Roberts, William (1830-1899) (DNB01)

ROBERTS, Sir WILLIAM (1830–1899), physician, born at Bodedern, Anglesea, on 18 March 1830, was the eighth and youngest son of David Roberts, surgeon, of Mynydd-y-gof, and Sarah, his wife, daughter of Thomas Foulkes of Machynlleth, Montgomeryshire. He was educated at Mill Hill school, and entered University College, London, as a medical student in October 1849. Here he was early attracted to the study of physiology and graduated B. A. at the university of London in 1851, with the highest honours in chemistry and animal physiology. The same success attended him throughout his university career, and he graduated M.B. in 1853, after securing three gold medals, a scholarship, and an exhibition. In the same year he was admitted a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries and a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and in 1854 he graduated M.D. at the London University. He also pursued his medical studies in Paris and Berlin.

In 1854 Roberts was elected house-surgeon at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, and on 26 July 1855 was appointed full physician at the unusually early age of twenty-five; at the same time he became lecturer on anatomy and physiology in the Royal [Pine Street] School of Medicine at Manchester. In 1859 he was appointed lecturer on pathology, and in 1863 lecturer on the principles and practice of medicine at the Owens College, with which the Royal School of Medicine had become united, and he became afterwards the first professor of medicine at the Victoria University, jointly with Dr. Morgan, holding the office from 1873 to 1876. In 1864 Roberts was so deeply interested in testing the value of the clinical thermometer, then newly reintroduced by Wunderlich (1815–1877), in cases of fever, that he nearly died of typhus contracted in the wards of the Royal Infirmary at Manchester.

At the Royal College of Physicians Roberts was admitted a member in 1860 and a fellow in 1865. He delivered the Gulstonian lectures in 1866 on the use of solvents in the treatment of urinary calculi and gout, and in 1880 he gave the Lumleian lectures on the digestive ferments, and on artificially digested foods. He was a councillor in 1882-3-4, and censor in 1889-90. In 1892 he delivered the Croonian lectures on the chemistry and therapeutics of uric acid, gravel, and gout, and he was the Harveian orator in 1897. He was elected a fellow of University College, London, in 1864, and on 7 June 1877 he became a fellow of the Royal Society, serving as a member of the council in 1890-1. He received the Cameron prize in 1879 for his contributions to practical therapeutics, more especially in relation to the dietetic treatment of disease, and at the meeting of the British Medical Association at Cardiff in 1885 he delivered an address on feeding the sick. When the association met in London in 1895 he was president of the section of pharmacology and therapeutics.

Roberts resigned the post of physician to the Royal Infirmary, Manchester, on 26 Feb. 1883, and in 1885 was knighted. He moved from Manchester to London in 1889, and in 1892 he was appointed a fellow of the university of London. Here he soon became an active member of the committee which manages the Brown Institution, and was elected chairman of the committee on the death of Sir Richard Quain [q. v. Suppl.] in 1897. From 1896 until his death he represented the London University on the General Medical Council, and in 1898 he was nominated a member of the statutory commission appointed to provide adequate university teaching in London. In 1893 he served as the medical member of the opium commission, and in this capacity visited India.

During the last twenty years of his life Roberts invariably spent some portion of each year at Bryn, his country residence, where he took the greatest interest in developing his estate. He died in London on 16 April 1899, and is buried at Llanymawddwy, Merionethshire, a village near his house at Bryn.

He married, in 1869, Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Johnson, sometime president of the Manchester chamber of commerce. She died in 1874, leaving one son and a daughter, both of whom predeceased their father.

Roberts was an able physician, whose work covered a wide field, dealing with histology, physiology, and practical medicine. He was one of the first physicians in this country to show that a sound knowledge of physiology might be turned to excellent account in the treatment of disease, for it is to his especial honour that he introduced the practice of feeding invalids with foods digested outside the body a method which has proved of the utmost service and has saved very many lives.

He published: 1. 'An Essay on Wasting Palsy (Cruveilhier's atrophy),' London, 1858, 8vo: the first systematic treatise on this disease in the English language. 2. 'On Peculiar Appearances exhibited by Blood-corpuscles under the Influence of Solutions of Magenta and Tannin,' London, 1863, 8vo. This short paper, contributed to the Royal Society, made the name of Roberts familiar to many generations of medical students, for it describes the appearances known as 'Roberts's maculæ.' 3. 'A Practical Treatise on Urinary and Renal Diseases, including Urinary Deposits,' London, 1865, 8vo; 4th edit, (edited by Dr. Robert Maguire) 1885, 12mo. 4. 'On Spontaneous Generation and the Doctrine of Contagium Vivum, being the Address in Medicine delivered at the Annual Meeting of the British Medical Association,' London, 1877, 8vo. Roberts here records a number of carefully devised experiments dealing with the sterilisation of liquids, and arrived at the important conclusion that 'the organisms which appear as if spontaneously in decomposing fluids owe their origin to parent germs derived from the surrounding media.' 5. 'On the Digestive Ferments, and the Preparation and Use of Artificially Digested Food; being the Lumleian Lectures for the Year 1880,' 2nd edit. London, 1881, 8vo. 6. 'Lectures on Dietetics and Dyspepsia,' London, 1885, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1886. 7. 'Collected Contributions on Digestion and Diet,' London, 1891.

|[The Life and Works of Sir William Roberts, by the late D. J. Leech, M.D., with an appendix containing a list of the published writings compiled and chronologically arranged by C. J. Cullingworth, M.D.; the Medical Chronicle for June 1899, vol. xi. n.s.; British Medical Journal, 1899, i. 1063; personal knowledge; Royal Society Yearbook, 1901, pp. 202-5; private information.]

D’A. P.