Sir William Gull
  • November 11, 2016
  • Posted In: Doctor

When royal physician Sir William Gull (1816-1890) died, The Lancet wrote ‘a strong man is removed from among us. He rests from his labours’. At Guy’s hospital in the 1870s the eminent gentleman of medical science identified and named Anorexia Nervosa and Bright’s Disease (Gull-Sutton Syndrome). He championed the rights of women to pursue careers in medicine and was an advocate of treating rich and poor alike.

However, the Royal Physician-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales was not allowed to rest in peace. In the 1970s Sir William was named as a suspect in the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888. The royal and masonic associations of which he was so proud were the reason his name was linked to the Whitechapel murders.

Sir William Gull’s origins were humble. He was born on a barge in Colchester the youngest of eight children and raised at Thorpe-le-Soken in Essex. His father died when he was ten and his devoutly religious mother encouraged him to pursue an early interest in Greek and Latin with the neighbouring rector. The rector introduced the boy to his uncle Benjamin Harrison, treasurer of Guy’s hospital, where he accepted a pupillage in 1837 aged twenty. In 1841 he took his honours degree in physiology, anatomy, medicine and surgery at the University of London. He was awarded the gold medal – the highest honour in medical education – when he passed his masters degree in 1846.

Like his contemporaries Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde, Sir William was a skilled, flamboyant orator though his theatre was the lecture hall at Guy’s and the wards of the hospital. ‘Never forget’, he would tell his students, ‘that it is not a pneumonia but a pneumatic man who is your patient: not a typhoid fever but a typhoid man’. According to his Royal College of Physicians biography, ‘Gull’s pre-eminence as a clinician … was achieved by a singular combination of unhurried thoroughness, flair for diagnosis, staying power and an interest in his patients that extended beyond their physical symptoms to hereditary and environmental factors’.

Sir William married Susan Anne Lacy in 1848 and moved from rooms in Guy’s to a townhouse in Finsbury Square where their three children were born, one dying in infancy. In the same year he was made a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and would become a fellow of the Royal Society in 1869. He was made crown member of the General Medical Council and president of the Clinical Society of London in 1871.

Sir William’s relationship with the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) dates from 1869: the year of the Mordaunt divorce scandal. Sir Charles Mordaunt accused three men of committing adultery with his wife Harriett. Though not named, the Prince of Wales was called to give evidence in court. This he did but not before Harriett Mordaunt was declared insane by Sir William Gull thus preventing her appearance in court.

When the Prince of Wales contracted typhoid fever at a house party near Scarborough in 1871, Sir William Gull and Sir William Jenner were summoned to Sandringham. ‘That nice Dr Gull’, as Princess Alexandra called him ministered to the prince even though his mother Queen Victoria said ‘there can be no hope’ for the heir to the throne. The prince recovered, the doctor became a national hero and Sir William was appointed Physician Extraordinary to Queen Victoria in 1872. The Times reported, ‘in Dr Gull were combined energy that never tired, watchfulness that never flagged, nursing so tender, ministry so minute that in his functions he seemed to combine the duties of physician, dresser, dispenser, valet, nurse … passing at times between twelve or fourteen hours at that bedside’.

Sir William was sufficiently celebrated to be caricatured in London society newspaper Vanity Fair. The profile read ‘a philosopher and a man of strong will, yet of gentle presence with soothing manners and a hawk’s eye’. The Daily Graphic described the charismatic doctor thus: ‘in appearance he strangely resembled the first Napoleon: dark hair fell over a smooth olive-coloured brow beneath which shone eyes of quite unusual brilliancy and expression’. The Gulls now lived in a magnificent house at No 74 Brook Street in Mayfair. In addition to the Prince of Wales, he treated the exiled ex-Emperor Napoleon III of the French for which he received a jewelled snuffbox from the Empress Eugenie.

In 1887 Sir William suffered the first of a series of strokes correctly diagnosing his malady by saying ‘one arrow has missed its mark but there are more in the quiver’. As The Times wrote in his obituary ‘Sir William was seized with a severe attack of paralysis just over two years ago and never sufficiently recovered to resume his practise’. His reputation as one of the great men of Victorian medicine was cemented by the Royal Society’s eulogy that read ‘few men have practised a lucrative profession with less eagerness to grasp at its pecuniary rewards. He kept up the honourable standard of generosity to poor patients’.

Sir William Gull’s posthumous life in the canon of Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories began in The Criminologist in 1970 and was investigated in Melvyn Fairclough’s book The Ripper and the Royals and Stephen Knight’s The Final Solution. Allegedly Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, had married a Catholic commoner, Annie Crook, who had born him a son. Crook was secreted in a lunatic asylum and Jack the Ripper’s five victims were silenced for their knowledge of the royal scandal by Sir William. The story was subsequently told on film in Jack the Ripper (1988) and From Hell (2001). The theory of Sir William’s involvement in the Ripper murders has sine been discredited.

(c) James Sherwood


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