Robert Willan

Born 1757
Died 1812

Related eponyms

English dermatologist, born November 12, 1757, Hill near Sedburgh, Yorkshire; died April 17, 1812, Madeira.

Biography of Robert Willan

Robert Willan is generally considered the father of modern English dermatology. The son of a Quaker physician, whose tombstone is in Sedbergh churchyard, and nephew of physicians, his study of medicine was in the family tradition. He studied in Edinburgh where he obtained his doctorate in 1780. He subsequently went on an educational tour to London, and spent some time in Darlington, Durham county, where he had to represent his uncle, Trotter. In Durham he authored papers on balneology and the sources of the neighbourhood. In 1782 Willan went back to London where he held posts at Carey-Street Dispensary, and later at Finsbury Dispensary.

Willan in 1785 became a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1800 he succeeded J. A. Murray, who had died, as physician in the Fever Hospital.

For a long time Willan had suffered from tuberculosis. Having exhausted his strengths he went on a convalescence tour, and succumbed to the disease on Madeira. His gravestone is well preserved in an old cemetery wall in Madeira and reads ”Sacred to the memory of Robert Willan MD FRS of London who died on this Island 7 April 1812 aged 55 years.”

His classification and description of cutaneous diseases was presented at the Medical Society of London in 1790 and earned him the second Fothergillian Gold medal from the Society. Willan’s classification, however, is embarrassingly similar to that of the Austrian physician Joseph Jakob Edler von Plenck (1738-1807). In his book On Cutaneous Disease, which was published in 1808, he classified and described many forms of skin disease and some of his terminology is still in use. Willan was the first to use the term wheal for skin lesions that occur in nettle rash. The term is now used for skin lesions in urticaria, serum disease and other allergic conditions. His system was later considerably expanded by his friend, colleague, and biographer, Thomas Bateman (1778-1821), who completed his work On Cutaneous Diseases. This book also contains original material by Bateman.

Besides his works on diseases of the skin Willan left epidemiological papers on the epidemics in London during the years 1796-1800, as well as on smallpox immunisation. His name is attached to two conditions: Lupus vulgaris is known as Willan's lupus, and psoriasis vulgaris as Willan's lepra.

A plaque in his honour was erected on 10 Bloomsbury Square, WC1, in 1949.

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