Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Rutherford, William (1839-1899)

RUTHERFORD, WILLIAM (1839–1899), physiologist, the seventh and youngest son of Thomas Rutherford, a gentleman farmer, was born at Ancrum Craig in Roxburghshire on 20 April 1839, and was educated in the district grammar school. He then entered the university of Edinburgh, where he graduated M.D. in 1863, taking a gold medal for his thesis. He acted as house-phvsician at the Royal Infirmary to Daniel Rutherford Haldane (1824–1887) [q. v.], and as house-surgeon to James Spence [q. v.] For a year he was assistant demonstrator of anatomy at Surgeons' Hall under (Sir) John Struthers [q. v. Suppl.], after which he went abroad to perfect his knowledge of experimental physiology. He spent the winter of 1864-5 in Berlin, working under Professor Du Bois-Reymond, to gain a special insight into electrical physiology. Thence he passed to Dresden, Prague, Vienna, Leipzig, where he worked with Professor Ludwig, and Paris. In 1865 he returned to Edinburgh, and was appointed assistant to John Hughes Bennett (1812-1875) [q. y.], then professor of the institutes of medicine in the university of Edinburgh. Rutherford was much influenced by the perfect lucidity which was his master's chief characteristic. But he added to it the labour of research and preparation, so that his four years' assistantship established his reputation as a practical teacher, and, combined with his original investigations, procured for him the post of professor of physiology in King's College, London, to which he was appointed in 1869. He threw himself with ardour into the duties of the chair. His lectures were illustrated by the most admirable diagrams and by the performance of precise and delicate experiments, whose preparation often cost him hours of preliminary work. Above all, his students were made to prepare microscopical sections for themselves, and to carry out the easier manipulations in connection with physiological chemistry and experimental physiology. In 1871 Rutherford filled the office of Fullerian professor of physiology at the Royal Institution of London, and in 1874 he returned to Edinburgh as professor of physiology, a post he held until his death. He died unmarried on 21 Feb. 1899, and is buried at Ancrum. A marble bust, said to be an excellent likeness, by John Hutchinson, R.S.A., stands in the physiology class room at the university of Edinburgh. It was unveiled by Sir William Muir, principal of the university, on 8 July 1899.

The science of histology owes much to Rutherford; he was one of the first teachers in this country to deviate from the old methods of instruction, and to introduce the improvements which had been found most serviceable in foreign laboratories. He modified a microtome, invented by A. B. Stirling, adding to it a freezing chamber; the apparatus rapidly came into extensive use, and proved of great service in the study both of histology and pathology. As a physiologist he was interested in the recondite problems of electro-physiology, and in the physiological action of drugs on the secretion of the bile, and later in life he devoted much time to investigate the structure of striated muscle and the mechanism of the senses.

Rutherford devoted much valuable time, which might have been spent in original research, to perfecting his lectures on physiology, and to rendering them in the highest degree useful and acceptable to his class. This care and minute attention to detail rendered him one of the most successful as well as one of the most brilliant lecturers who have held a professorial chair in the university of Edinburgh. Yet Rutherford was shy, almost to timidity, and he was full of mannerisms and extremely sensitive to criticism. He was a good musician, with a fine baritone voice, and for som e time he acted as secretary of the University of Edinburgh Musical Society.

Rutherford's works are: 1. 'Notes of a Course of Practical Histology for Medical Students, given in King's College, London,' London, 1872, 8vo.

  • 'Introductory Lecture to the Course of Institutes of Medicine (Physiology) in the University of Edinburgh,' Edinburgh, 1874, 8vo.
  • 'Outlines of Practical Histology,' London, 1875, royal 8vo; 2nd edit, London, 1876.
  • 'An Experimental Research on the Physiological Actions of Drugs on the Secretion of Bile,' Edinburgh, 1880, 8vo.
  • 'A Text Book of Physiology,' Edinburgh, 1880, 8vo.

    He was also co-editor of the 'Journal of Anatomy and Physiology,' Cambridge and London, 1875-6, and of the 'Journal of Physiology,' London and Cambridge, 1878.

    [Personal knowledge; British Medical Journal, 1899, i. 564; private information.]

    D’A. P.