Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burnett, William

BURNETT, Sir WILLIAM (1779–1861), physician, was born in January 1779 at Montrose, where he was apprenticed to a surgeon. He was appointed surgeon's mate on board the Edgar, 74 guns, soon after his arrival at Edinburgh to pursue his medical studies. Later he served as assistant-surgeon in the Goliath under Sir J. Jervis, and was present at St. Vincent and the siege of Cadiz. Continuing in the navy, and serving with great distinction at the Nile and Trafalgar, he received a C.B. and four war medals for his services. For five years after Trafalgar Burnett was in charge of the hospitals for prisoners of war at Portsmouth and Forton. His diligence in his most arduous hospital duties recommended Burnett in 1810 for the office of physician and inspector of hospitals to the Mediterranean fleet, then including 120 sail of all classes. His health became so much impaired that he returned to England towards the end of 1813; but in March following he was able to undertake the medical charge of the Russian fleet in the Medway, which was suffering severely from fever. He combined with this the charge of the prisoners of war at Chatham, among whom a virulent fever was raging. When he took charge of the hospital ship one surgeon had died, two others were dangerously ill, and fifteen patients had gangrene of the lower limbs. The season was most inclement, snow lay deep, and the prisoners were disorderly; yet Burnett went about his duties fearlessly, going alone among the prisoners, and gradually establishing an improved state of things. On the completion of this service Burnett settled at Chichester as a physician till 1822, when Lord Melville offered him a seat at the victualling board as colleague of Dr. Weir, then chief medical officer of the navy. Later he became physician-general of the navy, and in this capacity introduced most valuable reforms. He first required regular classified returns of diseases from each naval medical officer, thus rendering it possible to obtain accurate information about the health of the navy. He urged the erection of, and largely planned, the Melville Hospital at Chatham for naval patients. He introduced a much more humane treatment of naval lunatics at Haslar than had been previously practised. All the codes of instructions to naval medical officers of hospitals and ships were revised and greatly improved by him. In 1841 the naval medical corps testified their high regard for the benefits he had conferred on the service by presenting him with his full-length portrait by Sir M. A. Shee and a service of plate. He was largely instrumental in securing a better position for assistant-surgeons in the navy. Burnett published comparatively little, his chief writings being ‘An Account of the Bilious Remittent in the Mediterranean Fleet in 1810–13,’ London, 1814; ‘Official Report on the Fever in H.M.S. Bann on the coast of Africa and amongst the Royal Marines in the Island of Ascension,’ London, 1824; and ‘An Account of a Contagious Fever prevailing amongst the Prisoners of War at Chatham,’ London, 1831. Burnett was a fellow of the Royal Society, M.D. of Aberdeen, L.R.C.P. 1825, and fellow 1836. He was knighted on 25 May 1831, appointed physician-in-ordinary to the king on 13 April 1835, and soon after created K.C.H. Queen Victoria made him a K.C.B. in 1850. It was much regretted by the medical profession that Burnett became a patentee on a large scale in connection with his well-known disinfecting fluid, a strong solution of chloride of zinc. His patent fluid for preserving timber, canvas, cordage, &c., was likewise largely used. On his retirement from active service Burnett settled at Chichester, where he died on 16 Feb. 1861.

[Lancet, obituary notice, 23 Feb. 1861; Munk's Coll. of Phys. 1878, iii. 307.]

G. T. B.