Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Balfour, George William

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1493877Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement, Volume 1 — Balfour, George William1912George Alexander Gibson

BALFOUR, GEORGE WILLIAM (1823–1903), physician, born at the Manse of Sorn, Ayrshire, on 2 June 1823, was sixth son and eighth of the thirteen children of Lewis Balfour, D.D., by his wife Henrietta Scott, third daughter of George Smith, D.D., minister of Galston, who is satirised by Burns in 'The Holy Fair.' The father was grandson, on his father's side, of James Balfour (1705-1795) [q. v.] of Pilrig, professor of moral philosophy and of public law at Edinburgh, and on his mother's side of Robert Whytt [q. v.], professor of medicine at Edinburgh. Of George William's brothers the eldest, John Balfour (d. 1887), surgeon to the East India Company, served throughout the second Burmese war and the Mutiny, and finally practised his profession at Leven, in Fife. Another brother, Mackintosh, who spent his life in India, became manager of the Agra bank. A sister, Margaret Isabella, married Thomas Stevenson [q. v.], the lighthouse engineer, and was mother of Robert Louis Stevenson [q. v.].

George William, after education at Colinton, to which parish his father was transferred in the boy's infancy, began the study of veterinary science with a view to settling in Australia; but soon resolving to join the medical profession, he entered the Medical School of Edinburgh. In 1845 he graduated M.D. at St. Andrews, and became L.R.C.S. Edinburgh. After acting as house surgeon to the Maternity Hospital of Edinburgh, he in 1846 proceeded to Vienna, where he studied the clinical methods of Skoda, the pathological researches of Sigmund, and the homœopathic treatment of Fleischmann. On his return from Austria, in 1846, he published papers on 'The Treatment of Pneumonia as practised by Skoda' (Northern Journal of Medicine, Jan. 1846, p. 55); on 'Necrosis of the Jaw induced by Phosphorus as taught by Sigmund' (ibid. May 1846, p. 284); and on 'The Homœopathic Treatment of Acute Diseases by Fleischmann' (British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review, Oct. 1846, p. 567), which at once placed him in the front rank of the younger medical inquirers. Thenceforth Balfour contributed largely to medical literature.

Balfour was a general practitioner in the county of Midlothian from 1846 till 1857, when he removed to Edinburgh, and practised as a physician on becoming F.R.C.P. Edinburgh in 1861. In 1866 he was appointed physician to the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, and from 1867 he was physician to the Royal Infirmary, being appointed consulting physician in 1882, on the expiry of his term of office. At the infirmary Balfour won general recognition as a clinical teacher of the first eminence, alike in the lecture theatre, at the bedside, and through his writings. For the New Sydenham Society he translated (1861-5) the 'Hand-book of the Practice of Forensic Medicine,' by Johann Ludwig Casper. In 1865 he published 'An Introduction to the Study of Medicine'—a work which well illustrated his philosophic temper, independent judgement, and historical sense, as well as the literary grace which was a family heritage. In 1868, following out a suggestion of his father-in-law, Dr. James Craig of Ratho, he wrote two able papers on 'The Treatment of Aneurysm by Iodide of Potassium,' and thenceforth mainly concentrated his attention on diseases of the heart. 'Clinical Lectures on Diseases of the Heart and Aorta,' which appeared in 1876, greatly enhanced his reputation, and 'The Senile Heart,' which was issued in 1894, at once took rank as a classic. With Sir William Tennant Gairdner [q. v. Suppl. II] in Glasgow, and Charles Hilton Fagge [q. v.] in London, Balfour shared the credit of making the most important contributions of his generation to the clinical study of affections of the circulation.

Balfour, who was interested in bibliography, was librarian to the College of Physicians of Edinburgh from 1873 to 1882 and from 1887 to 1899. He was president of the college 1882-4, and was a member of the University Court of St. Andrews for many years. He received the honorary degree of LL.D. at Edinburgh in 1884, and at St. Andrews in 1896. He was appointed physician in ordinary to Queen Victoria in 1900 and honorary physician to King Edward VII in 1901.

In 1899 Balfour retired from Edinburgh to Colinton, the home of his youth, where he died on 9 Aug. 1903. Of impassive demeanour, he charmed his friends by his quaint humour and culture. Although probably the best auscultator of his time, he lacked all appreciation of music. A portrait, by R. H. Campbell, hangs in the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Balfour was thrice married: (1) in 1848 to Agnes (d. 1851), daughter of George Thomson, by whom he had one son, Lewis; (2) in 1854 to Margaret Bethune (d. 1879), eldest daughter of Dr. James Craig, of Ratho, by whom he had eight sons and three daughters; and (3) in 1881 to Henrietta, daughter of John Usher, who survived him.

[Lancet, 22 Aug. 1903; Brit. Med. Journal, 22 Aug. 1903; Edinb. Med. Journal, September 1903; Scottish Med. and Surg. Journal, September 1903; The Balfours of Pilrig, by Miss Balfour Melville of Pilrig, 1907; R. L. Stevenson, Memories and Portraits, 1887; private information.]

G. A. G.