William Saunders (1743-1817)

William Saunders (1743-1817).
(Courtesy of the Royal Society.)
William Saunders was born in Banff, Scotland, in 1743. The son of a physician and grandson of an apothecary, he studied medicine at Edinburgh University. His patron there was James Ogilvie, Earl of Findlater and Seafield, whose seat was Cullen House, near Banff. He completed his M.D. degree in 1765 and was licensed by the Royal College of Physicians in 1769 [or 1767?].

He established a large practice in London, where in 1769 he married Margaret Petrie. They had two children. Margaret died in 1777, and in 1781 he married Charity Ward, by whom he had four children. Charity died in 1799.

In 1770 he was elected Physician of Guy's Hospital, an appointment that made the hospital's embryonic medical school a reality. He lectured there for the next 32 years, each year giving three courses of four months each. His lectures on "Chemistry and Pharmacy" were particularly well attended. A student's notes of his lectures on physic are preserved in the archives of McGill University.

He wrote several books. His lectures on pharmacy were published in 1767 as Compendium Medicina Practium, in which he supported the views of Sir George Baker that "Devonshire Colic" was caused by lead used in the seals of wooden cider presses, a famous discovery in the early history of toxicology and epidemiology. In the Library of Congress there is an 1810 American edition of his A Treatise on the Structure, Economy, and Diseases of the Liver, Together with an Inquiry into the Properties and Component Parts of the Bile and Biliary Concretions. He also published books on mercury in 1768, antimony in 1773, mephitic acid (carbonic acid) in 1777, red Peruvian bark (the source of quinine) in 1782, and mineral waters in 1800.

His portrait was presented to the Royal College of Physicians by his son John James Saunders and can be seen there in Regents Park. He became a Fellow of the College in 1790. In 1792 he gave its Goulstonian lectures, on cirrhosis of the liver, which he was probably the first English physician to study. In 1796 he delivered the College's Harveian oration.

In 1793 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1805 he was chairman of a meeting that led to the formation of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society. He later became its first president.

In 1807 he was appointed Physician to the Prince Regent (later King George IV).

He retired in 1814 and went to live in Enfield, where he died in 1817. There is a memorial to him in the Enfield parish church.

He was a very kindly man to his pupils and to children and a staunch supporter of the Presbyterian Church.

His best known pupil was Sayer Walker, a Congregational minister whom he persuaded to take up medicine and apply it to the needs of his flock. Sayer Walker was afterwards well known in London as a specialist in the diseases of women and in nervous disorders.


Entry in the DNB

(From the Dictionary of National Biography.)

SAUNDERS, WILLIAM, M.D. (1743-1817), physician, son of James Saunders, M.D., was born in Banff in 1743. He was educated at the university of Edinburgh, where he graduated M.D. on 28 Oct. 1765, reading a thesis 'De Antimonio,' which he dedicated to his patron James, earl of Findlater and Seafield. He began practice in London, and was admitted a licentiate of the College of Physicians on 26 June 1769. He gave lectures on chemistry and pharmacy, which were largely attended, and of which he published a detailed syllabus in 1766; and on medicine, the scope of which is set forth in his 'Compendium Medicinæ practicum,' published in 1767 in English. In the same year and in 1768 he supported the views of Sir George Baker [q.v.] in 'A Letter to Dr. Baker on the Endemial Colic of Devonshire,' and 'An Answer to Geach and Alcock on the Endemial Colic of Devonshire.' On 6 May 1770 he was elected physician to Guy's Hospital, and soon after his election he began to lecture there on the theory and practice of medicine, delivering three courses of four months each during the year (Syllabus of Medical Lectures at Guy's Hospital, 1782). He was elected a fellow of the College of Physicians on 5 June 1790, and was a censor in 1791, 1798, 1805, and 1813. In 1792 he delivered the Gulstonian lectures, which he afterwards published as 'A Treatise on the Structure, Economy, and Diseases of the Liver.' He was probably the first English physician to observe that in some forms of cirrhosis, then called scirrhosity, the liver became enlarged and afterwards contracted (p. 281). A third edition appeared in 1803, and a fourth in 1809. He delivered the Harveian oration in 1796, in which he praises the recent discovery of the cause of the Devonshire colic by Sir George Baker. On 9 May 1793 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and attained a large practice as a physician. In 1807 he was appointed physician to the prince regent. Besides the books above mentioned, he published separate volumes on mercury (1768), antimony (1773), mephitic acid (1777), red Peruvian bark (1782), and mineral waters (1800). On 22 May 1805 he was chairman of a meeting which led to the formation of the existing Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society, and he was its first president. He resigned the office of physician to Guy's Hospital in 1802, and retired from practice in 1814. He died on 29 May 1817 at Enfield, is buried there, and has a monument, erected by his children, in the parish church. His portrait was presented to the College of Physicians by his son J.J. Saunders, and is preserved there. (cf. BROMLEY, Cat. Engr. Portraits).
[Works; Munk's Coll. of Phys. ii. 399; Wilks and Bettany's Biographical History of Guy's Hospital, 1892.]   N.M.

Entry in the Concise DNB

(From the Concise Dictionary of National Biography.)

Saunders, William (1743-1817), physician; M.D. Edinburgh, 1765; practiced in London; physician to Guy's Hospital, London, 1770-1802; F.R.C.P., 1790, and censor, 1791, 1798, 1805, and 1813; Gulstonian lecturer, 1792; Harveian orator, 1796; F.R.S., 1793; physician to George, prince regent, 1807; first president of Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society, 1805; published medical works. [l. 300]

Death Notice

(From Gentleman's Magazine, June 1817, p. 571.)

May 29. . . . At Enfield, aged 74, William Saunders, M.D. F.R.S. and F.S.A. Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Physician extraordinary to the Prince of Wales, and senior Physician to Guy's Hospital. This venerable practitioner published the following professional treatises: "Treatise on Mercury in Venereal Cases, 1767," 8vo. -- "An Answer to Geach and Alcock on the Devonshire Colic, 1768," 8vo. -- "Observationes de Antimonio, 1773," 8vo. -- A Treatise on the Red Peruvian Bark, 1782," 8vo. -- Treatise on the Mephitic Acid, 1779," 8vo. -- On the Structure, OEconomy, and Diseases, of the Liver, 1793;" 4th edit, 1809, 8vo. -- "Oratio Harveii, Instituto habita in Theatro Collegii Regalis Medicorum Londinensis, Oct. 19, 1796," 4to. 1797. -- "On the Chemical History and Medical Powers of some of the most celebrated Mineral Waters, with Practical Remarks on Aqueous Regimen; to which are added, Observations on the use of Cold and Warm Bathing, 1800," 2d. edit. 1806. -- "On the Hepatitis of India, 1809," 8vo.

Entry in Allibone's Dictionary of Authors

(From S. Austin Allibone, A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors, Philadelphia, 1872, republished Detroit, 1965, p. 1936.)

Saunders, William, M.D., 1743-1819, Senior Physician to Guy's Hospital, pub. several professional treatises, 1765-1811, (see Watt's Bibl. Brit.,) among which are: 1. Red Peruvian Bark in Agues, &c., Lon., 8vo, 1782; 4th ed., 1783. 2. On the Liver, 8vo, 1793; 3d ed., 1803; Bost., 1797, 12mo. 3. On Mineral Waters, Lon., 8vo, 1800; 2d ed., 1806. 4. Hepatitis of India, &c., 1811, 8vo.

content last revised 25 Sep 2002