William Richard Gowers was born in Hackney, London on March 20, 1845. His father (a ladies’ boot-maker) died in 1856, and young William was raised by his mother Ann (Venable) Gowers. William would later state that “not one of my ancestors or collaterals has been or is in any degree noteworthy . . . On both sides I come from the lower middle classes in which all other members of the family have consistently and wisely remained.”
From age 11-15, he was a day scholar at Christ Church College in Oxford. Gowers was apprenticed to a country practitioner for two years starting at age 16, and began his formal medical training at University College Hospital in 1863.He was raised a strict Congregationalist, which was one of the reasons he went to University College London/University College Hospital. His teachers included William Jenner, John Russell Reynolds, and Charlton Bastian.
Gowers did well in medical school and his first post-graduate position was as house physician to Sir William Jenner, who at the time was President of the Royal College of Physicians and physician to Queen Victoria. William served as Jenner’s secretary-assistant and received the post partly because of his shorthand ability. He qualified M.R.C.S. in 1867, took his M.B. degree in 1869 and his M.D. in 1870. He became the first medical registrar at the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic (the National Hospital) at Queen Square, London in 1870 and was appointed to its active staff in 1872.
William married Mary Baines in 1875. Mary’s father Frederick was a partner in the Leeds Mercury Newspaper and the Baines family were well-known Nonconformist liberals. The couple had four children. Their son Ernest had a long career in the British civil service and wrote the book Plain Words. Son William Frederick was a British colonial administrator who was Governor of Uganda. Daughters Edith and Evelyn developed a genetic eye disease (retinitis pigmentosa) as young adults which left them almost totally blind.
Gowers published several important books on neurology, including Manual and Atlas of Medical Ophthalmoscopy (1879), Pseudohypertrophic Muscular Paralysis (1879), The Diagnosis of Diseases of the Spinal Cord (1880), and Epilepsy and Other Chronic Convulsive Disorders (1881). In his book on pseudohypertrophic muscular paralysis (now called Duchenne muscular dystrophy), he described and Illustrated the peculiar way that patients with muscular dystrophy rise from the floor, which was later termed “Gowers’ sign.” In his book on the spinal cord, he illustrated for the first time the anterior spinocerebellar tract in the spinal cord, which others called “Gowers’ tract.” The second edition of his book on the spinal cord introduced the term “knee-jerk.” Gowers published volume one of A Manual of Diseases of the Nervous System in 1886, followed by volume two in 1888. This book was referred to as the “Bible of neurology.” It was a personal compilation of his experience with neurological disorders. Gowers’ mastery of shorthand allowed him to keep detailed notes on patients, and the book benefitted greatly from this. The text was illustrated with Gowers’ own drawings (Gowers was a talented artist, and his work hung in the Royal Academy in 1897). William Osler wrote a book review of the Manual, and commented that “as a text book on the subject [it] stands unrivalled in any language.” Osler would later state that Gowers was “the most brilliant British exponent of the complex science of neurology.” Macdonald Critchley noted that “anyone who thinks he has stumbled upon something new or obscure should not neglect to search the Manual before claiming originality.” Gowers was a master clinician. Based on Gowers’ diagnosis, Victor Horsley was the first to surgically remove a spinal cord tumour in 1887.
William Gowers was knighted in 1897 and resigned from the active staff of the National Hospital in 1910 because of ill health. In 1913, William and his wife Mary developed pneumonia, and she died on January 18, 1913. Sir William Richard Gowers died on May 4, 1915 and the causes of death were listed as “arteriosclerosis” and “coma.” His funeral was May 6, 1915 at St. Peter’s Church on Vere Street in London and his body was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on the same day. Ernest Gowers collected the ashes on September 4, 1915 for burial in Yorkshire. William Richard Gowers, his wife, and several other Baines family members were buried in a double vaulted grave owned by Frederick Baines and Sarah Edith Baines (a sister of Mary Gowers) in the unconsecrated Victorian section of Lawnswood Cemetery in Leeds.
Sir William Gowers, arguably the greatest clinical neurologist of all time, rests permanently under a beautiful cross at Lawnswood.
By Christopher J. Boes, M.D., Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, USA
*Our last Newsletter highlighted Christopher J Boes’ search for the grave of Sir William Richard Gowers. We thank him for kindly agreeing to write our ‘Grave Spotlight’ biography of a great neurologist.