Sue Young Histories

William Henderson 1810 - 1872

October 20, 2008

William Henderson (MD Edin. 1831) 1810 - 1872 Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and Professor of General Pathology at the University of Edinburgh,

William Henderson was an orthodox physician who converted to homeopathy, which caused the typical fury and storm of abuse from allopathic physicians which has become the very accolade of the freethinker who dares to stand on conviction, honour and truth.

William Henderson also supported homeopathy against attacks from John Forbes, and Henderson convinced John Forbes of the truth of homeopathy.

No doubt because of his own experience of prejudice, William Henderson came forward to defend John Ozanne, leading to the first legal case for Libel against homeopathy, which John Ozanne won handsomely.

John Forbes accompanied William Henderson to John Ozanne’s defense, where John Forbes declared that it was ‘but simple justice to admit that Hahnemann was a man of profound learning and perfect integrity, and that many of his disciples were sincere, honest and learned men‘.

Interestingly, John Forbes was also a student of homeopath Friedrich Wilhelm Karl Fleischman who also taught homeopaths Robert Ellis Dudgeon, John James Drysdale, William Henderson and John Rutherford Russell. Friedrich Wilhelm Karl Fleischman was a colleague of Joseph Attomyr, William Tod Helmuth and many others.

William Henderson observed homeopathy in action in Vienna when he studied under Friedrich Wilhelm Karl Fleischman in the mid 1830s. By 1841, there was a Homeopathic Dispensary in Edinburgh, and homeopathic chemists in Princess Street and Honover Street.

William Henderson became influential in homeopathy, debating many times with his professional colleague James Young Simpson, and writing his book _Homeopathy Fairly Represented _as a direct rebuttal of James Young Simpson’s attack on homeopathy. This debate was taken up in America and in India, and as a result, and as usual, homeopathy grew stronger.

If you want good roses, use lots of manure!

In return, homeopaths were quite content to give fair praise to James Young Simpson for his brilliant career. After all, James Young Simpson had taught Thomas Skinner who invented the Skinner Centesimal Fluxion Potentiser, and John James Drysdale, the editor of the British Journal of Homeopathy, both of whom converted to homeopathy under James Young Simpson’s nose despite his attacks upon it.

William Henderson was a strong supporter of Richard Hughes, and he was responsible for the conversion to homeopathy of David Wilson.

Homeopathy had many converts in Scotland at this time, including Francis Black, Samuel Cockburn, Robert Ellis Dudgeon, Adam Lyschinsky, William MacDonald, William MacLeod, Charles Ransford, John Rutherford Russell, Thomas Skinner, G E Stewart, Dionysius Wielobycki, and many others. By 1851, 8 out of 48 graduates from the University of Edinburgh were homeopaths, including Alfred Crosby Pope.

William Henderson was born in Thurso, Caithness, the fourth son and seventh child of Sheriff William Henderson of Scotscalder, and Ann Brodie. Presumably he had his early education in his home county, and later was a pupil at the Royal High School of Edinburgh,whence he entered the medical school at Edinburgh University. He graduated MD in 1831 with a thesis entitled De Empyemate cum Pneumothorace.

He continued his medical studies in Paris, Berlin and Vienna, and, on his return to Edinburgh, was appointed physician to the Fever Hospital situated in the old Surgeons’ Square. He was appointed pathologist to the ERI, assistant physician to the same institution in 1838, and physician-in-ordinary in 1840. In 1838, he had been elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

By this time, Henderson had married Williamina Henderson (unrelated), a union which produced six children. His two sons did not follow him into medicine; one became a lawyer and the other, an officer in the 77th Regiment of Foot, served in Bengal.

All the portents suggested an assured professional future and for several years this was so. He became a very successful extra mural teacher of the practice of physic; he was appointed physician-in-ordinary to the ERI against strong opposition and received the thanks of the managers of that hospital for his diligence.

His work resulted in a series of important papers between 1835 and

  1. His pathological work included the use of the microscope in studies of pneumonia and molluscum contagiosum. His clinical acumen resulted in a series of papers on diseases of the heart and larger blood vessels, making original observations on the signs and symptoms of substernal aneurysms and aortic regurgition.

It was another clinical and pathological study which claimed the particular attention of his obituarists and others. In 1839, the EMSJ published A Report on the Epidemic Fever of Edinburgh. This was in two parts – An Account of the Symptoms and Treatment by Henderson and Analysis and Details of Forty-Seven Inspections after Death by John Reid.

This was clearly a co-operative study by two doctors that distinguished between two patterns of disease and which we now know as the distinct diseases, typhoid fever and typhus fever. It is surprising therefore that the DNB states that Henderson was the first to show that typhus and relapsing fevers were distinct, without mention of Reid. This omission is repeated in Henderson’s obituary in the Edinburgh Medical Journal, in A History of Edinburgh University, in A History of the Department of Pathology of the University, and in reminiscences by Sir Byrom Bramwell.

Kaufmann, on the other hand, mentions Reid as the person believed to have been the first to distinguish between typhus and typhoid fevers, without reference to Henderson. Comrie in his History of Scottish Medicine claims that both Henderson and Reid were each one of the first to differentiate between typhus and typhoid fever…

It seems likely that Henderson was first made aware of the tenets of homeopathy as a young postgraduate student at the Continental medical schools of Vienna, Berlin and Paris in the early 1830s. When he began to practise the system is less certain (all treatments mentioned in his published papers between 1835 and 1837 are orthodox) but it is probable he did so some years before his publication of An Inquiry into the Homeopathic Practice of Medicine in 1845.

If he were a homeopathist by the early 1840s, then he did not reveal the fact. In 1842, he was present at a quarterly meeting of the RCPE when a ballot was taken as to the admission to the Fellowship of Francis Black who was known to practice homeopathy; he was not admitted but without apparent opposition by Henderson.

In the same year, Henderson was appointed to the Chair of Pathology with its entitlement to charge of beds in the ERI. He wrote to the managers of that institution offering his resignation as an ordinary physician, explaining that he had delayed doing so ‘until I could be more sure of a permanent appointment in the Clinical Department of the University.This I think is now pretty certain. ’ Obviously he saw no approaching storm clouds…

William Henderson was appointed professor of general pathology at Edinburgh University and physician-in-ordinary to the ERI.

He produced several papers on clinical and pathological aspects of aortic and heart disease and contributed to the differentiation of typhus and typhoid fevers.

He became a homeopathist and was at the centre of a controversy surrounding the introduction of homeopathy to Edinburgh in the 1840s. This involved the Faculty of Medicine, the RCPE and medical societies as well as medical personalities, prominent among whom were Professor Sir James Young Simpson, Professor Sir Robert Christison and Professor James Syme.

Many Scottish medical graduates were involved in the introduction of homeopathy to the British Isles. Glasgow is one of only four UK cities still to have a homeopathic hospital.

William Henderson wrote An Inquiry into the Homeopathic Practice of Medicine, Homeopathy Misrepresented, Homeopathy Fairly Represented, Letter to John Forbes, and articles and papers for The British Journal of Homeopathy and The British Homeopathic Review, and because of the attacks upon him, William Henderson’s work and cases were widely reported throughout the homeopathic world.


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