William Rutherford (physiologist)

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William Rutherford
Douglas Crescent, Edinburgh

William Rutherford FRSE FRS FRCPE[1] (20 April 1839, Ancrum Craig, Roxburghshire – 21 February 1899, 14 Douglas Crescent, Edinburgh) was a Scottish physician and physiologist who was professor of physiology at Edinburgh University for 25 years, and contributed to the development of experimental physiology. He was Fullerian Professor of Physiology and Comparative Anatomy from 1872 to 1875.


Rutherford was born at Ancrum Craig Farm near Ancrum in Roxburghshire, the son of Thomas Rutherford, a farmer. He was educated at Jedburgh Grammar School then studied medicine at Edinburgh University, gaining his doctorate (MD) in 1863.[2]

After studying in Berlin, Vienna, and Paris, he became assistant to John Hughes Bennett, professor of physiology at Edinburgh. After the Edinburgh anatomist John Goodsir told Rutherford about the new experimental physiology in Germany, William Rutherford and the ophthalmologist Douglas Argyll Robertson at Edinburgh became the first in the United Kingdom to introduce the new experimental apparatus of Hermann von Helmholtz, Emil du Bois-Reymond and Carl Ludwig.[3]

In 1869 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, his proposer being John Hughes Bennett.[4]

In 1869 Rutherford became assistant professor of physiology at King's College, London. In 1871 he was appointed professor of physiology at the Royal Institution. In 1874 he returned to Edinburgh University to succeed Bennett as professor of physiology there.[3]

Rutherford lectured at the University of Edinburgh when Arthur Conan Doyle studied medicine there. Like his fictional character Sherlock Holmes, who was based on a real person, Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger was based in part on Rutherford. From 1881 his laboratory assistant was Sutherland Simpson.

He died 21 February 1899 at 14 Douglas Crescent[5], Edinburgh. He was not married and had no children, so he was buried with his parents in Ancrum parish churchyard.[6]

His chair at the university was filled by Prof Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer.[7]


  • On the morbid appearances met with in the brains of thirty insane persons, 1869
  • Influence of the vagus upon the vascular system, 1869
  • Introductory lecture to the course of physiology in Kings College, London, 1869, 1869
  • An introduction to the study of medicine : a lecture delivered at the opening of the medical session of 1871–72, in King's College, London, 1871
  • The present aspects of physiology; an introductory lecture, 1874
  • Outlines of practical histology : being the notes of the Histological Section of the Class of Practical Physiology held in the University of Edinburgh, 1875
  • The sense of hearing: a lecture, 1886
  • Syllabus of lectures on physiology, 1887
  • A General account of histological methods, 1887
  • On the conditions that influence the attainment of the physiological ideal : introductory lecture, 14 October 1890, 1890
  • The tercentenary of the compound microscope; an inaugural address delivered 7 November 1890, to the Scottish Microscopical Society, 1891
  • On the method of studying a natural science such as physiology : an introductory lecture, delivered 9 October 1894, 1894


  1. ^ Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002: Biographical Index (PDF). II. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Retrieved 15 December 2011.
  2. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X.
  3. ^ a b John Gray McKendrick (20 April 1899). "William Rutherford". Nature. 59 (1538): 590–591. Bibcode:1899Natur..59..590J. doi:10.1038/059590a0..
  4. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X.
  5. ^ Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1899
  6. ^ "Rutherford, William (1839-1899)" . Dictionary of National Biography (1st supplement). London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1901.
  7. ^ http://frontiersmagazine.org/sutherland-simpson-from-saraquoy-to-cornell/


  • Richards, Stewart (May 1986). "Conan Doyle's 'Challenger' Unchampioned: William Rutherford, F.R.S. (1839–99), and the Origins of Practical Physiology in Britain". Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. The Royal Society of London. 40 (2): 193–217. doi:10.1098/rsnr.1986.0011. JSTOR 531688. PMID 11620895.

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Academic offices
Preceded by
Michael Foster
Fullerian Professor of Physiology
Succeeded by
Alfred Henry Garrod