Wilson, William James Erasmus (DNB00)

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WILSON, Sir WILLIAM JAMES ERASMUS (1809–1884), surgeon, generally known as Sir Erasmus Wilson, was son of William Wilson, a native of Aberdeen, who had been a naval surgeon, and afterwards settled as a parish surgeon at Dartford and Greenhithe in Kent. Erasmus was born on 25 Nov. 1809 in High Street, Marylebone, at the house of his maternal grandfather, Erasmus Bransdorph, a Norwegian. He was educated at Dartford grammar school, and afterwards at Swanscombe in Kent, but he was soon called upon to help in the practice of his father. At the age of sixteen he became a resident pupil with George Langstaff, surgeon to the Cripplegate dispensary, and he then began to attend the anatomical lectures given by John Abernethy [q. v.] at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. At his master's house he became acquainted with Jones Quain [q. v.] and Sir William Lawrence [q. v.], while his skill as a draughtsman and the neatness of his dissection soon attracted general attention. On the establishment of the Aldersgate Street school of medicine, under the leadership of William Lawrence, Wilson became one of the first pupils, gaining the prizes for surgery and midwifery in the session 1829–30. He was admitted a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries on his twenty-first birthday, and in the following year (25 Nov. 1831) he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. In the same year Wilson was asked by Jones Quain, then professor of anatomy and physiology at University College, to become his assistant. He accepted the post, and was soon afterwards appointed demonstrator of anatomy to Richard Quain [q. v.] This office he filled until Jones Quain retired from University College in 1836, when Wilson established a school of anatomy, called Sydenham College, which eventually proved unsuccessful. In 1840 he lectured upon anatomy and physiology at the Middlesex Hospital, and in the same year he began to act as sub-editor of the ‘Lancet.’ He was also consulting surgeon to the St. Pancras infirmary, and on 20 Feb. 1845 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

At the suggestion of Thomas Wakley [q. v.], the editor of the ‘Lancet,’ Wilson began to devote himself more particularly to the treatment of diseases of the skin, and from 1840 almost to the end of his long life the cares of an extensive practice occupied most of his time.

At the Royal College of Surgeons of England he was elected a fellow in 1843, and in 1869 he founded, at his own expense, a professorship of dermatology, endowing it with a sum of 5,000l. This chair he held from 1869 to 1877, and when he resigned it the conditions of the trust were so modified as to include the whole domain of pathology. In 1869 and again in 1883 Wilson made large and valuable presents to the museum of the College of Surgeons. He was elected a member of the council in 1870, and held office until 1884. He was vice-president in 1879–80, and president in 1881. In 1884 he was awarded the honorary gold medal of the college.

Wilson was particularly fond of foreign travel, and so early as 1828, and again in 1830, he went to Paris to attend the lectures of Cuvier and of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. In middle life he travelled much in the east. He became particularly interested in the study of Egyptian antiquities, and in 1877–8 he defrayed the expenses (about 10,000l.) connected with the transport of ‘Cleopatra's needle’ to London. In 1881 he received the honour of knighthood. He also filled the office of master of the Clothworkers' Company, and he was president of the Biblical Archæological Society.

He died on 7 Aug. 1884, after two years' ill-health, at Westgate-on-Sea, Kent. He married Miss Doherty in 1841, who survived him, but he left no children.

Wilson ranks as one of the first and best of the specialists in skin diseases. He found the field of dermatology almost unworked, and he toiled with such assiduity, and obtained such rewards, as soon induced a host of fellow labourers to follow in his footsteps. To Wilson's teaching we owe in great measure the use of the bath, which is so conspicuous a feature in our national life, and to his advocacy is to be attributed the spread of the Turkish bath in England. Skilful investments in the shares of gas and railway companies made him a wealthy man, and he devoted his riches to various charitable objects, for he was a distinguished freemason. He restored Swanscombe church, and he founded a scholarship at the Royal College of Music. He was a large subscriber to the Royal Medical Benevolent College at Epsom, where he built at his own cost a house for the head-master. At an expense of nearly 30,000l. he built a new wing and chapel at the sea-bathing infirmary, Margate, where diseases of the skin are extensively treated, and in 1881 he established a chair of pathology in the university of Aberdeen, where the degree of LL.D. had been conferred upon him.

After the death of Lady Wilson the bulk of his property, amounting to upwards of 200,000l., reverted to the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

A bust of Wilson, executed by Thomas Brock, R.A., stands in the new library of the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn Fields. A three-quarter length in oils in the robes of a lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, painted by Stephen Pearce, hangs in the hall of the Medical Society's Rooms in Chandos Street, W.

Wilson's more important works were:

  1. ‘Practical and Surgical Anatomy,’ London, 1838, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1853; issued in America, 1844 and 1856.
  2. ‘The Anatomist's Vade Mecum,’ London, 1840, 12mo; 2nd edit. 1842; 11th edit. 1892.
  3. ‘A Practical and Theoretical Treatise … on Diseases of the Skin,’ London, 1842, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1847; translated into German, Leipzig, 1850.
  4. ‘The Eastern or Turkish Bath: its History,’ &c., London, 1861, 16mo.
  5. ‘The Vessels of the Human Body, in a Series of Plates’ (with Jones Quain), London, 1837, fol. Wilson edited the ‘Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Diseases of the Skin,’ London, 1867–70.

[Brit. Med. Journal, 1884, ii. 347; Trans. Medico-Chir. Soc. 1885, lxviii. 20–2.]

D’A. P.