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enowned surgeon and bacteriologist, William Watson Cheyne contributed significantly to the development of antiseptic surgery. A student and later colleague of Sir Joseph Lister, Cheyne was a prolific researcher, practitioner, and writer. He wrote influential papers on medical bacteriology and surgery for major British journals, such as the Lancet and the British Medical Journal, academic manuals, medical treatises, and a biography, Lister and His Achievement (1925). Additionally, he improvised and invented surgical instruments, such as the Watson Cheyne Dissector, versions of which are used today.

His birth, on 14 December 1852, at sea on the S.S Montague off the coast of Hobart Town, Tasmania, convinced Cheyne that he was destined to be a seafarer. His father, Andrew Cheyne, the captain of the Montague, was also a captain in the mercantile marines and was a major figure in the South Pacific sandalwood trade (C. Watson, et al.). William's mother, Eliza, named her new son William Watson after her father, Reverend William Watson, minister of the United Parish of Fetlar and North Yell. Eliza died four years after William's birth in 1856, succumbing to tuberculosis (C. Watson, et al.). In later years, Cheyne would wage a medical campaign against the disease, researching, publicizing, and commenting on the latest findings, especially on the discoveries of Dr. Robert Koch of Wollstein. In 1895, Cheyne published one of his many works on the disease, Tuberculous Diseases of Bones and Joints, against which he took a dual bacteriological and surgical approach.

After his mother's death, William went to the home of his grandfather, the Reverend William Watson, and was later raised by his aunt and his uncle, the Minister of Fetlar. Cheyne's childhood and early adolescence were unsettled and far from privileged. Rev. Watson, in an account of the home where young William now lived, described it as "very uncomfortable, exceedingly damp, being built in a morass; hence the walls drew water like a syphon. Neither books, nor clothes nor provisions will keep in it... The minister [young William's uncle] has neither comfort nor proper accommodations in it" (Obit., Royal Society). These living conditions suggest that the majority of William's childhood was gloomy and depressing, which could have led to his being introverted as an adult.

To divert William's thoughts from a life at sea, his aunt and uncle then organized his early education. From 1864 (age 11) to 1868 (age 14), he attended Aberdeen Grammar School. He would receive further education by attending King's College of Aberdeen from 1868 until 1870 (C. Watson et al.). At King's College, he received a classical education, studying Greek, Latin, English and Mathematics. His study of Mathematics and his analytical talents probably stimulated his interest in the natural sciences. Little is known about William's personality during this period, other than what can be learned from brief, retrospective statements; during a speech at a fiftieth year class reunion in 1918, for example, he said that he was always at the bottom of the class and inherently lazy, and this must have surprised and amused his audience who were impressed by his enormous achievements (Obit., Royal Society).

After King's College, in the summer of 1870 his aunt and uncle steered seventeen-year-old William away from the sea and the natural sciences, to a career in the ministry. Until this point, William knew nothing of his father, who had been away at sea. William would soon be startled by news of his father's death after a trading dispute. Learning about his father's fate momentarily re-energized his feelings for maritime life. Eventually, he fused two vocational paths into one: William decided to continue school in order to become a doctor and then to serve in the Royal Navy as a physician (C. Watson, et al.). This ambitious plan became a reality decades later.

William entered the University of Edinburgh to study medicine in 1871, with his sight set on the medical sciences. Unfortunately, his first year of medical school brought a health challenge. Plagued by symptoms of tuberculosis, he was unable to take any required courses, except for chemistry, which he enjoyed most (Royal College of Surgeons). His poor health kept him away from rugged sports, and these restrictions might have contributed to his shyness. The disease that had taken his mother's life, disrupted his childhood, and afflicted him at this crucial moment in life inspired him to excel in medical studies and, in later life, to write important papers, such as "The Bacillus of Tubercle" (1885). His tuberculosis research and writings exhibited thorough understanding of its bacteriological nature, and he benefited from his training under Lister and from his close association with Dr. Robert Koch. Even though stricken with an unmanageable disease, William still focused intently on his work, to receive the first University Prize in Chemistry during his first year. William then went on to win the Hope Scholarship during his second year, but, as if to test his resolve further, it was abolished just before he was eligible to obtain it. His tuberculosis symptoms, however, subsided during his second year, allowing him to retain a full course load which included surgery, practical anatomy, and physiology.

