William Bowman Biography (1816-1892)


Sir William Bowman is known as England's "father of histological anatomy andophthalmic surgery." His work in histology (the study of tissue visible onlywith the aid of a microscope) produced the most detailed observation and documentation of the structure and function of human and animal tissue. He carried this investigation into ophthalmology--the study of the eye--increasingly devoting his time to eye surgery and eventually founding and becoming the first president of the Ophthalmological Society in 1880. It is said that few people have contributed so greatly to medicine in general as did Bowman. For hiscontribution, Bowman was knighted (named Sir William Bowman) by QueenVictoria in 1884.

Bowman was born in Nantwich, England, the third son and fourth child of JohnEddowes Bowman and Elizabeth Eddowes, who were first cousins. His father wasa banker who loved nature and was a founding member of the Manchester Geological Society and author of several works in geology and botany. Bowman and hisfamily were extremely close, and his father corresponded with him throughouthis career. In 1826 Bowman was sent to Hazelwood School in Birmingham and became an understudy to a house surgeon at the Birmingham Infirmary (small hospital) in 1832 and, at the same time, worked under a distinguished surgeon wholater became president of the Royal College of Surgeons. Bowman wanted to become a member of this college, acceptance at which required attendance at a London teaching hospital. He therefore attended the newly founded medical department of King's College in London in 1837. In 1838, he did a study tour of eight European hospitals, and in 1839 qualified for membership! in the Royal College of Surgeons.

In 1840, after being appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy and Curator of the Museum at King's College, he became assistant surgeon at the newly established King's College Hospital. In 1844, he became a fellow at the Royal College of Surgeons, became assistant surgeon to Moorfields Ophthalmic Hospital in 1846,full surgeon in 1851, and full surgeon to King's College Hospital in 1856. Hesoon resigned that post, however, because of an ever-increasing private practice.

During the course of his career, Bowman sketched and wrote highly detailed and previously undocumented descriptions of the skin, muscle, nerves, sense organs (particularly the eye), kidney, bone, and cartilage. He is probably mostfamous, however, for his work on the kidney, in which he identified the roleof a tiny capsule (now known as Bowman's capsule) in carrying fluid from thekidney to the urinary system. He published his findings in a famous paper called On the Structure and use of the Malpighian Bodies of the Kidney (1842). He also composed a measurement table of the diameter of bundles of muscle fibers in 44 animals--including humans--both female and male.

Apart from this and several other famed works, Bowman--together with his instructor, Robert Todd--wrote and illustrated the highly praised The Physiological Anatomy and Physiology of Man (1836-1852). This work credited him with "having no parallel in making so enormous a series of new discoveries while producing material for a book." The book has been honored as one of the first documents on histology to contribute significantly to medicine. His histological studies were made possible by the improved design and manufacture process of microscope lenses; however, by modern standards, available methods were extremely primitive, making his detailed observations even more outstanding.

Bowman's work in ophthalmology was as equally precise. He described the cornea, elastic membranes which help the eye to focus (Bowman's membrane), minutefibers in the ciliary muscle of the eye (Bowman's muscle), and other previously unidentified parts of the eye. Bowman also became a top-class ophthalmic surgeon. He developing several surgical techniques including an operation to create an artificial pupil when certain abnormalities caused blindness (Bowman's operation); and probes to clear blocked lacrymal (tear) ducts (Bowman's probes), which are still used today. He performed the first iridectomy, a surgical procedure developed by Frederick Wilhelm Ernst Albrecht von Graefe (1828-1870) to ease glaucoma, a disease in which pressure builds up in the eyeballultimately causing blindness; and was one of the first physicians in Britainto become an expert with the ophthalmoscope, invented by Hermann von Helmholtz in 1851.

Bowman married Harriet Paget, the daughter of an English surgeon, in 1842. Hewas popular with his students and known as a "methodical and kindly practitioner." He helped found St. John's Sisterhood of Nursing, and corresponded over many years with distinguished people including Florence Nightingale, Charles Darwin, and Albrecht von Graefe. He was also mentor to Francis Galton, wholater became the founder of eugenics. More than 150 years after his death, most of Bowman's observations have been confirmed as accurate, and his surgicaltechniques--although improved upon--laid the foundation for modern methods.His contribution to ophthalmology has been called the driving force in understanding eye disease.

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