Sir William Richard Gowers

Born 1845
Died 1915

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British neurologist, born March 20, 1845, London; died May 4, 1915, London.

Biography of Sir William Richard Gowers

Sir William Richard Gowers was a prominent member of a group of British clinical neurologists who, during the latter part of the nineteenth century, made important studies in nervous system physiology and pathology. Gowers was the inventor of the haemoglobinometer in 1878. In 1880 he described the superficial anterolateral fasciolus in the spinal cord. In 1881 he made a classical description of epilepsy. He was also among the first to recognise the importance of the ophthalmoscope with diseases of the nervous system.

Gowers was educated at Christchurch School, Oxford, and was an apprentice to Dr. Simpson, a medical practitioner in Coggeshall, Essex. He then went to University College Hospital, London, qualified M.R.C.S. in 1867, becoming house physician and private secretary to his teacher, Sir William Jenner. He took his M.B. degree in 1869. His intellectual brilliance was already apparent at this stage and he was awarded gold medals for his academic efforts. He obtained his doctorate with distinction in 1870, becoming Medical Registrar, and in 1873 became assistant at the National Hospital for the Paralysed and the Epileptic.

At University College Hospital he was a student and protégé of Sir William Jenner whom he greatly admired. He was initially appointed as assistant physician at the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic, and to a similar post at University College Hospital in 1872. Most of Gowers' professional life was spent at University College Hospital where he developed the extraordinary powers of observation, personal study habits, and writing ability for which he was known, and where he ultimately became professor of clinical medicine, having been head physician from 1883. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1879 and fellow of the Royal Society in 1887. Because of his offices at the University College Hospital he renounced his research activity in 1888. Gowers was knighted in 1897, during the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria.

In 1878 Gowers invented the first practical haemoglobinometer, which remained in general use for the next 20 years. He also designed a blood cell counting chamber in which the slide on which the cells were counted had micrometric squares etched, rather than being placed on the eye piece as had been originally evolved by Hayem.

He wrote and personally illustrated an atlas of ophthalmology entitled Medical Ophthalmology which was published in 1897. He epitomised the strength of British neurology and was one of its foremost practitioners, synthesising the concepts and ideas of people such as John Hughlings Jackson (1835-1911), David Ferrier (1843-1928) and Sir Victor Horsley (1857-1916), with whom he became the first to remove a spinal cord tumor successfully. Horsley. He was an inspiring teacher who attracted many students and postgraduates, but was extremely dogmatic and aggressive. His writings were concise and always to the point and he followed his own dictum "words have a strong tendency to cause opacity if they be numerous."

In 1880 he published Diagnosis of Diseases of the Spinal Cord which was an elegant demonstration of the relationship between anatomy, physiology and the patient's symptoms. This book contained a description of a bundle of nerve fibres in the spinal cord, now called the anterolateral fasciculus which was subsequently described by Bekhterev, who named it Gower's tract. The work was originally delivered in 1877 to the Medical Society of Wolverhampton. It is a fine example of the painstaking scholarship which characterizes all of his writings.

In 1886-1888 he published his A Manual of the Diseases of the Nervous System in two volumes which. This textbook used to be called "The Bible og Neurology" and is a masterpiece illustrated by his own hand. This is also the case with his Manual and atlas of medical ophthalmology (1879). His works are admired almost as much for their clarity and organization as they are for content.

With Sir Victor Horsley (1857-1916) he became the first to remove a spinal cord tumor successfully.

Gowers was a painter and etcher of considerable ability whose paintings were shown by the Royal Academy of Arts. He was a forceful proponent of the use of shorthand and he himself was an excellent stenographer using shorthand for all his notes of his patients and he founded a Society of Medical Stenography. One story told of him later in life was that he grabbed hold of a perfect stranger in the street and said "Young man, do you write shorthand?", to which the shocked man answered, "No, I don't", whereupon Gowers dropped his arm, saying, "You are a fool and will fail in life". He then clambers abruptly back into his carriage.

He had a great interest in nature and was particularly fond of John Ruskin's (1819-1900) work and had an extensive interest and knowledge of mosses, and was interested in wild flowers, archaeology and architecture. Her personally studied the remains of some of the old Suffolk churches and wrote about them and their history.

Gowers married Mary Baines of Leeds in 1875 and the couple had four children.

    «In the present state of my ignorance it seems more useful to gather facts than to formulate hypotheses.»

    "The energy of the universe is only perpetual motion"

In an article in Founders of Neurology, Foster Kennedy, who personally knew several of the giants in neurology at the early twentieth century, sums up:

    "Such were the "Original" spirits who led our Profession half a century ago. The Gods have departed. "Leadership" now lies with the Deans' Executive Committees" compounded of medical mediocrities or with the lay bureaucrats of Socialized Medicine! Having lost Men to lead us, we shall utterly dwindle into a necessary "City Service," like the Department of Sanitation. We hall cease to be a learned profession and shall become instead a Union of Slick Gadgeteers, - of proletarian proclivities and level!"

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