Lawrence, Willam

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Lawrence, Willam

(b Cirencester, Gloucester-shire, England, 16 July 1783;d London, England, 5 July 1867)

anatomy, physiology, surgery.

The son of William Lawrence, chief surgeon of Cirencester, and Judith Wood, Sir William Lawrence was a distinguished and gifted surgeon who was active at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London for sixty-five years. His honors were numerous. In addition to serving as president of the Royal College of Surgeons for two terms (1846, 1855), he was also president of the Medical and Chirurgical Society of London (1831), surgeon extraordinary, and then sergeant-surgeon to Queen Victoria (1858). On 30 April 1867 a baronetcy was conferred upon him.

Lawrence was educated in a private school in his home town until 1799, when he was apprenticed to Dr. John Abernethy, assistant surgeon at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and one of the most popular medical teachers of his day. Only two years later, Lawrence was appointed Abernethy’s demonstrator in anatomy, a post which he held for twelve years. Despite his youth, he soon acquired a reputation as an excellent teacher of anatomy and earned his diploma from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1805. He was elected assistant surgeon at St. Bartholomew’s and fellow of the Royal Society in 1813. From 1814 to 1826 he was surgeon to the London Infirmary for Curing Diseases of the Eye (later the London Ophthalmic Infirmary and then the Royal Ophthalmic Hospital). He was appointed surgeon to the Royal Hospitals of Bridewell and Bethlehem in 1815 and was surgeon to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital from 1824 to 1865.

After his nomination as professor of anatomy and surgery in 1815 by the Royal College of Surgeons, Lawrence delivered lectures to that body (1816-1818) on comparative anatomy, physiology, and the natural history of man. In 1829 he succeeded Abernethy at St. Bartholomew’s as lecturer on surgery, a position he held until 1862. Although he had opposed the administration of the College of Surgeons, Lawrence was elected over two senior members to their council (1828) and later to the position of examiner (1840-1867), and was Hunterian orator in 1834 and 1846. His extensive private medical practice and lecturing at a private school of medicine on Aldersgate Street until 1829 were additional requirements on his time. He published many articles, particularly in Lancet, Medical Gazette, and Transactions of the Medical and Chirurgical Society. His Lectures on Surgery Delivered in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital was published in 1863; unfortunately, by then his techniques had been superseded and the lectures obviously were out of date.

The earliest recognition of Lawrence’s abilities occurred in 1806 when the College of Surgeons awarded him the Jacksonian Prize for his essay on ruptures. Published the following year as A Treatise on Hernia, the work became a standard reference and appeared in French (1818) and Italian (1820) translations. Dedicated to Abernethy, it is an excellent example of lucid exposition and through mastery of the subject.

Lawrence was one of the most distinguished English eye surgeons of his day. His private practice and his experiences as surgeon to the London Ophthalmic Infirmary laid the foundations for his Treatise on the Venereal Diseases of the Eye (1830). His lengthy Treatise on the Diseases of the Eye (1833) is an expanded version of his lectures on anatomy, physiology, and diseases of the eye delivered before the London Ophthalmic Infirmary and displays his outstanding abilities as an observer of diseases and as a practicing pathologist.

Although the Greeks had observed diseases of the eye and Celsus had summarized all examples known to his time, ophthalmology was largely in the hands of quacks and charlatans from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. With the establishment of the Vienna school of ophthalmology in the latter half of the eighteenth century, the discipline entered its modern phase. In 1805 the London Ophthalmic Infirmary was established, and in 1810 students were admitted for observation and instruction. Lawrence was, therefore, one of its pioneering surgeons and produced one of the earliest reliable treatises in English on ophthalmology, “the equal of any work on the subject that appeared for many years.”

Of a much more controversial nature were Lawrence’s lectures presented before the Royal College of Surgeons from 1816 through 1818. In 1814, immediately preceding his presentation, Abernethy had delivered a series of anatomical lectures before that august body. The first two lectures, discussing his interpretation of John Hunter’s views on life, were published in the same year. Reviewers were critical of Abernethy’s somewhat obscure efforts, and Lawrence himself used his appointment to the college as a platform to criticize severely Hunter’s vitalism as expounded by Abernethy. Dedicated to Blumenbach, whose Short History of Comparative Anatomy he had translated in 1807, Lawrence’s Lectures on Physiology drew upon the works of various Continental authors, especially French, to expound his belief that the laws of physics and chemistry apply to organic nature. Nevertheless, physiological phenomena involve exceedingly complex systems; “We cannot expect to discover the true relations of things, until we rise high enough to survey the whole field of science, to observe the connexions of the various parts and their mutual influence.” To compare the vital principle to magnetism, electricity, or galvanism, however, was unacceptable; extreme reductionism overlooked the complexities of the situation. Lawrence preferred a balanced view of life, encompassing as much scientific data as possible. Nevertheless, his belief that all mental activity was a function of the brain—not of an immortal, immaterial soul—cut to the heart of the theological establishment, which considered his “materialism” tantamount to atheism because he denied that the human soul existed beyond the body.

