THE Professor of Surgery in Glasgow University was born in Bute in 1848, began his medical studies in Glasgow in 1865, and passed his final examinations in 1869 while still under age. One of his first public appointments was that of Casualty Surgeon to the Central District of Glasgow. In that post he remained for a dozen years, and obtained much valuable knowledge and experience. In 1873 he became Dispensary Surgeon to the Western Infirmary; but in October of the following year he transferred his services to the Royal Infirmary as Senior Dispensary Surgeon. From this in 1876 he was promoted to a full surgeonship of the Infirmary, in which post he remained till his appointment, in 1892, to the Regius Professorship of Surgery in Glasgow University. On that occasion his credentials included testimonials from men of the first note, not only in Britain, but in France, Germany, and Sweden, bearing witness both to the value and the conspicuous originality of the work he had accomplished, while the list of his contributions to surgical literature, and extracts from their press notices, were enough to fill a volume. In 1902 he received the honour of knighthood.
During his sixteen years in the Royal Infirmary Sir William Macewen revolutionized the practice of surgery Down to his time most of the surgeons were general medical practitioners, and an appalling mortality resulted from the fact that operations were performed by men who had been in contact with infective material of various kinds. It is true that Lord Lister's introduction of the antiseptic system in 1867 had done much to nullify the effect of such heedlessness, but it was Dr. Macewen who based the modern success of surgery on strict cleanliness. Among the earliest novelties in operations which he introduced was the straightening of bow legs and knock knees, a proceeding unheard of till his time, but now quite common and successful. All departments of surgery have received his keen original attention, but it is with the surgery of the brain and the spinal cord that Sir William Macewen has achieved his chief fame. Previously attempts to perform operations in the interior of the brain were unknown, but in 1876 he recommended the attempt in the case of a little boy admitted to his ward in the Royal Infirmary. The parents refused to allow the operation, and the boy died, but a post-mortem examination proved that Dr. Macewen's diagnosis was correct, and that the boy's life might have been saved. The fame of the great surgeon's subsequent operations in this department spread throughout the country, and though in the Times of December, 1884, an attempt was made to claim a case then under treatment in London as the first attempt of the kind, the credit of the marvellous institution of brain surgery remains with the Glasgow surgeon. The full recognition of that credit came in 1888, when, in the Bute Hall of Glasgow University, Dr. Macewen delivered a special address before the British Medical Association upon "The Surgery of the Brain and Spinal Cord." As he sat down after speaking for over an hour he received such an ovation as might have been the crowning triumph of any life. The subsequent publication of the address produced a sensation throughout the world, and Dr. Macewen was forthwith offered the post of surgeon to the John Hopkin's Hospital in Baltimore, one of the finest in Europe or America. This, however, he refused.
Among Sir William's chief publications are his "Osteotomy," 1880; "On Pyogenic Infective Disease of the Brain and Spinal Cord;" "Meningitis, Abscess of the Brain, Infective Linna Thrombosis," 1893; "On Hernia and its Radical Cure;" "On a Method of Cure of Aneurism;" and "On Transplantation of Bone by Bone Grafting." He is a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, a Fellow of the Royal Society, an Honorary Member of the Imperial Medical Academy, St. Petersburg, of the Royal Medical Academy of Rome, and of the American Surgical Society, and he is a corresponding Member of the Surgical Society of Paris.
Index of Glasgow Men (1909)