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Priestley, William Overend (DNB01)

PRIESTLEY, Sir WILLIAM OVEREND (1829–1900), physician, the eldest son of Joseph Priestley and Mary, daughter of James Overend of Morley, was born at Morley Hall, near Leeds, on 24 June 1829; he was grand-nephew of Joseph Priestley [q. v.], who discovered oxygen. Priestley was educated successively at Leeds, King's College, London, Paris, and the university of Edinburgh. He was admitted a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1852, and in 1853 he graduated M.D. at Edinburgh, taking as his thesis 'The Development of the Gravid Uterus.' The thesis showed such merit that it was awarded Professor Simpson's gold medal and the higher distinction of the senate gold medal, which is given only for excellence in original work.
 The dissections which illustrate it still find an honoured place in the Edinburgh University Museum. Priestley acted as the private assistant of Sir James Young Simpson [q. v.] for some time after his graduation, but in 1856 he came to London and gave lectures at the Grosvenor Place School of Medicine. In 1858 he was appointed lecturer on midwifery at the Middlesex Hospital, and in 1862 he was elected professor of obstetric medicine at King's College, London, and obstetric physician to King's College Hospital, in the place of Dr. Arthur Farre. These posts he resigned in 1872, and he was then appointed consulting obstetric physician to the hospital, becoming an honorary fellow of King's College and a member of the council. 

Priestley was admitted a member of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1859, and was chosen a fellow in 1864, serving as a member of the council 1878-80, Lumleian lecturer in 1887, and censor 1891-2. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1858, and from 1866 to 1876 he was an examiner in mid-wifery at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. He was also at different times an examiner at the Royal College of Physicians of London and at the universities of Cambridge, London, and Victoria. He was president of the Obstetrical Society of London 1875-6, and was a vice-president of the Medical Society of Paris. He was a physician-accoucheur to H.R.H. Princess Louis of Hesse (Alice of England), and to Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein. The honorary degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him by the university of Edinburgh in 1884, and in 1893 he was knighted. Early in his career he was attracted to politics in connection with professional subjects, and on 12 May 1896 he was elected without opposition parliamentary representative of the universities of Edinburgh and St. Andrews in the conservative interest upon the elevation of Sir Charles Pearson to the Scottish bench.

He died in London on 11 April 1900, and is buried at Warnham, near Westbrook Hall, his estate in Sussex. There is an excellent half-length portrait in oils painted by Rudolf Lehmann, his brother-in-law. Priestley married, on 17 April 1856, Eliza, the fourth daughter of Robert Chambers (1802-1871) [q.v.], by whom he had two sons and two daughters.

Sir William Priestley was among the first to convert midwifery into obstetric medicine by using modern scientific methods to elucidate its problems. Much of his success in the theory and practice of his art he owed to his master, Sir James Y. Simpson. His power of teaching, his urbanity, and his skill soon obtained him a practice of the highest order, and enabled him to exert considerable influence upon his own branch of medicine. Unfortunately he entered parliament too late and sat there too short a time to render such services to his profession as he would have wished. He was especially interested in the remodelling of the London University, and desired to convert it from an examining into a teaching body. During the latter years of his life he wished to restore the library of the university of Edinburgh, but his design was frustrated by the refusal of the government to give a grant for the purpose.

Priestley's works were: 1. 'Lecture on the Development of the Gravid Uterus,' London, 1860, 8vo. 2. The Pathology of Intra-uterine Death, being the Lumleian Lectures delivered at the Royal College of Physicians of London, March 1887,' London, 1887, 8vo. He also edited, in conjunction with H. R. Storer, the 'Obstetric Writings and Contributions of Sir James Y. Simpson,' Edinburgh, 1855-6, 2 vols. 8vo.

[Lancet, 1900, i. 1147; British Medical Journal, 1900, i. 995; personal knowledge; private information.]

D’A. P.