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Sewell, William (1780-1853) (DNB01)

SEWELL, WILLIAM (1780–1853), veterinarian, third principal of the Royal Veterinary College, London, was born in 1780 of quaker parents resident in Essex. He was apprenticed at an early age, probably in 1796, to Edward Coleman (1764?-1839), the second principal of the Veterinary College; and at Coleman's request Sewell was appointed his assistant at the college on obtaining his diploma in 1799.

Sewell first came into prominence in connection with his supposed discovery (in 1803) of a canal pervading the 'medulla spinalis,' an account of which he presented to the Royal Society in a paper read by Sir Everard Home (see Trans. Roy. Soc. 1808). Though Sewell's opinions on this point were erroneous, the credit has been claimed for him of having been 'on the brink' of the great discoveries made many years subsequently by Sir Charles Bell (Vet. 1831 iv. 629, 1834 vii. 130). In 1815 he made a tour through France, visiting the veterinary establishments at Lyons and Paris; in 1816 he made a similar tour of inspection through Germany by way of Vienna, Prague, Berlin, and Hanover. A report of this tour was laid before the governors of the Veterinary College in 1818.

In the same year an extremely important discovery, or rather re-discovery, 'which has added years of comfort and usefulness to the existence of so many of our quadruped servants' (Vet. 1831, iv. 335), that of neurotomy, was published in a paper presented by Sewell to the governors of the Veterinary College. Some years later, in 1823, a fuller and more detailed account was published in the 'Elementary Lectures on the Veterinary Art' of William Percevall, attributing to Sewell the chief credit of the discovery (see also Vet. 1834 vii. 20, 1 836 ix. 367). Sewell also practised a new method of treating splints, considering the use of the firing-iron as barbarous and cruel (Vet. 1835, viii. 504). He also claimed to have discovered a cure for glanders, in the use of sulphate of copper. This was looked upon with considerable distrust by his fellow veterinarians, and the proposal of a pecuniary reward which was made at a meeting of the governors of the Veterinary College was defeated, largely owing to the opposition of Professor Coleman (Vet. 1829, ii. 246). Sewell also incurred the displeasure of certain of his fellow veterinarians for having reported some of his remarks on glanders to the College of Physicians rather than to the veterinary profession.

In 1835-6 Sewell was president of the Veterinary Medical Society, and on 17 Feb. 1836 a handsome testimonial was presented to him by the members of that society 'for his efficient services during a period of twenty-one years.' But immediately after disputes took place which led to the secession of Sewell, Charles Spooner (1806-1871) [q. v.], subsequently his successor, and others.

On the death of Coleman in 1839, Sewell was appointed to succeed him as principal of the college, delivering his inaugural lecture on 18 Nov. 1839 (Vet. 1839, xii. 804). Considerable disapproval was, however, manifested at his undertaking to lecture on cattle pathology, a subject in which he was not considered to be sufficiently qualified, his department being rather that of surgery. In 1842, however, an alteration was made, and Professor J. B. Simonds was appointed to lecture on the diseases of cattle, sheep, and pigs (Vet. 1840, xiii. 500, 549, 550, and 558). The death of Professor Coleman placed Sewell in many respects at the head of his profession, and his position received further recognition in 1852 by his election (in succession to Mr. William Robinson of Tamworth) as third president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, which had been incorporated in 1844.

In 1840, during the prevalence of an epidemic of what has been since named 'foot and mouth disease,' the Royal Agricultural Society of England issued a circular to its members detailing full particulars as to the treatment of the disease according to the method recommended by Professor Sewell. Sewell was on this account attacked by his brother veterinarians on the plea that his circular had spoilt their practice (Vet. 1841, xiv. 196, 664). In 1841 Sewell reported to the Royal Agricultural Society on the epidemic (Journal R.A.S.E. vol. ii. p. cxix). Towards the end of his life, owing to his advanced age and occasional illness, he confined his attention in great part to the general direction of the college, the actual duties of lecturing falling chiefly on younger men, Assistant Professor Spooner and Professor Simonds. Sewell died on 8 June 1853 at the age of seventy-two, and was buried at Highgate cemetery. He married late in life and left no family.

Sewell wrote nothing beyond a few contributions to the veterinary and medical periodicals, and a report (1818) of his visit to the principal veterinary schools of the continent. Both his skill as an operator and his efficiency as a lecturer have been disputed (Vet. 1834 vii. 667, 1841 xiv. 37), but he appears nevertheless to have achieved a considerable success in both.

[The Veterinarian, passim, especially obituary in number for 1 July 1853; Professor J. B. Simonds's Life of William Sewell, 1897, 8ro(unpublished); private information.]

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