Lawrence’s lectures, especially those published in 1819, generated severe criticism from Abernethy, theologians, physiologists, and his senior colleagues at the college. Although insisting he would not be silenced, he was compelled to withdraw his book within a month of its release by the threat of losing his position as surgeon at the Bridewell and Bethlehem hospitals. One contemporary observed, however, that Lawrence was not sincerely anxious for the matter to be dropped, for the book was still available from the publisher, “though at an advanced price.” Indeed, the book went through ten subsequent editions (essentially printings), one of which was a pirated edition that James Smith brought out in 1822. Lawrence’s attempt to prevent publication failed when Lord Eldon ruled in Chancery Court that parts of the work seemed to be “directed against the truth of the Scripture” and therefore could not be copyrighted. That various editions ware subsequently printed suggests that Lawrence secretly urged their publication or was disinclined to go to court over the matter. It is clear, however, that his earlier suppression of his book was unrelated to the Chancery Court case.

While Lawrence has been described as an English medical evolutionist—another forerunner of Darwin—he maintained that man is “separated by a broad and clearly defined interval from all other animals,” even the great apes. Although the evolutionist A. R. Wallace alluded to him with approbation in 1845, Lawrence had referred only to human variation which could explain the existence of different races of man: “The diversities of physical and moral endowment which characterize the various race of man, must be analogous in their nature, causes, and origin, to those which are observed in the rest of animal creation; and must therefore be explained on the same principles” (Lectures on physiology[1822], p. 233). The different race of man had arisen through the ordinary process of variation observed in animals. Lawrence was no more an evolutionist, however, than many other English scientists like Blyth, Prichard, or Lyell, who also made highly suggestive remarks but failed to conclude that species evolve as well as vary. Lawrence’s perceptive observations on inheritance do not make him a legitimate precursor of Darwin and Wallace.

Although an excellent lecturer and surgeon, and an outstanding member of the English medical community, Lawrence was not a creative thinker. In many ways his ideas were conservative. Had his Lectures on Physiology (1819) been published in France, instead of England, they would not have created the stir they did. We may conclude that his reputation did not rest on a single brilliant discovery, but rather on a lifetime of distinguished work in many areas of medicine and biology.


I. Original Works. In addition to works cited in the text, Lawrence published An Introduction to Comparative Anatomy and Physiology; Being the Two Introductory Lectures Delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons on the 21st and 25th of March,1816); Lecture on physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man, Delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons (London, 1816); and the Natural History of Man, Delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons (London, 1819); and The Hunterian Oration Delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons (London, 1834); also his later lecture (London, 1846).

II. Secondary Literature. On Lawrence’s life, see W. R. LeFanu, “Past Presidents: Sir William Lawrence, Bart.,” in Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England,25 (1959), 201-202; “W. S. Savory”, “Sir William Lawrence, Bart.,”in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Reports, 4 (1868), 1-18; and Norman Moore, The History of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, II (London, 1918), pp. 660-663.

For his work on ophthalmology see Burton Chance, “Sir William Lawrence in Relation to Medical Education with Special Reference to Ophthalmology in the Early Part of the Nineteenth (1926),270-279., 8 (1926),270-279.

On physiology see June Goodfield-Toulmin, “Blasphemy and Biology,” in Rockefeller University Review, 4 (1966), 9-18; and “Some Aspects of English Physiology: 1780-1840,” in Journal of the History of Biology, 2 (1969), 283-320: and Owsei Temkin, “Basic Science, Medicine, and the Romantic Era,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 37 (1963), 97-129.

For anthropology see C. D. Darlington, Darwin’s Place in History (Oxford, 1959), pp.19-24, 100-101; Peter G. Mudford, “William Lawrence and The Natural History of Man,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, 29 (1968), 430-436; and Kentwood D. Wells, “Sir William Lawrence (1783-1867), A Study of Pre-Darwinian Ideas on Heredity and Variation,”in Journal of the History of Biology, 4 (1971), 319-361.

H. Lewis Mckinney

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Lawrence, Willam

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