Cheyne's academic schedule left him a free period from 12-1 PM during which one of the world's best surgeons and pioneering bacteriologists, Joseph Lister, conducted his lectures. A turning point in his life occurred one day in October 1872, while taking refuge from the rain in Lister's lecture hall, William found himself captivated by the great scientist's teaching, clarity of explanation, and enthusiasm about antiseptic chemistry. William recalled Lister's first lecture and the effect it had had on him: "He had not spoken many minutes before I became fascinated with the subject and could not help seeing the wonderful era that was dawning for surgery... and not knowing that I had met my fate I became entranced with the wonderful vision laid before us by Lister" (C. Watson, et al.).

William, who continued to attend Lister's lectures in the winter of 1872-73, took elaborate notes which are now displayed in the library of the Royal College of Surgeons (British Medical Journal). He then enrolled in Lister's course, obtaining the highest mark in the class, which was extremely difficult because he had his physiology exams on the same day as Lister's exams. Studying kept him up all night, because he had to prepare for both courses at the same time. William was battling on two academic fronts: he wanted to obtain the highest mark in Lister's class; and he wanted to beat the reigning physiology man who had won the College award twice. The result was that William obtained a 99% on the physiology exam, tying with his opponent, and, although a third-year student, he received a 96% on Lister's examination which was ordinarily taken by fourth- and fifth-year students. Lister was so impressed with Cheyne's marks that he called him into his office and asked him why he had not applied for Lister's house dressership position (someone who assists during surgery). Overwhelmed with excitement, he applied immediately, and was later selected for the assignment out of a class of 200-300 students (British Medical Journal).

Cheyne took a year off after graduating M.B., C.M., with First-Class Honors in 1875 because Lister had suggested applying for a position as house surgeon at the Royal Infirmary, but the position was not yet available. During his year off, Cheyne, who was fluent in German and had a £150 inheritance, went to Strassburg, Germany, and to Vienna, Austria, to study and work with established bacteriologists, such as Politzer and von Recklinghausen (C. Watson, et al). In Austria, he attended the biological lectures of Billroth, Brucke, von Hebra, Exner, and Politzer. He spent 3 months in a lab with the great pathologist, von Recklinghausen, and witnessed how Lister's antiseptic method was being applied — and misapplied — in post-operative cases.

Upon his return to the University of Edinburgh in 1876, with new confidence and cutting-edge knowledge, William began a series of biological experiments that lasted from October 1876, to spring 1877 and won the Syme bacteriological scholarship, valued at £100 per year for two years (C. Herrick). From 1879 to 1886, he translated German texts into English, under the auspices of the New Sydenham Society. This brought inaccessible German research to the English-speaking world. One of the most important of these texts was Cheyne's fluent 1880 translation of Dr. Koch's "Investigations into the Etiology of Traumatic Infective Diseases" (1880), a text that would prove essential to the development of Cheyne's medical bacteriology.

Shortly after Joseph Lister was appointed chair of clinical surgery at King's College Hospital in London, he invited Cheyne to accompany him as a house surgeon. Cheyne accepted and was soon off to London to join a group of students and staff who were not very enthusiastic about antisepsis. The time at King's was not completely negative, however, as Cheyne had plenty of time to research and study. Hard work paid off when he was awarded the F.R.C.S diploma in 1879. At this time, Cheyne received the prestigious appointment of assistant house surgeon at King's College Hospital; but, with a small private practice, he could barely make ends meet (Obit., Royal Society). By the end of his career, however, his practice had expanded considerably. In 1882 Cheyne published an academic manual, Antiseptic Surgery: Its Principles, Practice, History and Results, in which he detailed his unique delivery methods of antiseptic and various surgical methods.

Two plates from Antiseptic Surgery — left to right: (a) The arrangement of towels in a large operation. (b) “This figure represents the general arrangement of surgeon, assistants, towels, spray, etc., in an operation performed with complete aseptic precautions. The distance of the spray from the wound, the arragement of wet towels, the position of the trough containing the instruments, the position of the small dish with the lotion, the position of the house surgeon and dresser, so that the former always has his hands in the cloud of the spray, and the latter hands his instruments into the spray and various other points are shown”. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Successful surgery, he was convinced, depended on operational proficiency and on the ability to prevent infections, for which he used carbolic acid and other agents, administered as aerosols, liquids, and putties, according to the Listerian system.

