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Thomson, William (1819–1883)

by Bryan Gandevia

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

William Thomson (1819-1883), medical practitioner and epidemiologist, was born at Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland, in 1819, son of Thomas Thomson and his wife Agnes, née Robertson. Educated at the Andersonian School of Medicine and the University of Glasgow, he obtained prizes in medicine and anatomy, as well as the highest commendations from his teachers, two of whom he assisted in additional research in chemistry and anatomy. He probably served a clerkship at the Royal Infirmary, Glasgow, and he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1843. Several voyages as ship's surgeon to Australia, America and the East led to the development of a safety rigging, a lifelong hobby of building model yachts and a pamphlet (1872) on the advantages for passengers of sail over steam for long voyages. He was surgeon to the overcrowded Wanata when she was quarantined in 1852 off St Kilda, Melbourne, because of typhus fever and whooping cough. In 1855 Thomson brought from Scotland his wife Emma, née Hutchison, and a prefabricated wooden house. Admitted to the medical register the same year, he practised at first in Chapel Street and then in Punt Road, South Yarra, finally building Garnoch at the corner of Walsh Street and Gardiner's Creek (Toorak) Road. Within a year of his arrival he unsuccessfully opposed the formation of the Prahran municipality.

Thomson soon achieved prominence in the Medical Society of Victoria, and in 1856-64 he was sometime committee member and librarian, as well as secretary and editor of the society's Australian Medical Journal. He attempted, prematurely, to raise the status of the society and the local medical profession, by converting it to a faculty with fellows and members, and by encouraging it to take an active part in medical education; his motion in 1861 advocating the establishment of a medical faculty at the University of Melbourne is of historic significance, although he played no further role. It is a moot point whether, in 1864, he resigned on account of a heated dispute with the chair, or was expelled for returning a subsequent notice with 'Audacity—Blackguards' written across it. In any case, from the mid-1860s Thomson was no longer an acknowledged leader of his profession but rather a contumelious back-bencher.

In 1863 his advocacy of Huxley's evolutionary views brought violent conflict with Professor G. B. Halford, who resented Thomson's anonymous but informed criticism of his anatomical arguments to support the opposite view. This breach played a part in the rejection of Thomson's candidature for two of the first lectureships in the faculty of medicine in 1865 and 1867, and perhaps in his failure to secure election to the staff of the Melbourne Hospital. From this period dates a bitter argument, continued over twenty years, with S. D. Bird, author of On Australasian Climates and Their Influence in the Prevention and Arrest of Pulmonary Consumption (London, 1863), who was supported by John Singleton and the Medical Society. In several publications Thomson refuted the evidence for a favourable influence of the local climate by carefully collected and collated statistical data showing, inter alia, that the mortality from phthisis was increasing in the Australian-born population. Thomson was later a member of the British Medical Association (London) and a 'moving spirit' in the formation of a Pathological Society in Melbourne in the 1870s. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, in 1871 and was also a fellow of the Linnean Society.

A disciple of William Farr and William Budd, Thomson won international repute as an epidemiologist through his many publications between 1870 and 1883, chiefly on typhoid fever and tuberculosis in Australia. He was more than a verbal advocate of the contagionist doctrine, for he supported this concept by statistical study of local epidemics of several infectious diseases after their introduction by sea or from other localities, and by the analysis of changing patterns of mortality and morbidity; his detailed studies of localized milk-borne epidemics of typhoid fever are particularly notable. To control epidemics he advocated notification and isolation of the sick, followed by disinfection of all possible sources of contagion. By contrast, the more popular theory of a miasmatic basis for infectious diseases, spread by effluvia from open drains and cesspits, required adequate sewerage as the only valid preventive measure. Thus, the two theories had different practical and socio-political implications of vital interest to the community; Thomson, resentful of any criticism or opposition, put his views forcibly and all too bluntly in the lengthy public controversy.

Keenly interested in the related problems of cattle plagues, notably pleuro-pneumonia and foot and mouth disease, Thomson demanded a ban on the importation of livestock, maintaining that quarantine and disinfection were inadequate safeguards in relation to the possible economic consequences. Similarly, he would not have permitted the common practice of sending consumptive patients to Australia to 'take the cure', whether as migrants or visitors. With remarkable prescience and sound logic, if no personal experimental data, he later applied the new germ theory of disease to explain the contagious nature of tuberculosis, its spread by dried sputum particles and its divers manifestations in the body. In 1876 he clearly enunciated the principle of modern chemotherapy: the possibility of 'destroying germs [by means of chemical substances] in living tissue without at the same time destroying its integrity'. Six years later, when Robert Koch discovered the tubercle bacillus, Thomson's jubilation—for his views had been poorly received in Melbourne—led him to publish a pamphlet indicating his claims to priority and emphasizing the sheer perfection of his original hypothesis. There were mistakes in Thomson's work: he considered pleuro-pneumonia of cattle and human measles to be the same disease, and he recognized only the ambulant, not the asymptomatic, carrier of typhoid fever and diphtheria, so that he was led to exaggerate the influence of contagion. None the less, his views were scientifically based on critical analysis of carefully collected data; their lack of acceptance locally was due more to his uncompromising attitude, even to fair comment, than to errors of observation or interpretation.

Thomson's final controversy concerned the Baconian authorship of Shakespeare's plays, a cause he warmly espoused. He argued with great erudition in his two major works on this theme, On Renascence Drama … (1880) and William Shakespeare in Romance and Reality (1881); both were published in Melbourne and widely reviewed at the time. The detail and complexity of the unconventional argument both suited and illustrated Thomson's extreme tenacity of purpose. With no little insight, he quoted Bacon on the turbulent person and innovator: 'If one or two have the boldness to use any liberty of judgment, they must undertake the task all by themselves; they can have no advantage from the company of others'.

Intellectually arrogant and condescending, Thomson was a quick, energetic, dapper little man, with bright eyes and a well-trimmed beard; according to his opponents, who granted his ability and industry, he was vain and impossibly irascible, but family tradition credits him with a dry sense of humour. Like his friend and colleague Sir Thomas Fitzgerald he was an enthusiastic race-goer and patron of the theatre, especially opera. His last illness, an abscess of the liver precipitated by a kick from a demented patient, lasted for nine months, but only a week before his death on 22 May 1883 did he seek professional help. He was survived by his wife, a daughter and four of his six sons, including Matthew Barclay, who graduated in medicine at Edinburgh, succeeded to his father's practice and later specialized in nose and throat surgery.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Ford, A Bibliography of William Thomson (Syd, 1954)
  • Australasian Medical Gazette, 1883
  • Australian Medical Journal, 1883
  • B. Gandevia, ‘William Thomson and the History of the Contagionist Doctrine in Melbourne’, Medical Journal of Australia, 21 Mar 1953
  • manuscript material (Museum of Medical Society of Victoria and Australian Medical Assn Library, Parkville, Melbourne).

Citation details

Bryan Gandevia, 'Thomson, William (1819–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomson-william-4718/text7823, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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