Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Willan, Robert

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WILLAN, ROBERT (1757–1812), physician and dermatologist, was born on 12 Nov. 1757 at Hill, near Sedbergh in Yorkshire, where his father, Robert William Willan, M.D., one of the Society of Friends, was in practice. He was educated at Sedbergh grammar school, and commenced his medical studies at Edinburgh in 1777, graduating M.D. on 24 June 1780 (‘D. M. I. de Jecinoris Inflammatione’). He then visited London and attended lectures. In 1781 he settled at Darlington, where he published a small tract entitled ‘Observations on the Sulphur Waters of Croft’ (8vo, 1782; 2nd edit. 1786; new edit. 1815). He soon afterwards removed to London, and was appointed physician to the Public Dispensary on its establishment in the early part of 1783. He resigned this appointment in December 1803, when the governors of the charity named him consulting physician, made him a life governor, and presented him with a handsome piece of plate. His practice at the dispensary was very numerously attended, and the number of his pupils was large; many of them subsequently attained to high reputation. He was admitted a licentiate of the College of Physicians on 21 March 1785. He was the first physician in this country to arrange diseases of the skin in a clear and intelligible manner, and to fix their nomenclature on a satisfactory and classical basis. As early as 1784 he had begun to attend to the elementary forms of eruption; he sought out the original acceptation of all the Greek, Roman, and Arabian terms applied to eruptive diseases, and he finally founded his nomenclature on this basis. His arrangement and nomenclature were probably decided about 1789, as in the following year his classification was laid before the Medical Society of London and honoured by the award of the Fothergillian gold medal of 1790. The practical utility of his simple classification is evinced in the fact that, notwithstanding the great advances made of late years in cutaneous medicine, it is still used by the profession for all diagnostic purposes.

In 1794 he edited Whitehurst's ‘Observations on the Ventilation of Rooms’ [see Whitehurst, John], and in 1796 commenced a series of monthly reports containing a brief account of the weather and of the prevalent diseases of the metropolis. These reports were published in the ‘Monthly Magazine,’ and were continued until 1800, when he collected them into a small volume and published them under the title of ‘Reports on the Diseases of London,’ 1801, 12mo. The work is pregnant with original and important observations, especially on points of diagnosis. His great work, ‘The Description and Treatment of Cutaneous Diseases,’ London, 4to, was issued in parts. The first part appeared in the beginning of 1798, the others at long and varying intervals; the last, which Willan lived to see through the press, in 1808. A remaining part, on ‘Porrigo and Impetigo,’ was published separately after his death by his relative, Dr. Ashby Smith, in 1814. He was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1791, and a fellow of the Royal Society on 23 Feb. 1809.

He long resided in Bloomsbury Square, but when, in 1810, symptoms of pulmonary consumption and dropsy developed, he went to Madeira. He died there on 12 April 1812, aged 54.

Besides the works mentioned, Willan wrote: 1. ‘The History of the Ministry of Jesus Christ, combined from the Narrations of the Four Evangelists, by R.W.,’ 1782, 8vo. 2. ‘On Vaccine Inoculation,’ with coloured plates, London, 1806, 4to. His ‘Miscellaneous Works, comprising an Inquiry into the Antiquity of Smallpox, Measles, and Scarlet Fever; Reports on the Diseases of London,’ and detached papers on medical subjects, were edited by Dr. Ashby Smith, London, 1812, 8vo.

[Munk's Coll. of Phys.; Cat. Brit. Mus. Library; Gent. Mag. 1812, i. 593; Records of the Royal Society.]

W. W. W.