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Sir William David Thomson, M.D.

A William Thomson READY.png

B. 29 June 1843 at Downpatrick, Ireland

D. 13 November 1909 at Dublin, Ireland

Honorary Surgeon to King Edward VII in Ireland, 

President of Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland,

Chief Surgeon in charge of Lord Iveah’s Hospital in S. Africa.

Knighted in 1897, much decorated for his service with Irish medals,

and honored for his philanthropic endeavors.

B  William David Thomson Medals

The important C.B. group of four medals awarded to Sir William Thomson.

Medals sold as Lot 56, 6 December 2006 as part of


(Colonel David Riddick Collection,  Dix Noonan Webb, Mayfair

The Most Honourable Order of The Bath, C.B. (Civil) Companion’s breast badge,

18ct. gold, hallmarks for London 1877, with swivel ring and straight bar suspension and gold buckle on ribbon; Jubilee 1897, silver (From the Queen to Sir Wm. Thomson, Pres. R.C.S.I. 1897); Coronation 1902, silver; Queen’s South Africa 1899-1902, 3 clasps, Cape Colony, Orange Free State, Johannesburg


The British Medical Journal

November 20, 1909


We record with deep regret the death of Sir William Thomson, C.B, which occurred at his residence, 54, St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin, on November 13th.

For the past year it was known that Sir William was not in good health, but only within the last few months had he been confined to his room suffering from cardiac trouble, to which eventually he succumbed. From his early days Sir William led a strenuous life, and by ability and hard work he had reached to the top of the surgical profession in Ireland. It was not in his nature to rest contented with the hard work which the pursuit of a purely surgical career entailed. He threw himself into the labours of charitable organizations, into the arduous pursuit of medical politics, and into the support of the medical associations and the scientific medical societies.

He took a prominent part in the movement which originated with Lady Dudley to procure trained nurses for service in the poorest districts in Ireland, but probably his most trying physical experience was in connection with the command of the Irish Hospital in South Africa, the equipment of which had been suggested to Lord Iveagh by Dr. George Stoker. In the arrangements for this field hospital Sir William Thomson and Dr. George Stoker were intimately associated, the latter being second in command. Its work entailed great endurance and hardship on all connected with it, but it proved one of the most effective hospital organizations that took part is the campaign. A life of unflagging activity such as has been here outlined, with frequent outbursts of work which demanded more than ordinary physical strain, can scarcely be reckoned upon as the surest methods of attaining to a ripe old age. At all events, such a life has terminated for Sir William Thomson at the comparatively early age of 66 years. He died, however, rich in honours, to which his professional attainments, his many-sided philanthropic activities, and his upright character had thoroughly entitled him.

William Thomson was born at Downpatrick, in the North of Ireland, in the year 1843, where his parents, who were natives of Lanark, had settled. The death of his father and the subsequent marriage of his mother to the proprietor of a newspaper in the town of Galway directed his youthful attention to journalism. After a few years' experience as a reporter, first in Galway and then in Dublin, he decided to join the medical profession.

His early studies began in the now extinct Carmichael College of Medicine, but his brilliant career started in earnest when he entered the Queen's College of Galway, in 1864. He obtained a scholarship and many prizes in his undergraduate days, and gained for himself the friendship, which only terminated with his death, of the late Sir Thomas Moffatt, the then President of the College. He also made many lifelong friendships among his teachers and fellow pupils, and the latter reckoned in their number quite a galaxy of brilliant young men that have since risen to great distinction, not the least being the present Lord McDonnell.

At the end of three years Thomson obtained the degree of B.A. in the Queen's University of Ireland, and five years later graduated with M.D. and M.Ch. (1872). In the following year he became House-Surgeon to the Richmond Surgical Hospital, and was appointed a Demonstrator of Anatomy in the Carmichael College. In 1873 he became Visiting Surgeon to the Richmond Hospital, and was entrusted with a Lectureship in Anatomy in the Carmichael College. In the year after he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, and in the subsequent year was elected on the Court of Examiners in that College - a position which he held for many years. In 1879 his own university elected him to be an Examiner in Surgery, and two years later it conferred upon him, shortly before its extinction, an honorary degree of M.A. In 1886 he became a Senator of the Royal University, a position which he occupied until the university became extinct a few weeks ago.

In 1882 he undertook the great work of the formation of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland by judiciously bringing together into one homogeneous working association a number of independent societies which were then in existence. His efforts were crowned with complete success; he became the first General Secretary of the Academy and the Editor of its Transactions, for which his journalistic training made him eminently fitted.

Owing to his zeal, urbanity, and businesslike methods, the Royal Academy of Medicine grew and flourished, and when at the end of fourteen years he found himself, as President of the Royal College of Surgeons, no longer able to retain the General Secretaryship of the Academy of Medicine, his resignation was accepted with great regret by the latter body.

