McWilliam, James Ormiston (DNB00)

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McWILLIAM, JAMES ORMISTON (1808–1862), medical officer to the Niger expedition, born in 1808, was brought up in Dalkeith in the county of Edinburgh. He became a licentiate of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons in 1827, and entered the royal navy in 1829 as assistant-surgeon. After serving abroad in this capacity for seven years, he was appointed surgeon to the Scout on the west coast of Africa, in which he gained the esteem of all on board, and for his 'Journal of Practice' (with an appendix on the health of the ship's company) obtained the Blane gold medal. He returned to England in November 1839, and took the opportunity of improving his professional knowledge by attending the London schools and hospitals. He became M.D. of Edinburgh in 1840, and in September of the same year was appointed senior surgeon on board the Albert, which joined the government expedition sent to the Niger for geographical and commercial purposes, and especially with the hope of striking an effectual blow at the slave-trade. No expedition was ever more elaborately supplied with everything that could conduce to the health and comfort of the crews, who were all picked men, and for the most part acquainted with service in warm climates; only it was said (Med. Times and Gazette) in 1862 that 'had the prophylactic influence of quinine been then as well understood as it is now the result might have been far less disastrous.' The Albert and two other vessels left England on 12 May 1841, and entered the Niger on 18 Aug. For about three weeks all went well, but on 4 Sept. a malignant fever broke out in the Albert, and almost simultaneously in the other two vessels. The latter were sent back to the sea filled with the sick and dying, thus leaving the Albert to continue the voyage alone. But by 4 Oct. the Albert also turned back, and was managed for some days by Dr. McWilliam and Dr. Stanger, the geologist of the expedition, all the rest of the officers and crew oeing totally unable to take part in the work. In ten days they reached the open sea, the sight of which practically effected a cure. A few days later McWilliam himself was taken ill, and he considers his case to be a striking instance of a fever being retarded by intense mental occupation and the excitement arising from the knowledge that the safety of the vessel itself and of all on board depended almost entirely on his own efficiency (History of the Expedition, p. 107). Out of 145 whites who took part in the expedition 130 were seized with fever and 40 died; but among 158 blacks there were only 11 cases of fever and 1 death (ib. p. 128). McWilliam reached England on 19 Nov. 1841, but he received from the admiralty no mark of recognition of his services. In 1843 he brought out his 'Medical History of the Niger Expedition,' which was well received. It is written in a modest, unpretentious style, and supplies a history of the fever, description, morbid anatomy, sequences, causes, treatment, with cases; besides an account of the state of medicine among the blacks and of vaccination; a description of the ventilation of the ships, which was carried out on the plan adopted by Dr. Reid for the houses of parliament; an abstract of meteorological observations; and a brief account of the geology of the Niger, condensed from the notes of Dr. Stanger.

After again serving two years afloat, he was sent on a special mission to the Cape de Verde Islands to inquire into the origin of the yellow fever, which attacked the inhabitants of Boa Vista soon after the arrival of the unfortunate Eclair. On his return to England his elaborate report, which clearly proved that the fever had been imported into Boa Vista by the Eclair, was presented to parliament, and printed in 1847. His claims for promotion were again overlooked by the admiralty, but in 1847 he was appointed medical officer to the custom house, which post he retained till his death. In 1848 he was elected F.R.S., in 1858 he became C.B., and in 1859 F.R.C.P. of London. He was an active member of the Epidemiological Society, and for several years acted as secretary. He was also one of the secretaries to the medical section of the International Statistical Congress held in London in 1860. It was greatly owing to his exertions that the naval medical officers obtained the official recognition of their rights, and in 1858 they presented him with a service of plate. He was genial and courteous, but also resolute and conscientious. He died, 4 May 1862, from the effects of a fall downstairs in his own house, No. 14 Trinity Square, Tower Hill. He left a widow and several children in straitened circumstances. His writings, besides those already noticed and contributions to medical and other journals, are:

  1. 'Remarks on Dr. Gilbert King's Report on the Fever at Boa Vista,' 1848.
  2. 'Exposition of the Case of the Assistant-Surgeons of the Royal Navy,' 3rd edit. 1850.
  3. 'Further Observations on that portion of Second Report on Quarantine by General Board of Health which relates to Yellow Fever Epidemic on board H.M.S. Eclair, and at Boa Vista,' 1852.
  4. 'On the Health of Merchant Seamen' (reprinted from 'Transactions of Social Science Association,' 1862).

[Brit. and For. Med. Rev. vol. xvi. 1843; Med.-Chir. Rev. vol. xxxix. 1843; Edinb. Med. and Surg. Journ. vol. lxiii. 1845; London Med. Direct. 1862; Lancet, 1862, i. 601, 672; Med. Times and Gaz. 1862, i. 276, 485, 504, 520; Brit Med. Journ. 1862, i. 497; Brit, and For. Med.-Chir. Rev. 1862, xxx. 556.]

W. A. G.