British Medical Journal/1923/The Late Sir William Thorburn



Tributes to his Memory.

Dr. Judson Bury, consulting physician to the Manchester Royal Infirmary, writes:

Sir William Thorburn
As an old friend and colleague of the late Sir William Thorburn I feel I must say a few words in appreciation of his ability, his scientific work, and his personal character. The greatness of his natural ability was shown by the prizes and scholarships he took during his university career, by the clearness of diction and excellent quality of his speeches and writings, and by his business capacity and powers of organization, which, foe example, Were conspicuous in the undertakings concerned with. the construction of the new Royal Infirmary.

It is often difficult to form a just estimate of the work of a colleague who has recently passed away, and perhaps especially difficult when that colleague was a friend, but in Thorburn's case the difficulty is small, for the high value of his scientific work, particularly that bearing on spinal localization, has been long and widely recognized; more-over, the conclusions which he drew from his investigations have proved to be accurate and worthy of a permanent place in medical literature. These investigations involved detailed observations on the extent of the paralysis and anaesthesia in cases of injuries and diseases of the spinal cord, and subsequently in determining the exact site of the post-mortem lesions. As the result of a large number of such investigations Thorburn was able to work out the precise distribution of the various nerve roots, and he was probably the first to do so in this way—that is, by the correlation of clinical and pathological observations. These investigations were carried out about thirty-five years ago and were set out in a book published in 1889. At that time I was closely associated with Thorburn in clinical work at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, and can testify to the care with which he recorded his observations, to his caution in avoiding bias, and above all to the honesty with which he stated the results of his findings. Honesty is the prevailing note in all Thorburn's publish work; for example, no one can read his recent Bradshaw lecture on the surgery of the spinal cord without being convinced that he has avoided laying stress on instances of success and has honestly given his experience of medullary surgery over a large number of years.

As regards personal character, it is painful to reflect that it rarely seems fitting to tell our dearest friends how much we respect and admire them, and that such feelings can Only be fully expressed after our friends have been taken from us. Thorburn was a true and loyal friend, and, although at times there was a certain aloofness in his conversation and manner, his friends knew that this was but a cover for a generous spirit and a kind, unselfish disposition. I am inclined to think that honesty and courage were the two most prominent features of his character. Surely no man was ever more sorely stricken. The loss of his three sons and the quite recent death of his wife were terrible blows, but Thorburn, deeply wounded, still held on to courage. As Sir J. M. Barrie said in his rectorial address at St. Andrews University last year, "Courage is the thing. All goes if courage goes."

"Fight on, my men, says Sir Andrew Barton.
I am hurt, but I am not slaine;
I'll lie me down and bleed awhile,
And then I'll rise and fight againe."

I firmly believe that Thorburn retained his courage to the last and greeted the unseen, if not with a cheer, at least with equanimity. Thorburn's work will live: his honesty, courage, and kindly feelings will abide in the memory of his friends. We are indebted to Dr. Donald E. Core, lecturer in neurology, University of Manchester, for the following tribute: I read with pride and interest your summary of Sir William Thorburn's life in your last issue, and the appreciations of his friends, Dr. Judson Bury and Mr. Howson Ray. I myself knew Sir William through-out the whole of my life, and I benefited so largely from his professional skill and his teaching that I would like to add my own slight tribute to his personality and professional genius. I attended his classes from 1902 to 1905, and by this time his reputation in neurological surgery was unassailable in Manchester. It was taken so much for granted that many of us possibly failed to realize the greatness and thoroughness of his work in this direction, but his overwhelming personality was over, us all, and whatever subject he touched upon he invested with an air of exactness and finality that was one of his chief characteristics. Few of us who were attending the Royal Infirmary in these years will have forgotten his lecture courses on diseases of the gall bladder and their treatment, and the wonderful series of lectures he gave on diseases of bones. Every subject he touched he coloured with his own dominant personality. His most striking teaching was probably that at the bedside; he had wonderful facility in summarizing the essentials of any case he was dealing with, and there was no student in his class but could follow with ease his clear-cut arguments and logical conclusion. He was pot a man who played for popularity among students, and the prevailing feeling among us was, perhaps, one rather of admiration mixed with awe than anything else. He carded this aloofness with him always, and, however well one felt one knew him, there was an equal impression that the real Thorburn was very far off. As senior resident at the Infirmary in 1912 I again came into close contact with him; I was then warded in one of his beds with a severe septic infection of the tendons in the forearm and hand, and I remember with a gratitude I cannot express the intense pains Sir William took in dealing with what turned out to be a very tedious case, visiting me frequently as many as three times a day for incisions and movements of the affected fingers. The recognition of the practically perfect hand which resulted is, I think, the greatest tribute that I can pay to him. I saw much of him during the war, for at the end of 1914 he established the neurological section of the 2nd Western General Hospital, the section that I was intimately concerned with, and the working of which brought me into frequent contact with Sir William. At this period he was more concerned with the organization of work and with broad generalizations, yet I do not think he ever showed himself to greater advantage than in his dealings with these cases at this time; at this time, also, he was suffering severely from his own personal bereavements. After the war I knew him as a colleague on the staff of the Royal Infirmary, and another side of his complex character dominated. Questions of hospital policy and details of medical administration received the same attention as in earlier days had been expended upon the cutaneous distribution of apinal segments, or the clinical aspects of the cervical rib, and were left again in the same state of completeness.

It became more and more obvious during these latter years that Sir William's interests were turning in the direction of medical politics, and his untimely death has been a blow to all of us, his students and his colleagues, who felt that he might one day have filled with distinction the presidential chair of the Royal College of Surgeons. Sir William was, I should say, by nature a very nervous and a very self-conscious man, and his aloofness and somewhat terrifying personality were of the nature of over-compensation in the opposite direction. Such men are not always sufficient for themselves, but it is among them, often enough, that the best workers are found.

A special service was held on March 21st at the Manchester Cathedral, which was filled by a large congregation, medical and lay women as well as men, who attended to pay their last respects to a friend and fellow worker or trusted adviser. The Royal College of Surgeons of England was represented by Sir Berkeley Moynihan and Mr. Thelwall Thomas; the University of Manchester by Professors H. B. Dixon, J. Shaw Dunn, J. S. B. Stopford, T. F. Tout, and R. B. Wild; the University of Liverpool by its vice-chancellor, Dr. Adami; the Army Medical Service by Colonel F. H. Westmacott; and the Manchester Medical Society by Sir William Milligan. The Board of Management of the Manchester Royal Infirmary, the Medico-Ethical Association, the old Owensian Society, and the St. Andrews Society of Manchester were also represented. Very many members of the staff of the Manchester Royal Infirmary were present, and also representatives of the nurses, as well as many personal friends in the profession. The interment took place afterwards at the Manchester Southern Cemetery.

A slight correction has to be made in the notice published last week. Sir Wiliam Thorburn had three sons: one died in 1910, one died in China in June, 1914, and Lieutenant F. E. Thorburn was killed in Gallipoli.

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The author died in 1944, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.