Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gull, William Withey

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GULL, Sir WILLIAM WITHEY (1816–1890), physician, the youngest son of Mr. John Gull, a barge-owner and wharfinger, of Thorpe-le-Soken, Essex, was born at Colchester on 31 Dec. 1816. His father died when he was ten years old, and young Gull was educated privately, chiefly by his mother and the Rev. S. Seaman. After being for some time an assistant in a school at Lewes, he entered Guy's Hospital as a student in 1837, and graduated M.B. at London University in 1841, and M.D. in 1846. He was appointed medical tutor at Guy's soon after taking his M.B. degree. From 1843 to 1847 he lectured on natural philosophy, and from 1846 to 1856 on physiology and comparative anatomy. He became fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1848, and from 1847 to 1849 he was Fullerian professor of physiology at the Royal Institution. In 1851 he was appointed assistant physician, and in 1856 full physician at Guy's. In the same year he became joint lecturer on medicine, and held the post till 1865 with great success. Resigning, owing to his increasing practice, he remained consulting physician to Guy's till his death, being latterly a governor of the hospital. Gull was one of the first graduates of London University appointed a member of the senate. He was censor of the College of Physicians in 1859-61 and in 1872-3, and councillor in 1863-4. He was elected F.R.S. in 1869, and received the degree of D.C.L. from Oxford in 1868, and that of LL.D. from Cambridge and from Edinburgh in 1880. He was a member of the general medical council from 1871 to 1883, and from 1886 till his illness in 1887. He attended the Prince of Wales during his severe illness from typhoid fever in 1871, and was thus brought into much public notice. He was created a baronet in January 1872, and physician extraordinary to the queen, and in 1887 physician in ordinary. In the autumn of 1887 he was attacked with paralysis, which compelled him to retire from practice; a third attack caused his death on 29 Jan. 1890. He married in 1848 a daughter of Colonel Lacey, who survives him, together with a son, William Cameron—his successor in the baronetcy—and a daughter. He left personalty worth over 344,000l., besides landed estates.

Gull was pre-eminent as a clinical physician. His penetration was remarkable, and he exercised a sort of fascination over his patients. His great powers of endurance enabled him to see a succession of patients for long hours together, and he prided himself on the deliberate care with which he examined each case. In consultation his individuality was at times too self-assertive, and he was less popular among the leaders of his profession than with his patients. He consequently never attained the presidency of the College of Physicians. He was a great clinical teacher, an impressive lecturer, and a first-rate public speaker. Although he wrote no treatise, his numerous original papers in Guy's 'Hospital Reports' are all of value. Among these the most striking are those on paraplegia and diseases of the spinal cord, on abscess of the brain and on rheumatic fever (with Dr. W. G. Sutton), and on vitiligoidea (with Dr. W. Addison). In 1854 he drew up for the College of Physicians a report with Dr. W. Baly on epidemic cholera, and he wrote the articles 'Hypochondriasis and Abscess of the Brain' in Reynolds's 'System of Medicine.' His papers on 'Arterio-capillary Fibrosis' (with Dr. Sutton), read before the Medico-Chirurgical Society in 1872, and 'On a Cretinoid State in Adults,' now known as myxœdema (1873), read before the Clinical Society, marked important stages in the study of those diseases. He delivered the Gulstonian Lectures before the College of Physicians in 1849, the Hunterian Oration before the Hunterian Society in 1861, the Address on Medicine before the British Medical Association in 1868, and the Harveian Oration before the College of Physicians in 1870. His paper on 'Vivisection' in the 'Nineteenth Century' (1882), and his evidence before the Lords' Committee on Intemperance in 1877 are both instructive, as illustrating different aspects of his mind.

Personally somewhat dark-complexioned, and with a strong resemblance in face to Napoleon I, Gull was of robust and powerful frame. He was very liberal and generous, though at times strongly sarcastic in speech. He was a close friend of James Hinton [q. v.], (to whose 'Life and Letters' he contributed an introduction), and prone, like him, to tilt against current dogmas in religion, politics, and medicine. His sense of the mystery of the universe was deep, and he devised a motto for his seal which emphasised his somewhat mystical views, 'Conceptio Dei Negatio mei Ratio rei.'

[Brit. Med. Journal, 1 Feb. 1890; Lancet, 8 Feb. 1890; Bettany and Wilks's Biog. Hist. of Guy's Hospital.]

G. T. B.