Thomson's connection with the British Medical Association was intimate and of long standing. He was an original member of the Dublin (now Leinster) Branch at the time of its formation in 1877. For many years he represented the Branch on the Central Council, and filled with distinction the office of Branch President. In 1891 the late Mr. Ernest Hart conceived the idea of making an exhaustive inquiry into the abuses connected with the Poor Law Medical Service in Ireland, and entrusted to William Thomson the task of collecting evidence and presenting a report on the subject to the British Medical Association. It is now a matter of history how thoroughly Thomson did his work. The report, which was republished in 1904, remains today as a monument to his industry, perception, and masterly handling of facts. It gained the sympathies of the entire Association for the Irish Poor Law medical officers in their demand for the redress of their many grievances.

For many years past successive editors of this JOURNAL have been able to depend upon Sir William Thomson's assistance in dealing generally with matters affecting Ireland, and he had long acted as the Dublin correspondent of the JOURNAL.

In 1887, when the Association held its Annual Meeting in Dublin, Sir William Thomson was one of the Secretaries of the Section of Surgery and in 1901 he delivered the Address in Surgery at the Annual Meeting at Cheltenham, choosing as his subject "Some Surgical Lessons from the South African Campaign." This was the result of his experiences as the Chief Surgeon to the Irish Hospital in South Africa, as already alluded to.

At the close of the Boer war Sir William was placed by the Government on the Commission which was formed to inquire into the changes that were necessary to ensure efficiency and popularity for the Army Medical Service, and when the recommendations of this Commission had been adopted and an Advisory Board formed, Sir William was asked to become one of the surgical examiners. He accepted the position, and, during the two years in which he served on the Examining Board, he did much to place the conduct of the examinations for the Army Medical Service on a practical and acceptable basis.

Thomson's energy found a new field for action when on February 29th, 1896, he succeeded the late Dr. George Hugh Kidd as the Direct Representative for Ireland on the General Medical Council. He was specially fitted for this honourable position, which he occupied for ten years, for he made himself familiar with the labours of the Poor Law medical officers in Ireland. He was a Senator of the Royal University, and he was at that time Vice-President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and a few months later became its President. These qualifications, combined with a natural gift of speech and the power of rapidly divesting a subject under discussion of all side issues, soon brought him to the front in the debates in the General Medical Council. A few years ago, on the death of the late Dr. William Martin, Sir William Thomson succeeded to the position of Inspector of the Schools of Anatomy in Ireland. He had also served the office of President of the Irish Medical Schools and Graduates' Association. He was for many years Surgeon to the London and North-Western Railway Company and Surgeon to the Mageogh Home for Aged Ladies.

It was during his Presidency of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland that the honour of knighthood was conferred upon him in 1897. Distinctions followed rapidly upon this, as he was appointed successively Surgeon to the Lord Lieutenant, Surgeon-in-Ordinary to Her late Majesty Queen Victoria, and Honorary Surgeon to His Majesty the King. His services in South Africa received recognition from the late Queen, who conferred upon him a Civil C.B. in 1900.

Sir William's contributions to surgical literature were numerous. In addition to many papers on various subjects, in his earlier years he rewrote and published Powers's Surgical Anatomy of the Arteries and edited Fleming's Injuries and Diseases of the Genito-Urinary Organs. Of late years his communications have dealt mainly with the subject of the removal of enlarged prostrate. He had considerable experience in the operative treatment of this affection, and was the first among Dublin surgeons to undertake the operation; an address by him on the operative treatment of enlarged prostrate was printed in our columns in 1903, vol. i, p. 895.

For thirty-six years Thomson was Visiting Surgeon to the Richmond Hospital. He was a lucid and painstaking teacher, and a skilled and careful operator. He was one of the most important members of the governing body of the Richmond, Whitworth, and Hardwicke Hospitals, and with the late Right Hon. T. A. Dickson was responsible for undertaking the building of the present Richmond Hospital and the purchase of the ground on which it stands at a cost of £60,000. Although the prospect of raising the money required for the purpose was quite remote, it did not deter Sir William Thomson and Mr. Dickson from carrying their timorous colleagues on the Board with them, and in the end the new hospital was erected, and the debt incurred was soon paid off.

In private life Sir William was a most genial and entertaining companion. He was man of simple tastes and of kindly disposition. He occupied a prominent place in the social life of Dublin, where his philanthropic character and his high professional attainments were widely appreciated.

He married Margaret, daughter of the late Mr. Abraham Stoker, of the Chief Secretary's Office, Dublin Castle. A son and daughter are left to mourn with Lady Thomson the loss of a devoted father and husband. His son is a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and is seconded for service in the Egyptian army. To him, to Lady Thomson, and to his daughter, Mrs. Hornibrook, in their great bereavement the sympathy of the medical profession is extended.

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