Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lawrence, William (1783-1867)
LAWRENCE, Sir WILLIAM (1783–1867), surgeon, was born 16 July 1783 at Cirencester, where his father, William Lawrence, was the chief surgeon of the town. Charles Lawrence [q. v.] was his brother. He was educated at a private school in Gloucester till he was apprenticed, in February 1799, to John Abernethy [q. v.], then assistant-surgeon to St. Bartholomew's Hospital. In 1801 Abernethy. as lecturer on anatomy, appointed him his demonstrator. He held this office for twelve years, and was esteemed by the students an excellent teacher of practical anatomy. On 6 Sept. 1805 he became a member of the College of Surgeons, and in March 1813 was elected assistant-surgeon to St. Bartholomew's Hospital. In the same year he was elected F.R.S., in 1814 was appointed surgeon to the London Infirmary for iseases of the Eye, in 1815 surgeon to the Royal Hospitals of Bridewell and Bethlehem, and 19 May 1824 surgeon to St. Bartholomew's Hospital, an office he held for more than forty years, so that he was actively employed in that hospital for sixty-five years.
Lawrence's first publication was a translation of the Latin edition of the 'Description of the Arteries of the Human Body' of Professor Murray of Upsala in 1801 ; the next was an essay on 'The Treatment of Hernia ' in 1806, which obtained the Jacksonian prize at the College of Surgeons, and went through five editions. In 1807 he published a translation of Blumenbach's 'Comparative Anatomy,' in 1808-9 papers in the 'Edinburgh Surgical and Medical Journal' on a variety of cancer and on stone, and 'Anatomico-Chirurgical Views of the Nose, Mouth, Larynx, and Fauces.' The College of Surgeons nominated him professor of anatomy and surgery in 1815, and in 1816 he printed his first course of lectures as 'An Introduction to Comparative Anatomy and Physiology,' and subsequent lectures in 1819 'On the Physiology, Zoology, and Natural History of Man.' Contemporary theologians discerned in these lectures an attempt to undermine the foundations of religion, and Lord Eldon refused an injunction to protect the rights of the author in them on the ground that they contradicted the scriptures (Jacob, Report of Cases, 1828, i. 471) ; but the remarks, which at the time excited so much feeling, now seem commonplace attempts to startle his audience, and are of no philosophic value. The author himself valued his conclusions so little that he afterwards announced publicly that he had suppressed the book. Nine subsequent editions appeared without his consent, and as its scientific value was small, the large sale was probably due to its alleged blasphemy. He also lectured at a private school of medicine in Aldersgate Street till in 1829 he succeeded Abernethy as lecturer on surgery at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, an office which he held for thirty-three years. Some of the 'Lectures on Surgery' were published in 1863, and Sir William Savory praises the book for soundness of judgment. His old pupils Sir G. M. Humphry, Mr. Luther Holaen, and others, spoke of him as an admirable lecturer and a first-rate teacher of surgery at the bedside. He headed a public agitation against the management of the College of Surgeons in 1826, and printed a 'Report of the Speeches delivered by Mr. Lawrence as Chairman at two Meetings of Members, held at the Freemasons' Tavern.' The college wisely elected him into its council in 1828, Hunterian orator in 1834 and 1846, examiner for twenty-seven years in 1840, president in 1846 and 1855, and he steadily maintained its privileges against all agitators. This, and the withdrawal of his lectures, were perhaps the only occasions on which he varied his conduct in consequence of the opinions of others, and he was usually inflexible in the maintenance of his own views. In the medical school of St. Bartholomew's Hospital he was a constant attendant at the committee meetings, was seldom opposed, and almost always carried his point. His great ability and large experience caused him to be venerated, and many instances of his personal kindness were known. His large private practice included many cases of ophthalmic surgery, and in 1833 he published a 'Treatise on Diseases of the Eye.' His second Hunterian oration was often interrupted by the indignant comments of his auditors, as he spoke contemptuously of ordinary surgical practitioners. He was first surgeon extraordinary, and then (1857) sergeant-surgeon to the queen, and in the last year of his life was created a baronet (30 April 1867).
He was president of the Medical and Chirurgical Society in 1831, and contributed eighteen papers to its 'Transactions,' besides one with Dr. H. H. Southey on elephantiasis Arabum, and one with Dr. Lee on a dermoid cyst. He also published many essays and observations in the 'Lancet' and in the 'Medical Gazette.'
He resigned the office of surgeon at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in 186§, but continued to act as an examiner at the College of Surgeons till 11 May 1867, when he was seized with paralysis of the right side while walking up the staircase to examine. He was taken nome to bed and was visited by Sir Thomas Watson, who saw that he wished to ask for something, but, while his looks showed perfect intelligence, he was incapable of articulate speech. He was given some loose letters out of a child's spelling-box, and laid down the following four, BDCK. He shook his head and took up a pen, when a drop of ink fell on the paper. He nodded and pointed to it. 'You want some black drop' (a preparation of opium), said his physician, and this proved to be what he had tried to express.
He died 5 July 1867 at 18 Whitehall Place. He had lived there for many years. His earlier residences were from 1807 in John Street, Adelphi, and soon afterwards within the precinct of the College of Physicians in Warwick Lane, London.
A portrait of him by Pickersgill, subscribed for by his pupils, hangs in the committee-room of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, and there is a fine bust of him in the College of Surgeons. He married Louisa, daughter of James Trevor Senior of Aylesbury, who died before him, and left one son and two daughters.
[Memoir by Sir W. S. Savory, bart., in St. Bartholomew's Hospital Reports for 1868 (the life by Dr. Bullar of Southampton mentioned in this memoir was never published); obituary notice in British Medical Journal for 13 July 1867; manuscript minute books of the committee of the medical school, of the medical council, and of the court of governors of St. Bartholomew's Hospital; information from former pupils at St. Bartholomew's Hospital; Sir Thomas Watson's Lectures on Physic, i. 494; Edinburgh Review, July 1823; Jacob's Report of Cases argued and determined during the time of Lord Chancellor Eldon.]