Willan, Robert

, a learned physician, was born November 12, 1757, at the Hill, near Sedbergh in Yorkshire, where his father resided, in the enjoyment of extensive medical reputation and practice.*


Dr. Robert Willan, senior, graduated at Edinburgh in 1545, and published an inaugural thesis, “De Willan, Qualitatibus Aeris.” The Hill is now the residence of his eldest son, Richard esq.

He was educated in the principles of the Quakers, and received his scholastic tuition exclusively at Sedbergh, at the grammar-school of that place, under the care of the reverend Dr. Bateman, and the celebrated Mr. Dawson. The medical profession had long been determined upon as the object of his future pursuit, and he commenced his studies, in that science at Edinburgh, in the autumn of 1777. After the usual residence of three years in that university, he received the degree of doctor in 1780, when he published an inaugural dissertation, “De Jecinoris Inflammatione.

In the autumn of the same year, he repaired to the metropolis with the view of obtaining farther medical information, and attended lectures with great assiduity. An arrangement had been made some time previously with Dr. Trotter, a relative, and a physician of some eminence at Darlington, in the county of Durham, but advanced in life, in consequence of which he intended to decline practice in that place, in favour of his young friend, as soon as he had completed his studies. When in London, Dr. Willan was introduced to Dr. Fothergill, who, from a just estimate of his talents and acquirements, recommended him to try his fortune in the metropolis, and offered him his assistance. Dr. Fothergill, however, died in the month of December, in that year; and in the commencement of the following year, 1781, the death of Dr. Trotter also occurred; upon which Dr. Willan immediateJy went feo Darlington, where he remained about a year; during which period be analyzed the sulphureous water at Croft, a village about four miles from that place, and wrote a small treatise respecting its chemical and medicinal qualities, containing also a comparison of its properties with those of the Harrogate waters. This tract was published in 1782, with the title of “Observations on the Sulphur water at Croft, near Darlington:” and a second edition was printed a few years afterwards.

In the beginning of 1782, not succeeding in practice at Darlington, Dr. Willan determined to return to London, | where the Public Dispensary, in Carey-street, being opened in the commencement of 1783, chiefly accomplished by the exertions of some of his friends, he was appointed sole physician to it; and under his humane and active superintendence, together with that of his able and benevolent colleague, Mr. John Pearson, the surgeon to the institution, the new Dispensary speedily flourished, and became one of the most extensive and respectable establishments of its kind in London. In March 1785, having passed his examinations before the College of Physicians with great credit, he was admitted a licentiate of that body; on which occasion he addressed some congratulatory Greek verses to the board of censors.

About 1786 he engaged in the office of teacher, and delivered lectures on the principles and practice of medicine at the Public Dispensary. But his success, we believe, in this undertaking, was inconsiderable. At a subsequent period he received, as pupils at the Dispensary, young physicians who had recently graduated, and who were initiated into actual practice, under his superintendence, among the patients of the institution; a mode of tuition from which they derived much practical knowledge, and were gradually habituated to the responsibility of their professional duties. Upwards of forty physicians, almost all of whom have subsequently attained professional reputation, or now occupy responsible situations, both in this country and abroad, have received the benefit of this instruction.

From the moment when Dr. Willan settled in London, he pursued his professional avocations with an indefatigable industry and attention, of which there are, perhaps, few examples. He never quitted the metropolis for any consideration of health or pleasure, during a period of thirty years. For many years he conducted the medical department of two dispensaries, (having subsequently been favoured with an appointment to the Finsbury Dispensary, in addition to that of Carey-street), during which his unremitting attention to the progress of the diseases which came under his care, is evinced by the prodigious collection of cases, which he has recorded in ms. mostly in a neat Latin style, in which he wrote with great fluency. During the whole of his career, he was not less assiduously employed in examining the records of medicine, both ancient and modern, than in the actual observation of | diseases; of which the learning and critical acumen displayed in his publications, as well as the mass of manuscript coU lections which he has left behind, afford abundant proof. His habits of domestic privacy enabled him to dedicate a large portion of time to these researches; and indeed to the unabating ardour with which he applied himself to them, must be attributed that premature injury of his health, which shortened the period of his life.

Dr. Willan’s advance to public reputation, and to the consequent emoluments of the profession, was regularly progressive, though slow; and his publications, especially his treatise on the diseases of the skin, upon which his posthumous reputation will principally rest, finally placed his professional character upon high ground. In the spring of 1791, he had the honour of being chosen a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. He had been early attached to antiquarian researches, and in his juvenile days had, with considerable industry and accuracy, collected from the Odyssey a history of the manners of the primeval times of Greece. Latterly he communicated some papers to this society, of which, however, he declined the honour of publication; particularly, a collection of provincial words, and an elaborate essay on the practice of “Lustration by Need-fire,” (scarcely extinct in some of the northern counties,) which led him into a curious and extensive research, respecting similar practices in ancient times, and the mythological superstitions connected with them. It was not until the month of February 1809, that he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

