Bowman, William

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Bowman, William

(b. Nantwich, England, 20 July 1816; d. Dorking, England, 29 March 1892)


William Bowman was the third son and fourth child of John Eddowes Bowman and Elizabeth Eddowes, who were first cousins. The father, a banker by profession and a naturalist by inclination, was a founding member of the Manchester Geological Society, a member of the Linnean and Geological societies, and the author of works on geology and botany. He carried on an active correspondence with many notable scientists, including Louis Agassiz, Thomas Bewick, and Sir Charles Lyell, who noted his observations on certain coal seams.

They were a closely knit family of Dissenter beliefs. The letters of John Bowman to his son at all stages of his career show a kindly yet admonitory attitude that obviously had a great deal of influence on the formation of the young man’s character. One is reminded of the similar background and relationship between father and son in the case of Bowman’s near contemporary Joseph Lister.

In 1826 Bowman was sent to Hazelwood School in Birmingham, whose headmaster, the eccentric but conscientious Thomas Wright Hill, was a friend of his father. Hill’s son Rowland, founder of the penny post, also taught in the school. Bowman was apprenticed in 1832 to W. A. Betts, house surgeon to the Birmingham Infirmary; continuing in the habit of placing himself under distinguished teachers, he worked at the same time under the aegis of a well-known Birmingham surgeon, Joseph Hodgson, who in 1864 was the first provincial surgeon to become president of the Royal College of Surgeons.

In Bowman’s day, membership of this college, which was his aim, required a period of attendance at a London teaching hospital. Therefore, in 1837 he went to the recently founded medical department of King’s College, London, where the professor of anatomy was Richard Partridge, previously a pupil of Hodgson at Birmingham. An even more important colleague was the professor of physiology, the brilliant teacher Richard Bentley Todd, to whom Bowman became prosector in 1838. In the same year Bowman undertook a European hospital tour, acting as mentor to Francis Galton, later renowned as the founder of eugenics.

Bowman was appointed assistant surgeon to King’s College Hospital, London, in 1840, and sixteen years later he became surgeon to the hospital, resigning this position shortly afterward because of the claims of an expanding private practice. In 1842 he married Harriet Paget, daughter of a Leicester surgeon (but not connected with the famous surgeon Sir James Paget).

Professionally, Bowman’s work fell into two periods. In the years before his marriage, his tological researches brought him fellowship of the Royal Society in 1841, and its Royal Medal the following year. Subsequently he turned to surgery, and in particular to ophthalmic surgery, to which his contributions were fundamental and lasting. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1844 and was made a baronet by Queen Victoria in 1884.

Bowman’s physiological interest was initiated by Hodgson and was developed by Todd. He assisted the latter with his Cyclopaedia of Anatomy and Physiology (1836–1852), for which he wrote the articles “Mucous Membranes,” “Muscle,” “Muscular Motion,” and “Pacinian Bodies.” Their Physiological Anatomy and Physiology of Man (1843–1856) is an important landmark. The two works provided a new approach to the teaching of medicine and gave Bowman the opportunity, hitherto unknown, to make the most minute investigations into histological anatomy. These researches were necessary because they had not been done before, and were made possible by recent developments in microscope and lens manufacture. Bowman’s compound microscope, made by Powell and presented to him before he left Birmingham, may still be seen at King’s College Hospital. Although he was still only in his twenties, all Bowman’s previous training seems to have combined to fit him for this work, and for several years his accurate eye and descriptive pen (not to mention his artistic pencil) produced masterly accounts of histology. New and detailed descriptions were made of skin, muscle, nerves, sense organs, kidney, bone, and cartilage.

Sir Arthur Keith stated that he knew no parallel to this feat of Bowman’s in making so enormous a series of new discoveries while producing material for a book. Henry Power wrote that the Physiological Anatomy constituted “… an epoch in physiology. It was the first physiological work in which histology—the accurate description of the structure of the various organs and tissues as displayed by the microscope—was given” (Collected Papers, I, xvi). Most of the sections and woodcuts were made by Bowman himself, and Power states that his hand was so steady that many of his drawings were made directly on the wood. his tological studies appear the more remarkable when we consider the primitive techniques of teasing and maceration available to him. In these early days, staining of microscopic sections was unknown, but Bowman made use of new methods of injection, such as that introduced by Doyère a short time before, in which successive injections of potassium bichromate and lead acetate were made into an organ, the resulting precipitate indicating the disposition of the vessels.

On 18 June 1840 the paper “On the Minute Structure and Movement of Voluntary Muscle” was communicated to the Royal Society by Todd. It resulted in Bowman’s election to fellowship at the age of twenty-five.

