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Somerville, William (1771-1860) (DNB00)


SOMERVILLE, WILLIAM (1771–1860), physician, eldest son of Thomas Somerville [q. v.], and his wife Martha, daughter of Samuel Charters, was born in Edinburgh on 22 April 1771. He chose medicine as his profession, and, having entered the army as a surgeon, accompanied the expedition of Sir James Henry Craig [q. v.] to the Cape of Good Hope in 1795, and was appointed garrison-surgeon of Capetown on its capture by the British. He was employed on confidential missions by the government in the negotiation of treaties with the Kaffir tribes, who continued to make inroads on the farms of the Dutch colonists. In the course of his wanderings, he and his native guide were at one time sentenced to death by a Kaffir chief, and owed their lives to the intercession of the chief's wife. In an interval of his African travels Somerville graduated as doctor of medicine in the university of Aberdeen, on 27 June 1800. His longest and most important journey was performed in 1801–2, as co-commissioner with Mr. (afterwards Sir John) Trüter, member of the court of justice, by the order and at the expense of the Cape government, for the purpose of negotiating the purchase of cattle from the tribes of the interior, to replace those lost by the colonists in the Kaffir war. The expedition reached Lithako, the kraal of the Batlapin tribe, seven hundred miles from their starting-point, and three hundred from the frontier of the colony, in a region then rarely visited by Europeans. The journey is described in an appendix to Sir John Barrow's ‘Voyage to Cochin China,’ published in London in 1806, Somerville's promised narrative, as the author states in his preface, not having appeared. His next public service was again under Sir James Craig, whom he accompanied in his expedition to the Mediterranean, forming part of the operations against Napoleon in 1805. When failing health compelled the general to resign his command at the end of a year, during which Naples and Sicily had been successively occupied, Somerville returned to England with him, and was again on Craig's staff when his partial recovery enabled the latter to go out to Canada as governor-general in 1807. The appointment of inspector-general of hospitals in Canada was held by Somerville, together with the comptrollership of the customs in Quebec, until 1811, when he returned to England with his chief, and remained in attendance on him until his death in February of the following year. His prospects abroad were renounced for a home appointment on his marriage, in 1812, to his cousin, Mrs. Greig, better known as Mary Somerville [q. v.] After holding for a short time the post of deputy inspector of hospitals at Portsmouth, he became in 1813 head of the army medical department in Scotland, and resided in Edinburgh until his appointment in 1816 as one of the principal inspectors of the army medical board in England, when he removed to London. Admitted a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians on 27 June 1817, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 11 Dec. following, and, on 13 Nov. 1819, gazetted physician to Chelsea Hospital. His serious illness in 1838 compelled his family to winter abroad, and thenceforward to reside principally on the continent. His life was prolonged until 25 June 1860, when he died suddenly in Florence, aged 89. A man of considerable endowments, he shared the scientific tastes and pursuits as well as the social success of his wife, and after his marriage seemed to merge all personal ambition in the interest of her brilliant career. He left two daughters, Martha and Mary, both of whom died unmarried.

[Somerville's My Life and Times, Edinburgh, 1861, pp. 295, 389, 391; Munk's Roll of the Royal College of Physicians, London, 2nd edit. iii. 168–9; Sir John Barrow's A Voyage to Cochin China, London, 1806, Appendix; An Account of a Journey made in the Years 1801 and 1802 to Leatakoo, the Residence of the Chief of the Booshuana Nation.]

E. M. C.