The Times/1923/Obituary/William Thorburn
A Great Surgeon
Death of Sir W. Thorburn
British surgery, and the surgery of the spine in particular. lose one of their finest modern exponents by the death, which occurred yesterday, at the age of 61, at his residence in York Gate, Regent's Park, of Sir William Thorburn, K.B.E., C.B., C.M.G., F.R.C.S., Emeritus Professor of Clinical Surgery at the University of Manchester.
The son of Dr. John Thorburn, Professor of Obstetric Medicine at Owens College, William Thorburn was born on April 7, 1861, received his medical education at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, and afterwards attended the practice of various hospitals in London. He took the degrees of B.Sc. and M.D. at the University of London with distinction, for he obtained the gold medals and was awarded a scholarship.
In 1886 he was elected F.R.C.S. Eng., and he then settled in Manchester and was appointed assistant surgeon to the Royal Infirmary. Here he quickly made a reputation for the treatment of those injuries of the spine which are unfortunately frequent in the great manufacturing towns of the North, where machinery is largely used. The subject had received little attention except in connexion with railway accidents, but Thorburn made such good use of his opportunities that in 1890 he gained the Jacksonian Prize for a masterly essay on "The Nature and Treatment of Injuries to the Spinal Column and the consequences arising thereform." Four years later he delivered a course of lectures on these injuries as Hunterian Professor of Pathology and Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, the lectures being afterwards printed. It was evident that he had made the subject his own, and from this time onwards he was universally regarded as the leading exponent of this branch of surgery. He chose it as the subject of his Bradshaw Lecture in December, 1922, when he summed up rather despondingly the results of his experience of nearly half a century. But his practice was not confined the surgery of the spine, and is pleasing manners, sound knowledge, and strong common sense soon procured him many patients.
In Manchester, Thorburn filled most of the positions of honour in scientific medicine, and he was appointed D.L. for the County of Lancaster; in 1913 he was one of the honorary secretaries of the Section of Surgery at the thirteenth International Congress of Medicine when it met in London. The outbreak of the war found him already holding the rank of lieutenant in the R.A.M.C., Territorial Force, and he was at once placed in command of the 2nd Western General Hospital. The war having taken from him his three sons, he was appointed consulting surgeon with the temporary rank of Colonel A.M.S., at Malta, Gallipoli, and Salonika, and in 1917 he filled a similar position in France. For his services he was awarded a C.B. in 1916, and a C.M.G. and a military K.B.E. in 1919, while during his stay at Malta he was given the honorary degree of M.D. by the University of Malta.
From 1913 to 1923 he was a member of the Court of Examiners at the Royal College of Surgeons and he also served as an examiner in surgery at the University of London. In 1914 he was elected a member of the Council of the College of Surgeons, a position he still held at the time of his death. He married Augusta, daughter of W. E. Melland. Lady Thorburn died in the autumn of 1922, leaving three daughters.
Gentle in character, scientific in mind, a persuasive speaker of formed opinions, and absolutely honest, Thorburn exercise much quiet influence wherever he went. Broken in health and in spirits by the events of the war, he retired from active work in Manchester, and had hardly settled to a life of leisure in London when the death of his wife further saddened him, and, though he struggled bravely to continue his work, his friends saw with regret his gradual loss of strength and energy.