The greatest master of the art: Sir William Fergusson

This month we look at one of our latest acquisitions to the collection, generously donated by Viscountess Monkton of Brenchley. This oil portrait of William Fergusson (1808-1877) was painted by Phoebus Levin in 1853. Levin was a German artist working in London in the mid to late 19th century. The painting was displayed at the New Gallery, London, between 1891-2 as part of The Victorian Exhibition: Illustrating fifty years of Her Majesty’s reign, 1837-1887. It was exhibited here because of Fergusson’s close ties with the Royal Family, being appointed Surgeon in Ordinary to Prince Albert in 1849 and later Sergeant-Surgeon to Queen Victoria in 1867, a year after being made a Baronet.

Portrait of Sir William Fergusson, by Phoebus Levin
Portrait of Sir William Fergusson, by Phoebus Levin

The document shown alongside the painting, is a Letters Patent issued by Queen Victoria officially granting Fergusson his title of Sergeant-Surgeon, and the large beeswax seal bears a beautiful rendition of the monarch herself seated upon the throne.

One specimen in the collection of particular interest related to Fergusson is that of a plaster cast of David Livingstone’s left humerus (GC.2433). David Livingstone, the famous traveller of Africa, had been attacked by a lion as a young man and suffered a fractured to the left humerus which the explorer had (badly) set himself and had remained ununited. Having been absent from Britain for many years, when his body was returned (his heart being supposedly, and poetically, buried in Africa), Fergusson was called upon to carry out the identification of the body as he had been consulted by Livingstone on the injury when last in London. He stated in the British Medical Journal 18th April 1874:

The first glance at the left arm set my mind at rest, and that, with the further examination, made me as positive as to the identity of these remains as that there has been among us in modern times one the greatest men of the human race- David Livingstone.”

Plaster cast of David Livingstone's Left Humerus
Plaster cast of David Livingstone’s Left Humerus

William Fergusson’s skill and dexterity were recognised early in his career; by the age of twenty he was dissection demonstrator for Robert Knox during the pre-Burke and Hare period which saw Knox lecturing at the Anatomy School to hundreds of pupils a number of times a day.

Later, as a surgeon of excellent reputation and experience, he was one of Scottish surgery’s greatest talents. He was an early proponent of ‘conservative surgery,’ an approach that revolved around specific excision within an affected area rather than its full removal, especially concerning joints.

Among many appointments and honours, he was appointed Fellow of the RCSEd in 1829, and went on to be President of the RCSEng in 1870.

As Sir James Paget wrote in his 1901 Memoirs and Letters, he was: “the greatest master of the art, the greatest practical surgeon of our time.

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