As mentioned earlier, Cheyne published a biography, Lister and His Achievement (1925), in which he discussed the medical and bacteriological contributions of his colleague and mentor. Cheyne should also be remembered as having significantly contributed to the development of Lister's surgical techniques. One of Cheyne's most important achievements was his engineering of a dissector scalpel (figure below), a precision surgical instrument uniquely designed for dexterity, that has developed over the century and is still used today.

The Watson Cheyne Dissector. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

William became a full surgeon in 1887 and professor of the principles and practice of surgery in 1891. After eight years, in 1899, Cheyne volunteered for active service in the South African War and became a civil consulting surgeon to his troops. He would publish papers on war wounds during the Boer Wars. In World War I, as President of the Royal Society College of Surgeons in England, he published extensive research on the use of antisepsis against gangrene under battlefield condition. One of his many works in this area was "The Treatment of Wounds in War" (November 1914), a paper delivered at the Medical Society of London.


Watson Cheyne in later life. Source: Wikipedia.

Cheyne's career was brought to fulfillment when he joined the Royal Navy in 1908, was created a baronet under the name, Sir William Watson Cheyne, and received a commission as surgeon Rear-Admiral in the Royal Navy Reserve (C. Herrick). After being at sea and savoring his role as Navy surgeon, he was appointed "Surgeon-in-Ordinary" to the King and held that post up until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, at which time he entered active duty with the Royal Navy, serving in the Dardanelles with the Fleet. He retired from active practice in 1917 but continued to lecture at several universities, including the University of Edinburgh and St. Andrew's, and was elected to Parliament, serving 1918-1927. In 1924, while a speaker at Lister's Memorial Lecture, he was awarded the first Lister Medal, at the Royal College of Surgeons. He was later made an honorary fellow to the College of Physicians and to the College of Surgeons at Edinburg (C. Herrick) and received honorary degrees from Edinburgh and Oxford.

William Watson Cheyne led a very active life as surgeon, bacteriologist, and Navy commander. Of his private life, however, our knowledge is sketchy. William married twice (to Mary Emma, in 1887, with whom he had two sons and one daughter; to Margret, with whom he had two daughters and one son). His daughter Mary (first marriage) died in infancy; and all of his children with Margret predeceased him. One can say that tragedy overshadowed, but never eclipsed, his life's work. William died on 19 April 1932 and was succeeded as a second baronet by his oldest son, Joseph Lister Cheyne, who was a colonel in the 16th Lancers (C. Herrick).


Bett, W. R. "Sir William Watson Cheyne, Bart., F. R. S. (1852-1932)." Obituary Notice. Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England . December 1952; 11(6): 346-366.

Cheyne, William Watson. Tuberculosis Disease of Bones and Joints: Its Pathology, Symptoms, and Treatment. Edinburgh and London: Young J. Pentland, 1895.

_____. On the Treatment of Tuberculous Diseases in Their Surgical Aspect, Being the Harveian Lecture of 1899. London: John Bale, Sons & Danielson, 1900.

_____. (1914). "The Treatment of Wounds in War." British Medical Journal; 2 (2812): 865-871.

_____. Lister and His Achievement. London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1925.

"Cheyne, William Watson, Baronet 1852-1932." Obituary Notice. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. December 1932; 1(1): 26-30; / 21 August 2014.

"Cheyne, Sir William Watson (1852-1932)." Plarr's Lives of the Fellows Online. Royal College of Surgeons of England; http://livesonline. / 21 August 2014.

Herrick, Claire E. J. "Watson Cheyne." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. New York: Oxford UP, n.d. 382-383

Koch, Robert. "Investigations into the Etiology of Traumatic Infective Diseases." (1978). Translated by William Watson Cheyne. London: The New Sydenham Society, 1880.

Martin, Walton. "Sir William Watson Cheyne (14 December 1852-19 April 1932)." Obituary Notice. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. 1932; 8(5): 336-337; / 20 August 2014.

Watson, Caroline C., et al. "William Watson Cheyne (1852-1932): A Life in Medicine and His Innovative Surgical Treatment of Congenital Hydrocephalus." Child’s Nervous System. 2013; 29(11): 1961-1965.

Last modified 28 January 2007