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William Fergusson (physician)

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William Fergusson (physician)

William Fergusson
From a posthumous marble bust in the possession of the family
Born 1773
Died 1846
St John's Wood, London
Nationality Scottish

William Fergusson M.D. (1773–1846) was a Scottish inspector-general of military hospitals, and medical writer.


He was born at Ayr 19 June 1773 into a prominent local family. From the Ayr academy he went to attend the medical classes at Edinburgh, where he graduated M.D., afterwards attending the London hospitals. In 1794 he became assistant-surgeon in the army, and served in Holland, the West Indies, the Baltic, the Iberian Peninsula, and in the expedition against Guadeloupe in 1815.[1]

Fergusson is widely quoted (though often misspelt) as a source of accounts of the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, where he was present (as Staff-Surgeon of the troops embarked) with Admiral Lord Nelson on the flagship Elephant, before being entrusted with the conveyance of the British wounded to Yarmouth.[2][3][4]

Having retired from military service in 1817, he settled in practice at Edinburgh, but moved four years later to Windsor on the invitation of the Duke of Gloucester, on whose staff he had been for twenty years. He acquired a lucrative practice both in the town and country around, which he carried on till 1843, when he was disabled by paralysis. He died in January 1846.[1]

His personal papers are preserved in the library of the University of Yale.[5]


He wrote many papers on military medicine, contributed original work to the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal,[6] and his papers were read at the Royal Society of Edinburgh [7]

His Notes and Recollections of a Professional Life, a collection of his papers on various subjects, was brought out after his death by his son, James Fergusson (1808–1886). The papers are not all medical, one section of the book being on military tactics. There is an essay on syphilis in Portugal, as affecting the British troops and the natives respectively.[8]

The essay for which Fergusson is most remembered is that on the "marsh poison" theory of malarial infection, reprinted from the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh January 1820. He emphasised the fact that malarial fevers often occur on dry and barren soils, either sandy plains or rocky uplands, where rotting vegetation as a cause is out of the question, relying on his own experience with troops in Holland, Portugal, and the West Indies. This was a significant step towards rationalising the doctrine of malaria.[1] But although in his other writings he was possibly the first to correctly suggest insects as vectors of plague, he tantalizingly failed to make the final connection between malaria and mosquitos.[9]


  1. ^ a b c Creighton 1889, p. 365.
  2. ^ James Harrison “The Life of the Right Honourable Horatio Lord Viscount Nelson”, Vol. II (of 2) Page #11 [1]
  3. ^ Robert Southey “The Life of Lord Nelson” Chapter VII][2]
  4. ^ Thomas Joseph Pettigrew “Memoirs of the life of Vice-admiral Lord Viscount Nelson”[3]
  5. ^ Guide to the William Fergusson Papers
  6. ^ Fergusson, William (1843). "On plague and quarantine". Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal 59 (54). 
  7. ^ Fergusson, William (January 1820). "Marsh Poison". Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 
  8. ^ Creighton 1889, p. 365 cites: Med.-Chir. Transactions, 1813
  9. ^ Smith, Dorothy (July 1964). "The Fergusson Papers". Journal of the History of Medicine: 267–271. 
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