The increase of his professional avocations, which had compelled him some time before to resign his office in the Finsbury Dispensary, led him, in 1800, to wish to lessen the fatigue of his duties at the Public Dispensary; and accordingly his friend and pupil, t)r. T. A. Murray, wa appointed his colleague in that year. This active and intelligent physician, through whose exertions, aided by the society for bettering the condition of the poor, the Fever institution of the metropolis was established, was unfortunately cut off in February 1802, by the contagion of fever, caught in the infected apartments of the first patients who were admitted into the institution. Dr. Willan, who had strenuously recommended this establishment, wat nominated one of its physicians extraordinary. In December 1803, finding his private practice incompatible with a | proper attention to the concerns of the Dispensary, which he had now superintended for the space of nearly twenty-­one years, he resigned his office. The governors of the charity, in testimony of their gratitude for his services and esteem for his character, nominated him consulting physician, and made him a governor for life, and likewise presented him with a piece of plate, of the value of fifty guineas, inscribed with a testimonial of their attachment and respect .*


This inscription was written by the late learned, and reverend Dr. Matthew Raine, one of the governors of the Dispensary, and was as follows, “Viro integerrimo, artis scientiaeque suae peritissitno, Roberto Willan, M. D. b fclicissimatn operam, in morbis egenorum civium sanandis, viginti annos atnplius gratuito et strenue navatarn, aegrotantum apud Londinenses pauperum Patroni, aroico amici, L. L. D. D. D. A. D. 1804, Preside Comite Sandvicense, collate pecuniae Custode Gulielmo Waddington.

For several years previous to his resignation, Dr. Willan’s fame and character had been fully established, and the emoluments derived from his practice very ample. He had during the preceding course of years, resided successively in Ely-place, Holborn, and in Red Lion-square, in connection with the family before-mentioned; and lastly, on his marriage in the spring of 1801, he settled in Bloomsbury-square. He was now not only generally consulted, especially by persons labouring under cutaneous diseases, but was also deferred to on all occasions by his professional brethren, as the ultimate appeal on these subjects: for, however generally skilled in every other department of medical practice, his reputation for peculiar knowledge on this point had certainly excluded him, in some measure, from that universal occupation in his profession, to which he was so well entitled.

From his childhood Dr. Willan had been of a delicate constitution; his complexion in early life being pale and feminine, and his form slender. His extremely regular and temperate mode of life, however, had procured him an uninterrupted share of moderate health, and latterly even a certain degree of corpulency of person, though without the appearance of robust strength. In the Winter of 1810, some of his friends had remarked a slight shrinking of bulk and change in his complexion; but it was not till the following spring that symptoms of actual disease manifested themselves, and increased rapidly. With a view to obtain some respite from professional fatigue, as well as the advantage of a better air, he took a house in | June 1811 at Craven-hill, about a mile from town, on the Ux bridge- road, where he spent his time, with the exception of two or three hours in the middle of the day, when he went to Bloomsbury-square, to receive the patients who came thither to consult him; but the probability of becoming phthisical, under the influence of an English winter, induced him to accede to the strenuous recommendation of some of his friends, and to undertake a voyage to Madeira. He accordingly embarked on the 10th of October, and arrived at Madeira on the 1st of December. By perseverance in an active course of medicine, after his arrival at Funchall, all his bad symptoms were considerably alleviated; insomuch that, in the month of February, he meditated a return to the south of England in April, But this alleviation was only temporary: his disease was again aggravated; the dropsy, and its concomitant obstruction to the functions, increased; and with his faculties remaining entire to the last, he expired on April 7, 1812, in the fifty-fifth year of his age.

By the death of Dr. Willan the profession was deprived of one of its bright ornaments, and of its zealous and able improvers; the sick, of a humane, disinterested, and discerning physician; and the world of an estimable and upright man, while in all the relations of domestic life, indeed, he was an object of general esteem and attachment.

As a professional writer, Dr. Willan appeared early, in his contributions to the periodical works. On his arrival in London, he became a member of a private medical society, which held its meetings at a coffee-house, in Cecilstreet, and which published two volumes of papers, under the title of “Medical Communications,” in 1784 and 1790. In the second of these volumes he published the history of “A remarkable case of Abstinence,” in a hypochondriacal young man, which was uninterrupted for the space of sixty-one days, and terminated fatally. We believe that this was the only medical society of which he was ever a member. Several communications from him were also printed in the London MedicalJournal, edited between the years 1781 and 1790 by Dr. Simmons. In the fourth volume, p. 421, a short letter of his appears, stating the character of a non-descript Byssus, found in the sulphureous waters of Aix; and in the sixth volume of the same Journal, he relates a fatal case of obstruction in the bowels, | to which last he appended some useful reflections on the diagnostic symptoms of these obstructions, as occurring in the large or in the small intestines. He has also some communications in the seventh and eighth volumes. After the publication of the eleventh volume of this Journal, Dr. Simmons commenced a new series, under the title of “Medical Facts and Observations” in the third volume of which a paper of Dr. Willan’s appeared, containing a description of several cases of iscuria renalis in children.

