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William Gibson Spiller

Born 1863
Died 1940

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American physician, born September 13, 1863, Baltimore; died 1940.

Biography of William Gibson Spiller

William Gibson Spiller was the most distinguished American clinical neurologist of his time. After receiving an M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1892, he spent four years abroad in specialized studies, at first internal medicine and later in neurology, with such savants as Heinrich Obersteiner (1847-1922), Hermann Oppenheim (1858-1919), Ludwig Edinger (1855-1918), Joseph Jules Dejerine (1849-1917) and Sir William Richard Gowers (1845-1915). He often spoke of the clinical thoroughness of these men, especially Obersteiner and Oppenheim, and when in later years it was repeatedly suggested that he write a textbook on neurology, his favourite retort was: ”When I can write a better book than Oppenheim I’ll do so.”

On his return to Philadelphia Spiller entered into neuropathological research in the William Pepper library of his alma mater, a connection which was maintained until 1910. At the turn of the century he became head of the neurological department of the Philadelphia Polyclinic Hospital. From 1910 Spiller, somewhat reluctantly, also had a private practice.

It was about that time he came to know Charles Karsner Mills (1845-1931), regarded as ”the dean of American neurologists.” To both of them the winning of prestige for the department of neurology was the great object of their lives, and when Spiller would drop into Mills’ office every few days, his customary salutation, ”what’s new?” always meant ”what’s new in neurology?” Sometimes Mills would launch into an account of some of his experiences, such as those on the battlefield of Gettysburg; or Spiller, to save Mill’s failing vision, would read to him. In 1915 Spiller succeeded Mills as professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, and retained the chair until 1932, when he retired as professor emeritus. From 1902 to 1925 he was also active as clinical professor at the Women’s Medical College.

One of those who were strongly influenced by Spiller, was Walter Freeman (1895-1972), who performed lobotomy on a very large number og people, probably thousands. Freeman formed an attachment to William G. Spiller, a dull lecturer but an astute diagnostician.

Spiller was of serious demeanour, a little stooped, rather quiet and contained, and wholly lacking in sartorial splendour. The story goes that he, delighting in an argument, would carry a spinal cord or some other specimen in his coat pocket, and whip it out on almost any occasion in the hope that his discourse on it would bring some divergence of opinion. His office was as bare of decoration as that of an ascetic. No doubt he was very far from extravagant. He and a friend were strolling down the boardwalk at Atlantic City one morning when the friend hailed the newsboy and gave him a quarter for a paper. ”But you did not get your change back,” said Spiller. ”No,” replied the friend, ”I wanted the boy to have it,” to which Spiller replied, ”That’s wasting money; you could have borrowed the paper I bought last evening.”

Spiller’s lectures were always crowded, and he was famous for the quotations from Shakespeare that punctuated his solutions of neurological mysteries – all produced in his rather soft voice.

Spiller’s publications numbered almost 250.

We thank Mical Raz, Tel Aviv University, for information submitted.

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