Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sharpey, William
SHARPEY, WILLIAM (1802–1880), physiologist, posthumous son of Henry Sharpy (as he spelt the name) and Mary Balfour his wife, was born on 1 April 1802 at Arbroath in Forfarshire, whither his father, a shipowner and a native of Folkestone in Kent, had migrated some years previously. He was educated at the public school in his native town until he entered the university of Edinburgh, in November 1817, to study the humanities and to attend the class of natural philosophy. He commenced his medical studies in 1818, learning anatomy from Dr. John Barclay, who then lectured in the extra-academical school. He was admitted a member of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons in 1821, when he came to London to continue his anatomical work in the private school of Joshua Brookes in Blenheim Street. He proceeded to Paris in the autumn, and remained there for nearly a year, learning clinical surgery from Dupuytren in the wards of the Hôtel Dieu, and operative surgery from Lisfranc. Here he made the acquaintance of James Syme [q. v.], with whom he kept up an active correspondence until Syme's death in 1870. In August 1823 he graduated M.D. at Edinburgh with the inaugural thesis ‘De Ventriculi Carcinomate,’ and he afterwards returned to Paris, where he spent the greater part of 1824. He then appears to have settled for a time in Arbroath, where he began to practise under his step-father, Dr. Arrott; but, finding himself unsuited for private practice, he from the end of 1826 devoted himself to pure science. Setting out for the continent with knapsack on back and staff in hand, he trudged through France to Switzerland, and thence to Rome and Naples. He turned his steps northward again in the spring of 1828, and, passing through Bologna, he stayed at Padua to work under Panizza, and came by way of Venice to Innspruck. The summer was spent in Austria, and he reached Berlin in August. He dissected here for nine months under Professor Rudolphi, and went thence to Heidelberg, to be under Tiedemann, and afterwards to Vienna. Having thus acquired a thorough acquaintance with the best methods of continental teaching, he established himself in Edinburgh in 1829, and in the following year he obtained the fellowship of the College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, presenting a probationary essay ‘On the Pathology and Treatment of False Joints.’ The diploma of fellow qualified him to become a teacher in Edinburgh; but in 1831 he again spent three months in Berlin, and it was not until 1831–2 that, in conjunction with Dr. Allen Thomson [q. v.], who taught physiology, he gave a first course of lectures upon systematic anatomy in the extra-mural school in Edinburgh. The association of Sharpey with Thomson lasted during the remainder of Sharpey's stay in Edinburgh.
From 1829 till 1836 Sharpey was actively engaged in scientific work, of which the earliest outcome was his paper on ciliary motion, published in 1830. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1834, and in July 1836 he was appointed to the chair of anatomy and physiology in the university of London (now University College), in succession to Jones Quain [q. v.] In this capacity Sharpey gave the first complete course of lectures upon physiology and minute anatomy, as these terms are now understood; for physiology had been hitherto regarded as an appendage to anatomy. His lectures proved of the greatest importance; they were models both in matter and form. They were continued for the long period of thirty-eight years, and were always largely attended.
Sharpey was appointed in 1840 one of the examiners in anatomy at the university of London, a post he occupied for many years, and he was also a member of the senate of the London University. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 9 May 1839. He was made a member of its council in 1844, and was appointed one of the secretaries in place of Thomas Bell (1792–1880) [q. v.] in November 1853, an office which he held until his retirement, owing to the failure of his eyesight in 1872. He was also for fifteen years, from April 1861, one of the members appointed by the crown on the general council of medical education and registration. He acted as one of the treasurers of this council, and took a deep interest in the various subjects connected with medical education and the polity of the medical profession. Sharpey was also one of the trustees of the Hunterian Museum, which is maintained by the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and in 1859 he received the degree of honorary LL.D. from the university of Edinburgh.
About 1871 he retired from the post of secretary of the Royal Society, and in 1874 from his professorship at University College, but he continued to haunt the scene of his former labours until he died. Mr. Gladstone's government in 1874 accorded him an annual pension of 150l., in recognition of his services as a teacher and a man of science. He died of bronchitis at 50 Torrington Square, London, on Sunday, 11 April 1880, and was buried in the abbey graveyard at Arbroath.
The qualities which chiefly distinguished Sharpey were the variety of his knowledge, the accuracy of his memory, and his sound discrimination in all matters of doubt or controversy. Among his pupils were Professor Michael Foster and Professor Burdon Sanderson, by whose efforts the Cambridge, Oxford, and London schools of physiology have been remodelled. Great as were Sharpey's services to physiology, his guidance of the Royal Society during a period when changes were taking place in its administration was no less important, not only to the society itself, but to science in this country. Like every great teacher, Sharpey possessed the power of attaching his pupils by ties of personal affection as well as those of common scientific interests.
Sharpey wrote comparatively little; he preferred to act as editor and referee rather than author. His few papers are of lasting value. They are: 1. ‘De Ventriculi Carcinomate,’ 8vo, Edinburgh, 1823. 2. ‘A Probationary Essay on the Pathology and Treatment of False Joints,’ Edinburgh, 1830. 3. ‘On a Peculiar Motion excited in Fluids of the Surfaces of Certain Animals’ (‘Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal,’ 1830, xxxiv. 113). 4. ‘Remarks on a supposed Spontaneous Motion of the Blood’ (‘Edinburgh Journal of Nat. and Geographical Science,’ 1831). 5. ‘An Account of Professor Ehrenberg's Researches on the Infusoria’ (‘Edinburgh Nat. Philosophical Journal,’ 1833, vol. xv.) 6. ‘Account of the Discovery by Purkinje and Valentin of Ciliary Motions in Reptiles and Warm-blooded Animals, with Remarks and Additional Experiments’ (‘Edinburgh Nat. Philosophical Journal,’ 1830, vol. xix.) The information contained in articles 5 and 6 is embodied in his contribution on ‘Cilia’ to Todd and Bowman's ‘Cyclopædia of Anatomy and Physiology,’ published in 1836. Sharpey also wrote the valuable article on ‘Echinodermata’ in this ‘Cyclopædia.’ He edited the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth editions of Jones Quain's ‘Elements of Anatomy;’ and contributed important information to Baly's translation of Müller's ‘Physiology,’ 1837 and 1840.
As a memorial of Sharpey's services to University College, an excellent bust by W. H. Thorneycroft was placed in the museum there at the expense of his pupils and friends. There is also a full-length oil painting by John Prescott Knight, R.A. [q. v.], in the council room of University College. The bust is the happier likeness.[Obituary notices in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1880, vol. xxxi. pp. x–xix, and in Nature, 1880, xxi. 567; letters in Paterson's Life of James Syme, Edinburgh, 1874; Arbroath Parish Register, in the office of the registrar-general for Scotland.]