Sir William Withey Gull

Born 1816-12-31
Died 1890-01-29

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1. baronet, born December 31, 1816, Colchester, Essex; died January 29, 1890, London.

Biography of Sir William Withey Gull

Sir William Withey Gull was the son of a barge owner who died of cholera, leaving his family poor. However, he was helped by Mr. Harrison, secretary of Guy’s Hospital, who made him his protegé.

He studied at Guy’s Hospital, graduating M.B. from the University of London in 1841, and received his M.D. in 1846. He taught natural philosophy at Guy’s Hospital 1843-1847, and from 1846 to 1856 taugh comparative anatomy. He became lecturer in physiology and anatomy, and then physician at Guy’s Hospital, where he taught or served as consulting physician for the rest of his life.

Gull was created a baronet in 1872 when he treated the Prince of Wales who had typhoid. He was also physician to Queen Victoria, two patients who contributed to his becoming wealthier than any English physician before him. He was a member of the General Medical Council and became Dr. juris honor in Oxford 1868, in Cambridge 1880, Edinburgh 1884. Gull in 1887 became personal physician to the Queen, but for reasons of health had to close his practice the following year.

In 1873 Gull was one of the first to understand that the cause of myxedema is atrophy of the thyroid gland. With H. G. Sutton he described arterio-capillary fibrosis in 1872, and was the first to use the term anorexia nervosa.

His description of myxoedema (1873) was not the first but he was one of the first to attribute the clinical picture to the thyroid. He noted the involvement of the posterior column in tabes, described intermittent haemoglobulinaemia (1866) and with Sutton, in 1872, the pathological changes in chronic nephritis. He was one of the pioneers of the use of recins in the treatment of taenia, and wrote the first description of syringomyelia and steatorrhea due to intestinal lymphoma. Another topic was the treatment of tapeworm with oil of male fern.

Gull believed in minimal use of drugs and defended the use of vivisection and clinical investigation.

Gull died a very wealthy man, being especially able at handling neurotics and his immense success in practice was shown that at his death he left a fortune of 344.0000 pound. To one hypochondriac he said «You are a healthy man out of health». This satisfied the patient so much he wanted to know why the other doctors had not told him.

Gull was known for his generous attitude to his patients, advocating the modern view that the object of the medical attention is the patient, not the disease housed in the patient.

Gull was a famous and popular teacher, and some of his epigrams are still current.

«Savages explain, science investigates»;

“The road to a clinic goes through the pathologic museum and not through the apothecary's shop"

«We have no system to satisfy, no dogmatic opinions to enforce. We have no ignorance to cloak, we confess it»;

«I do not say no drugs are useful, but there is not enough discrimination in their use».

«The jejunum is more exempt from morbid conditions than any other portion of the alimentary canal.» St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Reports, 1916, 52: 45.

«You will soon learn that diseases, like other natural facts, require no peculiar mode of study . . . Man is naturally unwilling to feel himself but a part, though the highest part as yet, of the course of nature, however deeply he may be convinced that all is ruled by the wisest providence. He desires to feel himself an exception from the common laws of nature . . . The sense of mystery is so indigenous, . . . that, although I do not for a moment suppose any well-educated medical man could think that disease ever comes but through discoverable natural courses, we assume almost as much when we are satisfied not to have traced them to their beginnings . . . Diseases are but parts of a course of natural history.»
British Medical Journal, 1874, 2: 425.

«The diseases of the young are in large part preventable diseases. Epidemics carry off in great proportion the healthy members of the community.»
Address to the British Medical Association, 1868.
Published Writings, «Medicine in Modern Times»

«Fixed as is the course of nature, it does not seem fixed by blind necessity, but ordred so that the intellect of man may learn and dispose it for his good.»
British Medical Journal, 1874, 2: 425.

«That the course of nature may be varied we have assumed by our meeting here today. The whole object of the science of medicine is based on this assumption.»
British Medical Journal, 1874, 2: 425.

«Realize, if you can, what a paralyzing influence on all scientific inquiry the ancient belief must have had which attributed the operations of nature to the caprice not of one divinity, but of many. There still remains vestiges of this in most of our minds, and the more distinct in proportion to our weakness and ignorance.
British Medical Journal, 1874, 2: 425.

«Make haste and use all new remedies before they lose their effectiveness.»

«I do not know what a brain is, and I do not know what sleep is, but I do know that a well-fed brain sleeps well.» Quoted in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Reports, 1916, 52: 45.

«The foundation of the study of Medicine, as os all secientific inquiry, lies in the belief that every natural phenomenon, trifling as it may seem, has a fixed and invariable meaning.»
Published Writings, «Study of Medicine»

«If facts be nature’s words, our words should be true sign os natures facts. A word rightly imposed is a landmark indicating so much recovered from the region of ignorance.»
Published Writings, Volume 156, «Study of Medicine»

«Never forget that it is not a pneumonia, but a pneumonic man who is your patient. Not a typhoid fever, but a typhoid man.»
Published Writings (edited by T. D. Acland), Memoir II.

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