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William Gull: the life of the Colchester-born physician

Coloured lithograph of Sir William Gull  Credit: Wellcome Collection
Coloured lithograph of Sir William Gull Credit: Wellcome Collection

William Gull (1816-90)

This Colchester-born physician enjoyed a fulfilling career that saw him rise to the very top of his profession

There was nothing ordinary about the lad from an ordinary Essex background who made important contributions to medical science including naming ‘Anorexia Nervosa’. An eminent physician and lecturer, Dr. Sir William Withey Gull prospered with a lucrative private practice, became Governor of Guy’s Hospital, treated Bertie, the Prince of Wales (and future Edward VII) during a life-threatening episode of typhoid fever, was created Baronet, and became one of the Physicians-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria.

Great British Life: William Gull was born in the parish of St Leonard, his birthplace actually a barge, 'The Dove' that was moored on the River Colne Credit: Wikimedia William Gull was born in the parish of St Leonard, his birthplace actually a barge, 'The Dove' that was moored on the River Colne Credit: Wikimedia

Born in Colchester on New Year’s Eve 1816, William was the son of a barge owner and wharfinger (owner/keeper of a wharf) John Gull, and Elizabeth née Chilver, the unusual middle name ‘Withey’ hailing from a godfather, family friend and fellow barge owner. His birthplace was atypical, aboard a barge, ‘The Dove’, moored on the River Colne in the parish of St Leonard. He would be one of six surviving children. When aged about four William’s family moved to Thorpe-le-Soken, east of Colchester, but the family’s circumstances must have straightened half-a-dozen years later when John Gull died of cholera (1827). It was the intensely pious Elizabeth who brought up William and his siblings with William fortunate to attend local schools until he was 17 before becoming a pupil-teacher, an interesting concept. Elizabeth moved to the neighbouring parish of Beaumont-cum-Moze in 1832 and it was here, on boating trips down the estuary to the sea, that William became fascinated with botany, which stimulated an interest in biological research which, in turn, led to medicine.

Great British Life: Thorpe-le-Soken, which the Gull family moved to when William was aged around four Credit: Wikimedia Caption: Thorpe-le-Soken, which the Gull family moved to when William was aged around four Credit: Wikimedia Caption: Great British Life: The Gull family moved to Beaumont-cum-Moze in 1832 Credit: WikimediaThe Gull family moved to Beaumont-cum-Moze in 1832 Credit: Wikimedia

When William was 20 years old he attracted the attention of the medical profession, being introduced to Benjamin Harrison, Treasurer of Guy’s and uncle of the local rector. Young Gull must have impressed for he was invited up to Guy’s, under Harrison’s patronage, leaving home for his new calling in September 1837. An apprentice medical student, Gull gained his M.B. (Bachelor of Medicine) in 1841 and embarked on his career as a leading physician at Guy’s, lecturer and revered clinical teacher. He’d qualify as M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) in 1846. One of his beliefs was that use of drugs should be minimal: ‘The road to a clinic goes … not through the apothecary’s shop’ and also that cracker ‘The best of all remedies is a warm bed’. He was also a defender of vivisection as being a necessary evil. William married Susan Ann Lacy, on 18th May 1848. They’d have two surviving children one of whom would be the 2nd Baronet, Sir William Cameron Gull (1860-1922), barrister and MP. In the same year Gull became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. He’d also become a Fellow of the Royal Society (1869).

Great British Life: 'Bertie' the Prince of Wales and future Edward VII, 1881 Credit: Wellcome Collection'Bertie' the Prince of Wales and future Edward VII, 1881 Credit: Wellcome Collection

Saving the Prince of Wales in 1871 led to Gull being created 1st Baronet in 1872 whilst his private practice went stratospheric on the back of him being ‘by royal appointment’. Attending to the party-loving prince wasn’t easy though. Even when the ailing Bertie was off his food he was still quaffing the wine and champers. Raving with delirium, the prince raged at Gull, demanding more of the hard stuff. When his condition abated he was visited by the Queen. Bertie settling his eyes on a female form in his room remarked that she was ‘very like the Queen’. Gull, retaining admirable sangfroid responded pithily: ‘It is the Queen’. It must have been some relief to Gull and colleague Dr. William Jenner to announce to an expectant nation that the prince’s symptoms had eased. Gull’s royal connections weren’t restricted to Victoria and Bertie; he also treated Napoleon III, formerly the French emperor.