In the year 1796, Dr. Willan commenced a series of monthly reports, after the manner of those which Dr. Fothergill had formerly given to the publick ,*


In the Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. XX. et seq.

containing a brief accouut of the state of the weather, and of the prevalent diseases in the metropolis. These reports were published in the “Monthly Magazine,” and were continued to 1800, when he collected them into a small volume, and published them in 1801, under the title of “Reports on the Diseases in London.” This little work is pregnant with important and original medical observations; but, from its unassuming pretensions, and desultory arrangement, has not been sufficiently known and valued by the profession.

We are unacquainted with the circumstances which originally drew the attention of Dr. Willan to the subject of cutaneous diseases; but he was led so early as 1784 and 1785, to attend to the elementary forms of eruptions, if we may so speak, upon which he saw that a definite nomenclature could alone be founded, and upon which he erected the ingenious system developed in his large work. At that period, in his notes of cases, he has seldom designated eruptions by their ordinary names; but speaks of papulae scorbuticae, eruptio papulosa, &c. In 1786, his notes exhibit still more decisive proofs of the careful attention which he was directing to this subject, in the minute descriptions (accompanied by slight sketches with the pen), of the forms, magnitude, and progress of eruptions. The zeal with which he was at the same time investigating the original acceptation of the Greek, Roman, and Arabian terms, applied to eruptive diseases, is likewise manifested by his copious collections from authors, and by the occasional alterations of the nomenclature, applied in the | cases, before he had finally determined on his arrangement. This was probably decided about 1789; as in the following year his classification was laid before the Medical Society of London, and honoured by the assignment of the Fothergillian gold medal of that year to the author.

It was not till the beginning of 1798, that the first part of this work, including the papulous eruptions, was published, in which, as in the subsequent parts, each variety was represented by a coloured engraving. In 1801 the second part, including the scaly diseases of the skin, appeared; in 1805 the third part, comprising only two genera of rashes, viz. measles and scarlet-fever; and in 1808 the fourth part, comprehending the remainder of the rashes, and the bullas, or large vesications; the whole containing thirty-three plates, and comprising about half of the classification. Four orders, characterized by the appearance of pustules,vesicles, tubercles, and spots, remain unpublished. In the interim, however, from the temporary interest which the investigation of the vaccine question excited, Dr. WiHan was induced so far to anticipate the order of vesicles, as to publish in 1806 a treatise “On Vaccination;” in which he also introduced the subject of chickenpox (another vesicular disease) in consequence of the mistakes which had been committed, in supposing that this was small-pox, when it occurred after vaccination.

In addition to the writings above mentioned, which have been committed to the press, Dr. Willan had left some others in an unfinished state. During three or four years previous to his death he had employed his leisure in a most extensive investigation of the antiquities of medicine, if we may so express ourselves, which he had conducted with his usual felicity of execution. His principal object was the illustration of four subjects, which are enveloped in no small degree of obscurity; namely, 1. The nature and origin of the epidemic or endemic ignis sacer, which was a frequent cause of much mortality in ancient times, and in the middle ages, and has been confounded with the plague, to which it had no resemblance but in its fatality; 2. The evidence of the prevalence of small-pox, measles, and scarlet fever, not only in the first ages of the Christian aera, but at still more ancient periods, of which he has brought together, with great ingenuity, a collection that appears incontrovertibly to establish the affirmative of the question: 3. The history of the leprosy of the middle | ages: and 4. That of the lues venerea. The dissertations relative to the two first mentioned topics, Dr. Willan had nearly completed, having re-modelled the second, by the aid of a friendly amanuensis, during his residence in Madeira. They contain a very able and original view of the state of disease in the early ages of the world, not founded upon any fanciful explanation of terms, but deduced from a sagacious developement of facts, which have hitherto been concealed under perplexed and mistaken, but sufficiently intelligible language. He has likewise supported the conclusions which he has drawn by evidence collected from sources not usually resorted to in such researches.

Several years ago, Dr. Willan made a collection of observations in about two thousand patients, with a view to an investigation of medical physiognomy, or temperaments, chiefly in regard to the diseases to which each variety of temperament is peculiarly predisposed, and to the operation of medicines on them respectively. In the prosecution of this inquiry he procured several drawings (portraits) illustrative of the characteristic marks of the more striking varieties. He arrived at some interesting inferences respecting both the physical and moral constitutions connected with these external characters, but he did not deem the matter sufficiently matured to lay before the public.

In conclusion, we must not omit to mention a juvenile work published by Dr. Willan, on a theological subject; namely, a “Life of Christ,” related in the words of the evangelists, of whose details he selected those parts respectively which were most full and explicit; and he illustrated the whole by critical notes and explanations, which were particularly full in regard to the diseases mentioned by those sacred writers. A second edition of this work, with additional illustrations, was published in 1802. 1


Abridged from the Life of Dr. Willan, in the “Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal,” No. 32; and obligingly communicated to us by the learned author, Dr. Bateman, of Bloomsbury-square.