Bowman’s meticulous approach is nowhere better shown than in a table giving measurements of the diameters of muscle fasciculi in forty-four animals, including man, both male and female. Among the more important observations in this paper are his minute descriptions of the transverse and longitudinal striae of voluntary muscle and the first complete description of the fascicular tunic, to which he gave the name sarcolemma (although he generously yielded priority to Schwann’s contemporaneous description). Little was added to Bowman’s descriptions of muscle fibrils until the advent of the electron microscope. Even more important to physiology is Bowman’s insistence that the form of a structure is subservient to its function. This may be best exemplified in his paper “The Malpighian Corpuscles of the Kidney,” read to the Royal Society on 17 February 1842. Using Doyère’s injection technique, Bowman demonstrated that the capsule surrounding the Malpighian capillary mass is continuous with the basement membrane of the uriniferous tubule. This capsule now bears his name—Bowman’s capsule. Arguing from the minute anatomy of the parts, Bowman proposed his theory of secretion, the main tenet of which was the elimination of water and salts in the glomeruli:

The peculiar arrangement of the vessels in the Malpighian tufts is clearly designed to produce a retardation in the flow of the blood through them. And the insertion of the tuft into the extremity of the tube, is a plain indication that this delay is subservient in a direct manner to some part of the secretive process [Collected Papers, I, 77].

The importance of this paper lies not only in its content but also in the way in which the anatomical features are related to the physiological functions they perform. Such a concept, although not entirely new, had a deep influence on contemporary thinking and teaching.

With the completion of these studies, Bowman passed to the surgical phase of his career. Here his chief interest lay in ophthalmology, and in 1846 he was appointed assistant surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital, then known as the Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital. He brought to ophthalmology the same qualities of precision and investigation that had characterized his physiological work; indeed, his many contributions to the anatomy, physiology, and surgery of the eye were often related to his previous studies.

In histology, he described the cornea, including its anterior elastic membrane, Bowman’s membrane, and the radial fibers of the ciliary muscle, Bowman’s muscle. “Bowman’s tubes” is the name given to certain tubular appearances between the corneal lamellae, which he produced artificially by injection of mercury.

In surgery Bowman wrote of a method of operating for artificial pupil in cases of corneal opacity or closure of the pupil due to adhesion of the iris. This is known as “Bowman’s operation,” and his instruments for probing the obstructed lacrymal ducts are called “Bowman’s probes.” In May 1857 he was the first in England to perform Albrecht von Graefe’s iridectomy for glaucoma, and he was early in recognizing the value of Helmholtz’ ophthalmoscope (1851).

Many of Bowman’s surgical procedures have now been superseded, although his lacrymal probes are still in daily use; but most of his anatomical observations have been confirmed. More important was the impetus he gave to the study and understanding of eye disease.

Bowman was never elected to high office in the Royal College of Surgeons, but he was a well-liked teacher, lucid and earnest, and was greatly concerned with the well-being of King’s College Hospital. He assisted in founding St. John’s Sisterhood of Nursing, and corresponded for years with such eminent people as Florence Nightingale, Charles Darwin, Graefe, and Donders, of whom he wrote a biographical obituary note. The universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Dublin conferred honorary degrees upon him, and he was founder-president in 1880 of the Ophthalmological Society. A few years later the Society instituted an annual lecture, the Bowman lecture, which still honors distinguished ophthalmologists. To his patients Bowman was attentive and gentle, and one described his touch as “the lightest and most enquiring.”

Few men have contributed so greatly to medicine in general, for Sir William Bowman appears as a towering nineteenth-century figure, as father both of histological anatomy and of ophthalmology in England.


I. Original Works. Among Bowman’s writings are “Mucous Membranes,” “Muscle,” “Muscular Motion,” and “Pacinian Bodies,” in R. B. Todd, ed., Cyclopaedia of Anatomy and Physiology, 5 vols. (London, 1836–1852; supp., 1859); The Physiological Anatomy and Physiology of Man, 2 vols. in 4 pts. (London, 1843–1856), written with R. B. Todd; and “Frans Cornelius Donders, 1819–1889. In Memoriam,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 49 (1891), vii–xxiv. Many of his works are brought together in The Collected Papers of Sir William Bowman, Bart., F.R.S. Edited for the Committee of the Bowman Testimonial Fund, J. Burdon-Sanderson and J. W. Hulke, eds., 2 vols. (London, 1893), including plates, portraits, and references to original sources.

The letters from his father, and many MSS relating to the family, particularly to William Bowman, are in the possession of his great-grandson, Sir John Bowman, Newbury, Berkshire.

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Bowman are K. B. Thomas, “The Manuscripts of Sir William Bowman,” in Medical History, 10 (1966), 245–256; and an obituary notice in British Medical Journal (1892), 1 , 742–745, with portrait and references to original sources.

K. Bryn Thomas