- A dictionary of medical eponyms

William Thomson

Born  1833
Died  1907

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American ophthalmologist, born January 28, 1833, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania; died August 3, 1907.

Biography of William Thomson

WilliamThomson began his medical education under the direction of John C. Richards, a physician in his native city and studied pharmacy for six months in Philadelphia. He then attended the medical school in Mt. Savage, Maryland, and concluded his studies at the Jefferson Medical College, where he graduated doctor of medicine in 1855.

After graduation he settles in Lower Merion, near Philadelphia, where he practiced until 1861. That year he became a military physician to the regular field troops, a post he held until the end of the war. With his assistant, Jonathan Letterman (1824-1872), he introduced several improvements in military medical care, in particular medical field service and the organisation of field hospitals. This effort received due credit through Letterman in his "Medical Recollections of the Army of the Potomac".

In 1863 Thomson became head of the Douglas Hospital in Washington, and in 1864 became inspector of the medical department of the city. In 1866 he was in charge of a cholera hospital and in 1867 was transferred to Louisiana. He resigned in 1868 and settled in private practice in Philadelphia.

As early as 1861 Thomson had recommended the use of carbolic acid as a disinfectant in wound treatment, He also published a paper on hospital gangrene and its treatment with bromine, as well as numerous contributions to the Army Medical Museum.

In 1868 Thomson was physician to the Hospital of the Protestant Episcopal Church, but changed to the position of surgeon at Will's Hospital for Diseases of the Eye, lecturing on eye diseases for several years. In 1873 he became clinical teacher, later honorary professor, and in 1895 full professor at the eye and ear clinic at Jefferson medical College, where he had been then been ophthalmologic surgeon since 1877.

In 1879 the American government commissioned Thomson to devise a colour-blind test for railway and shipping employees. Thomson worked to simplify the method devised by Holmgren’s method so that a "non-professional" could conduct the testing and transmit the results to an expert for interpretation. In a series of variations to Holmgren’s test, Thomson reduced the number of matching colours, and numbered the worsteds.

With Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-1924) he wrote several papers on the use of the ophthalmoscope in the diagnosis of intracranial tumours. He devised as simple instrument for the diagnosis and correction of ametropia.


  • Connection between astigmatism and posterior staphyloma.
    American Journal of Medical Science? 1875.
  • An additional test for the diagnosis and correction of the optical defects of the eye.
    American Journal of Medical Science? 1870.
  • Correction of conical cornea by cylindrical glasses.
    American Journal of Medical Science?
  • Gunshot wound of the brain, followed by fungus cerebri and recovery with hemiopsia.
    Transactions of the American Ophthalmological Society, 1871.

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