Great British Life: Engraving of the entrance to Guy's Hospital where Dr William Gull enjoyed a stellar career Credit: Wikimedia Engraving of the entrance to Guy's Hospital where Dr William Gull enjoyed a stellar career Credit: Wikimedia

He became wealthier than any previous English physician and that’s saying something, poor medics being rare like small cars on the school run. Gull contributed articles to ‘Guy’s Hospital Reports’ on varied subjects including treating tapeworm and hypochondria. He was among the first describing Myxedema, a swelling of the skin from an underactive thyroid (1873), which became known as ‘Gull’s Disease’, which might sound like Bird Flu but isn’t. His naming and describing of Anorexia Nervosa came the following year (1874). Gull, although initially against the training of women as medics, shifted his stance and certainly from 1886 was pushing for their inclusion. He also advocated treating rich and poor alike. He was a controversial figure though, sometimes critical of fellow physicians. He came in for criticism too. Some of his fellow docs found him ‘imperious’ and didn’t always subscribe to his novel opinions. He was also a ‘whistleblower’, giving evidence at a manslaughter trial in 1880 when he testified against a fellow physician. This may have antagonised the closed ranks of the profession but Gull stood firm, declaring his evidence based on his professional assessment and therefore not be meddled with. In many ways his approach seems modern.

Great British Life: Sir William Gull, photogravure by Duclaud after Elliot & Fry Credit: Wellcome Collection Sir William Gull, photogravure by Duclaud after Elliot & Fry Credit: Wellcome Collection

For all his outstanding achievements, it’s sad Gull’s name is likely to be known today because of a flimsy connection with the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 which became prominent in the 1970s but has since been discredited. Hainault-born writer Stephen Knight (1951-85) authored ‘Jack the Ripper – The Final Solution’ (1976), a conspiracy theory involving the Queen’s elderly surgeon using his physician’s paraphernalia to dispose of those who knew too much, a plot leading embarrassingly to the royal family. It’s fantastical but had its adherents. The thought of the elderly Gull prancing around the East End on a murder spree is laughable as he’d suffered a series of strokes in 1887 causing partial paralysis and his early retirement from general practice. Come 1888, the year of the murders, he was sick. Sadly, the erroneous naming of Gull led to his Thorpe-le-Soken grave being targeted; a case of misinformed vigilante vandalism. I prefer to give the final word to Guy’s and St Thomas’ which has a William Gull ward caring for people with a range of medical needs. I’m glad it continues honouring one of its past, eminent physicians. It demonstrates that sometimes there can be smoke without fire. William Gull died on 29th January 1890 aged 73.

Great British Life: Sir William Gull's gravestone in the churchyard of Thorpe-le-Soken, Essex, December 2008 Credit: Wikimedia Sir William Gull's gravestone in the churchyard of Thorpe-le-Soken, Essex, December 2008 Credit: Wikimedia

CHRONOLOGY

1816 – William Withey Gull born in Colchester (31st December).

1832 – The Gull family moves to Beaumont-cum-Moze which stimulates an interest in biology.

1837 – Gull becomes an apprentice medical student at Guy’s where he’d work all his life.

1848 – Marries Susan Ann Lacy with two surviving children to follow.

1871 – Gull attends to the Prince of Wales when he’s at death’s door with typhoid fever.

1872 – Created 1st Baronet, an honour bestowed by a grateful monarch.

1874 – Gull names and describes Anorexia Nervosa, one of his many contributions.

1888 – The Jack the Ripper murders in East London. Gull would later be named a suspect.

1890 – Death of Dr. Sir William Gull in London (29th January) aged 73.



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