History of the RSM
Feature of the month - October 2008
The dermatologist and physician Robert Willan was born in 1757 at Sedburgh in Yorkshire. The younger son of a man-midwife, he studied medicine at Edinburgh and graduated MD in 1780 with his thesis on inflammation of the liver. He later set up practice in London and in 1783 was appointed physician to the Public Dispensary. He became a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians in 1785.
Willan was greatly interested in environmental and public health. His Reports on the Diseases of London was published in 1801 collecting various papers on diseases prevalent in London including An Account of the Dreadful Effects of Dram-Drinking. In 1806 Willan's On Vaccination Innoculation was published, describing skin lesions seen following vaccination and those diseases often mistaken for smallpox.
Willan's most significant contribution was in the study and treatment of skin diseases. He recognised that the descriptions and classification of skin diseases, then based on classical commentaries, supplied insufficient terminology for practitioners and did not cover all skin conditions encountered in clinical practice. Willan then set out to devise a new system of classification whereby skin diseases were divided into eight distinct groups according to their appearance..
In 1808 his collected papers, written between 1798 and 1806, on the papulae, squamae, exanthemata, and bullae were published as On Cutaneous Diseases. This book, illustrated with coloured plates, covered the first four of Willan's categories of skin disease.
Willan's classification was soon adopted by the medical profession. He was awarded the Fothergillian Medal of the Medical Society of London in 1790, and in 1809 he was elected to The Royal Society. The following year he contracted tuberculosis and in 1811 he and his family sailed for Madeira where he hoped to find some alleviation for his condition. Willan continued to write papers on skin disease but died on 12 April 1812 at Funchal.
Several of Willan's works were published after his death. In 1813 Thomas Bateman, Honorary Librarian to The Medical & Chirurgical Society, published a Practical Synopsis of Cutaneous Diseases according to the arrangement of Dr. Willan which presented in summary the remainder of Willan's classification. An expanded edition of this work, published in 1817, included several of Willan's colour plates. Willan's manuscript on porrigo, edited by Ashby Smith, was published in 1814.
Robert Willan was a founder member of the Medical & Chirurgical Society. At its inaugural meeting at the Freemasons' Tavern on 22 May 1805, the founding of a library was declared as one of the Society's principle aims. Willan, in support of this project, donated an edition of Hippocrates' works.
In 1986, following a generous donation made to the Society by the British Association of Dermatologists, a commemorative glass screen incorporating an etched glass portrait of Willan was installed in the first-floor reading room of the RSM Library.
On cutaneous diseases. Vol. I.
London : Printed for J.Johnson, 180
Royal Society of Medicine library: A.11.J.20; M.14.b.148.
On vaccine inoculation.
London : R. Phillips, 1806.
Royal Society of Medicine library: 4to.Tr.A.9(1); 236.k.4
Reports on the diseases in London : particularly during the years 1796, 97, 98, 99, and 1800.
London : Printed for R. Phelps by H.L. Galabin, and sold by T. Hurst, and H.D. Symonds; J. and A. Arch; T. Cox; J. Callow; E. Balfour, Edinburgh; and W. Gilbert, Dublin, 1801.
Royal Society of Medicine library: Heritage Centre (WIL)
Treatise on porrigo, or scalled head, and on impetigo, the humid or running tetter, edited by Ashby Smith.
Royal Society of Medicine library: A.11.j.1; Heritage Centre (WIL)
A practical synopsis of cutaneous diseases according to the arrangement of Dr. Willan: exhibiting a concise view of the diagnostic symptoms and the method of treatment.
London : Longman, 1813.
Royal Society of Medicine library: A.1.i.10; 279.g.15; Heritage Centre (BAT)
Robert Willan (1757 – 1812)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to the year 2000.
Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004
Royal Society of Medicine library: QUICK REF: BIOG
The history of the Royal Society of Medicine.
London, Royal Society of Medicine Press, 2002
Royal Society of Medicine library: WZ 1 (ROY)