CodeDS/UK/62
Person NameRutherford; William (1839-1899); Professor; physiologist
Dates1839-1899
TitleProfessor
Epithetphysiologist
HistoryRutherford was born at Ancrum Craig in Roxburghshire on 20 April 1839. He went to the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated MD in 1863, receiving a gold medal for his thesis. He acted as house physician at the Royal Infirmary to Daniel Rutherford Haldane, and as house surgeon to James Spence. For a year he was assistant demonstrator of anatomy at Surgeons' Hall under John Struthers, after which he went abroad to perfect his knowledge of experimental physiology. In 1865 he returned to Edinburgh, and was appointed assistant to John Hughes Bennett, then professor of the institutes of medicine in the University of Edinburgh. Bennett had already introduced classes in practical physiology, and these were further developed by Rutherford and Bennett's other assistants.
In 1869 Rutherford was appointed professor of physiology in King's College, London, where he introduced courses in practical physiology and established a properly equipped laboratory. Rutherford's lectures were illustrated by attractive diagrams and by the performance of precise and delicate experiments. During 1871 and 1872 thirteen of his lectures were published in The Lancet. In 1871 Rutherford also lectured as Fullerian professor of physiology at the Royal Institution.

In 1874 when Hughes Bennett resigned because of ill health, Rutherford returned to Edinburgh as professor of physiology, and was the first occupant of the chair to eschew medical practice and clinical teaching. He devoted much valuable time to perfecting his lectures on physiology. This care rendered him one of the most successful and brilliant lecturers to have held a professorial chair in the University of Edinburgh. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1869, and a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1876.

The science of histology owes much to Rutherford; he was one of the first teachers in Britain to introduce the improvements which had been found most serviceable in foreign laboratories. As a physiologist he was interested in the recondite problems of electro-physiology, and in the physiological action of drugs on the secretion of bile. The latter work led him into controversy with anti-vivisectionists, and a delay of four years in obtaining permission to carry out certain experiments. Later in life he moved into less contentious areas. He investigated the structure of crustacean muscle and the human special senses.

He was extremely sensitive to criticism and the controversies with anti-vivisectionists led to a nervous breakdown. This, and his interest in oriental religions and metaphysical speculation, resulted in moves to remove him from the chair at Edinburgh, which he successfully resisted. At the same time there was a serious rift between Rutherford and the wider community of physiologists. In 1889 and 1898 the Physiological Society refused invitations from Rutherford to meet in Edinburgh. Both the Physiological Society, of which Rutherford was a founder, and the Royal Society failed to publish biographical memoirs.

He died from influenza at his home, 14 Douglas Crescent, Edinburgh, on 21 February 1899.

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