Biography of William Hey
On his mother’s side William Hey was the grandchild of the surgeon William Simpson from Leeds in Pudsey. As a boy he suffered the misfortune of losing the sight on his right eye through a stab with a quill knife. He had an early inclination toward scientific observations of nature and, refraining from his desire to pursue a career at see, he complied with the wish of his parents. At the age of 14 he commenced the study of medicine with the apothecary-surgeon Dawson in Leeds. Here he nearly died of an overdose of opium whilst studying its effects.
In 1757 he went to London to complete his studies and entered the St. George’s Hospital under William Bromfield (1712-1792). In 1858 he heard lectures on obstetrics by Donald Monro, the second son of Alexander Monro, primus (1698-1767). He returned to Leeds in 1759 to begin his own surgical practice, also taking over that of his former master and teacher, William Simpson. Already in his first year of practice he undertook three lithotomies. From 1762 to 1763 he was medical attendant at the Leeds Workhouse. However, on his initiative, the building of a new infirmary in Leeds began in 1767, and in 1771 the Leeds General Infirmary received its first patient. He became senior surgeon of this institution in 1773.
In 1768, with other distinguished physicians in Leeds, Hey founded the Medical Society. The library built by this society was given to the hospital. In 1768/1769 he became friendly with Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) on whose initiative he instigated therapeutical investigations on the antiseptic effect of oxygen in putrid fevers, published 1772 in the Medical Observations and Inquiries and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. In the recommendation of Priestley he became a fellow of the Royal Society.
In 1773, Hey banged his knee getting out of the bath, and remained lame for the rest of his life. Many attribute his subsequent interest in the knee to this. Hey described subacute osteomyelitis of the tibia before Sir Benjamin Collins Brodie (1783-1862).
In 1778 he stayed for several months in Bath, where he made the acquaintance of John Pringle (1707-1782), who became his friend.
In 1783 Hey became president of the newly founded the Philosophical and Literary Society in Leeds. During the years 1801-1809 he gave several anatomical courses. In 1812, after 45 years in medicine, he retired as surgeon to the infirmary, but was often consulted.