Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sharp, William (1805-1896)

SHARP, WILLIAM (1805–1896), physician, third son and fifth child of Richard Sharp, merchant, and Mary Turton, his wife, was born at Armley, near Leeds, on 21 Jan. 1805. His family had lived in that neighbourhood and at Horton, near Bradford, for several generations. One member of it was John Sharp [q. v.], the archbishop of York; another was Abraham Sharp [q. v.], the astronomer and mathematician. William Sharp was educated at Wakefield grammar school from 1813 to 1816, under the supervision of his uncle, Samuel Sharp, vicar of the parish, and he was afterwards sent to Westminster school, where he remained from 1817 to 1820. He was articled in 1821 to his uncle, William Sharp, a leading surgeon at Bradford, and he subsequently served a part of his apprenticeship to his uncle's cousin, the second William Hey of Leeds. He went to London on the completion of his indentures to attend the lectures and the practice at the united borough hospitals. In 1826 he obtained the license of the Society of Apothecaries, and in 1827 he was admitted a member of the College of Surgeons of England. He proceeded to Paris, as was then the fashion for the better class of newly qualified medical men. After a year he returned to Bradford to assist his uncle, the surgeon, to whose practice he succeeded in 1833. He was elected a surgeon to the Bradford infirmary in 1829, and became its senior surgeon in 1837; at the same time he conducted for many years the largest general practice in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

A natural bent for science, fostered by his education at the Sorbonne, led him to establish the Bradford Philosophical Society, of which he was the first president. In 1839 he read an important paper at the Birmingham meeting of the British Association, in which he advocated the formation of local museums, each collection being limited to objects of interest belonging to the town in which it was formed. This paper led to his election as fellow of the Royal Society on 7 May 1840.

He left Bradford in 1843 and lived at Hull for the succeeding four years, practising his profession, and giving two winter courses of lectures on chemistry at the Hull and East Riding school of medicine. After spending some time in travel, he removed to Rugby, so that his sons might attend the school there. Dr. Tait was then headmaster. At Rugby Sharp's energy in the promotion of science led to the establishment of science teaching as an integral part of the curriculum of the Rugby school, and Sharp was appointed in 1849 its ‘reader in natural philosophy.’ He resigned the post in 1850, to devote himself more exclusively to medical investigations. At the suggestion of his friend, Dr. Ramsbotham of Leeds, he studied homœopathy, and two years later adopted the methods of homœopathists. He acted in 1873 as president of the British homœopathic congress at Leamington, but further experimental researches carried him to a point of view accepted by few of Hahneman's disciples. In his discovery at last of the opposite actions of large and small doses of the same drug, he believed that he had taken the first steps towards a more scientific basis for therapeutics; and he also saw in it a principle of reconciliation between two theories of medicine hitherto regarded as antagonistic. The progress of pharmacology, of experimental physiology, and of bacteriology has shown that some of the facts upon which he based his theory are capable of an explanation widely different from his own.

In 1856 the degree of M.D. was conferred upon him by the archbishop of Canterbury. He retired from practice in 1877, but continued his medical researches for some years longer. He died while on a visit to Llandudno, 10 April 1896. His body lies in the graveyard of Llanrhos. A portrait, painted in 1840 by Thomas Richmond, is now in the possession of Mrs. Sharp at Horton House, Rugby. Sharp married, on 10 March 1836, Emma, sixth daughter of John Scott, vicar of St. Mary's, Hull [see under Scott, Thomas, 1747–1821].

Sharp's claim to recognition rests on his practical suggestions for encouraging the study of natural science. It is owing to his initiative that every public school in England now has its science teacher, and every town its local museum. The value of his medical researches remains for future estimate. Allying himself to no school and wedding himself to no theory, his sole object in life appears to have been to advance physic along the lines of therapeutics.

He published: 1. ‘Practical Observations on Injuries of the Head,’ 8vo, London, 1841. 2. ‘Therapeutics founded upon Organopathy and Antipraxy,’ London, 8vo, 1886. He also wrote sixty tracts on homœopathy and the action of drugs in varying doses, published at different times between 1851 and 1892. The first twenty-six were collected in 1874 in a volume entitled ‘Essays on Medicine, being an Investigation of Homœopathy and other Medical Systems.’

[Men and Women of the Time, 13th edit. p. 817; additional information kindly given by Miss Sharp, his daughter.]

D’A. P.