, Soho. In 1765 Hewson went to France to visit the hospitals, but returned to give the winter lectures on anatomy. In 1768 he visited the coast of Sussex to study the lymphatic system in fishes, and made his researches the subject of a paper communicated in the following year to the Royal Society, which was rewarded with the Copley medal. On 8 March 1770 he was elected F.R.S. In 1769 William Hunter opened the celebrated anatomical school in Windmill Street, where a room was assigned to Hewson, who continued in partnership as lecturer, receiving a larger share of profits than before. He also obtained a not inconsiderable practice in surgery and midwifery. In 1770 he married Miss Mary Stevenson, a young lady whose intellectual culture had been much influenced by the interest taken in her by Benjamin Franklin, the American philosopher having lodged in her mother's house since he came to London in 1757. On his marriage Hewson removed to a house of his own in Craven Street, and this was made by William Hunter a ground for giving notice of breaking off their partnership. This was a blow to Hewson, especially as the building and anatomical museum necessary for carrying on the lectures were exclusively Hunter's property. Some disagreement arose about the right of Hewson to make preparations for his own use; but this was smoothed over by the mediation of Franklin. Hewson used his leisure during the year of notice provided for by the terms of partnership in making preparations for future use in his own lectures, and the museum thus formed was so valuable that it subsequently sold for 700l. In September 1772 Hewson began to lecture on his own account at a theatre which he built adjoining his own residence. His reputation was now so high, especially since the publication of various researches by him in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ and separately, that he had no difficulty in attracting a large class, and he lectured for two winter sessions with great success. Early in 1774 he brought out the second part of his ‘Experimental Inquiries,’ and his increase of reputation as a lecturer and anatomist was accompanied by a considerable augmentation of his practice. While thus busily occupied, Hewson wounded himself in making a dissection. Serious symptoms followed, and he died after a few days' illness on 1 May 1774, in his thirty-fifth year. He was buried at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, but his grave cannot now be traced. His widow, who was left with two young children and expecting another, went on the advice of Benjamin Franklin to America. The second son, Thomas Tickell Hewson, after studying at Edinburgh, became an eminent physician and president of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia. Hewson's portrait, by Van der Gucht, is engraved in the Sydenham Society edition of his works.

Hewson was an excellent anatomist, and a physiological inquirer of much originality. His researches on the blood were of great importance, as establishing the essential character of the process of coagulation, and the forms of the red corpuscles in different animals. They were a good example of the experimental method characteristic of the school of the Hunters. The third part of his ‘Experimental Inquiries,’ relating to the blood, was published after his death by Magnus Falconar, who compiled four chapters of Hewson's observations, which the latter had never committed to writing. Hewson's researches on the lymphatic system gave rise to an acrimonious controversy with Professor Alexander Monro (secundus) of Edinburgh, who in a letter addressed to the Royal Society, read 19 Jan. 1769, and in a pamphlet (‘A State of Facts concerning Paracentesis of the Thorax, &c., and concerning the Discovery of the Lymphatic System in Oviparous Animals, in answer to Mr. Hewson,’ 8vo, Edinburgh, 1770) claimed the priority in these discoveries. Hewson's reply was given in an appendix to his ‘Experimental Inquiries,’ pt. i. The minor point of the operation of paracentesis had no reference to the other question; and in regard to this Hewson frankly admitted that he had been anticipated by Monro. But in the more important matters he successfully vindicated his own priority.


He wrote: 1. ‘An Experimental Inquiry into the Properties of the Blood,’ 12mo, London, 1771; 2nd edit. (called ‘Experimental Inquiries, Part the First’), 8vo, 1772; 3rd edit. 1780. 2. ‘Experimental Inquiries, Part the Second, a Description of the Lymphatic System,’ &c., 8vo, 1774. 3. ‘Experimental Inquiries, Part the Third, a Description of the Red Particles of the Blood, &c., being the remaining part of the Observations of the late William Hewson, by Magnus Falconar,’ 8vo, 1777. And the following papers: ‘The Operation of Paracentesis Thoracis, proposed for Air in the Chest,’ &c. (‘Medical Observations and Inquiries,’ iii. 372, London, 1767); three memoirs on the ‘Lymphatic System in Birds, Amphibious Animals, and Fish,’ in ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ vols. lviii. and lix. 1768–9; four memoirs on the ‘Blood’ (‘Philosophical Transactions,’ vols. lx. and lxiii. 1770–3); a ‘Letter to Dr. John Haygarth, on the Red Particles of the Blood,’ in ‘Medical and Philosophical Commentaries,’ by a society in Edinburgh, vol. iii., London, 1775.

Hewson's works were collected and admirably edited for the Sydenham Society in 1846. The editor, George Gulliver [q. v.], has done full justice to their scientific merits. A collective Latin edition, ‘Opera Omnia,’ appeared in 8vo at Leyden in 1795.

[Letter from Mrs. Hewson, in Simmons's Life of William Hunter, London, 1783, p. 38; longer narrative by the same in Pettigrew's Memoirs of John Coakley Lettsom, 3 vols., London, 1817, i. 136 (of correspondence); J. C. Lettsom, Trans. Med. Society of London, 1810, vol. i. pt. i. p. 51; memoir in Gulliver's edition of works.]

J. F. P.