Philip, Alexander Philips Wilson

views updated


(b. Shieldhall, Schotland, 15 October 1770; d. Boulogne, France, 1851 [?])

medicine, physiology.

Wilson Philip was christened Alexander Philips Wilson but in 1811 changed his name to Alexander Philips Wilson Philip; his writings that were published before 1807 bear the name of A.P.Wilson. He received his early education in Edinburgh and studied medicine, at the medical school of the University of Edinburgh, under William Gregory, Alexander Monro (Secundus), Joseph Black, and William Cullen; he graduated M.D. on 25 June 1792 with a thesis entitled“De dyspepsia,” After studying in London he returned to Edinburgh and was admitted a fellow of the Royal Collage of Physicians of Edinburgh on 3 February 1795. Probably for reasons of health, he left Edinburgh. In 1798 he was appointed physician to the Winchester County Hospital and in 1802 to the Worcester General Infirmary. On account of friction with local collegues, he resigned the latter position in 1818 and in 1820 went to London, where he soon became a leading physician.

Wilson Philip was made a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London on 22 December 1820, a fellow on 25 June 1834, and on 11 May 1826 a fellow of the Royal Society. Meantime he built up a large and lucrative practice, especially among the aristocracy who lived near his large home in fashionalbe Cavendish Square. About 1842 Wilson Philpretired from practice, and in 1843 or 1844 he moved to Boulogne, (it has been said, to avoid imprisonment for insolvency). Nothing is known of this episode, and although it appears that he died in France, the precise date of his death of his death is unknown. It has been suggested that W. M. Thackeray based his character Dr.Brand Firmin in The Adventures of Philip on Wilson, Philip, but McMenemy thinks this unlikely.

Wilson Philip was a man of great energy and diligence, and of kindliness toward his patients. Although he himself possessed a critical outlook, he was temperamentally unable to tolerate criticism from others. He was frequently involved in vitriolic polemics and violent arguments concerning his clinical and experimental work, but he eschewed medical politics. Although he wrote profusely, his literary style is a difficult and tedious one, he is often guilty of repetition and self-glorification.

In addition to a busy medical practice, Wilson Philip also undertook physiological research. Concerning clinical medicine he wrote on urinary gravel (1792), fevers (1799–1804, 1807), indigestion (1821, 1824), and on many other topics. From these works he may be seen to have been a critical and accurate observer of disease, but his reasoning—like that of many of his contemporaries—was based on unproven hypothneses and relics of the eighteenth-century systems of disease. No doubt his therapeutic advice, although mostly illfounded, was often valuble, but his many publications contributed little or nothing to the advancement of internal medicine as a sciecne. Nevertheless, his works were popular in their time, and the four-volume Treatise on Febrile Diseases (1799–1804), for example, went through four editions and was translated into German and French.

Wilson Philip investigated experimentally the action of opium (1795), mercury (1805) galvanism (1817), and Malvern waters (1805). His book on indigestion (1821), a condition that interested him throughout his career, was well received by the profession—unlike some of his later publications, including that On the More Obscure Diseases of the Brain (1835), which was described, according to McMenemy, as “the mixture as before” or a “shameless piece of self-exaltation”

In his early years Wilson Philip carried out important physiological research on the nervous system and capillary circulation, and today his reputation rests upon the results of his research. He was one of a small group of British physicians who contributed to the field of physiology, which at that time was dominated by the French and Germans. His book An Experimental Enquiry Into the Laws of the Vital Functions (1817) is especially important. In some famous experiments he showed that digestion ceased with section of the vagus nerve, that gastic secretion could be decreased by damage or removal of parts of the brain or spinal cord, and that movement of the gut could be independent of brain control. These results stimulated a great deal of further research.

Wilson Philip’s studies of nervous influence on the cardiovascualr system were equally significant. Albrecht von Haller maintained that the capillaries were unable to contract, but Wilson, Philip, along with others, refuted this conclusion and went on to demonstrate that cardiac acceleration and inhibition were producted that cardiac acceleration and inhibition were produced by stimulation of the nervous system. He also showed that although the heart and blood vessels act independently of the brain and spinal cord; as Haller and the French physiologist J.J.C.Legallois had maintained, they could be affected by drugs that acted on the nervous system, since they are centrally regularted (but not primarily centrally controlled). In his experiments Wilson Philip used the microscope to detect changes in the caliber of blood vessels. This marked a very early use of this instrument in physiological research in England.


I. Original Works. Pettigrew (1840, see below) lists many of Wilson Philip’s publications, including several in journals; and McMenemy (1958, see below) cites the important works.

Works published before 1807 appear under the style“A. P. Wilson,” these include An Inquiry Into the Remote Causes of Urinary Gravel (Edinburgh, 1792; German trans, 1795); An Experimental Essay on the Manner in Which Opium Acts on the Living Animal Body (Edinburgh, 1795); Treatise on Febrile Diseases, 4 vols. (Winchester, 1799–1804; 4th ed., London, 1820; German, trans., Leipzig, 1804–1812; and French trans., Paris, 1819); Observations on the Use and Abuse of Mercury (Winchester, 1805); An Analysis of the Malvern Waters (Worcester, 1805); and An Essay on the Nature of Fever (Worcester, 1807).

Works published after 1807 under the name “A. P. W. Philip,” or “A. P. Wilson Philip” are Treatise on Indigestion and Its Consequences (London, 1821; 7th ed., 1833; German trans., Leipzig, 1823; and Dutch trans., Amsterdam, 1823; 8th ed. as A Treatise on Protracted Indigestion and Its Consequences, etc. [London, 1842]). His most important work is An Experimental Inquiry Into the Laws of the Vital Functions (London, 1817; 2nd ed., 1818; 3rd. ed., 1826; and 4th ed., 1839; with German trans., Stuttgart, 1828; and Italian trans., in F. Tantini, Opuscali scientifici, II [Pisa, 1822]).

II. Secondary Literture. The best account of Wilson Philip and his work is by W. H. McMenemy, “Alexander Philips Wilson Philip (1770–1847), Physiologist and Physician,” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 13 (1958), 289–328, with portrait. McMenemy adds useful details to the official accounts, such as those of W. Munk, The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, III (London, 1878), 227–238; and J. F. Payne in Dictionary of National Biography, XV (London, 1921–1922), 1041–1042.

A contemporary assessment is that of T. J. Pettigrew, in Medical Portrait Gallery. Biographical Memoirs of the Most Celebrated Physicians, Surgeons, etc., III (London, 1840), 16, with portrait. Wilson Philip’s work in the context of the history of neurophysiology is discussed by M. Neuburger, in Die historische Entwicklung der experimentellen Gehirn- und Rückenmarksphysiologie vor Flourens (Stuttgart, 1897), 225, 251–255, 266–267, 270–271, 275. Extracts From an Experimental Inquiry (1817) is included in J. F. Fulton and L. G. Wilson, Selected Readings in the History of Physiology, 2nd ed. (Springfield, Ill., 1966), 82–85.

Edwin Clarke

About this article

Philip, Alexander Philips Wilson

Updated About content Print Article