William James Erasmus Wilson

For other people named William Wilson, see William Wilson (disambiguation).
Sir Erasmus Wilson

Sir William James Erasmus Wilson FRCS FRS (25 November 1809 – 7 August 1884), generally known as Sir Erasmus Wilson, was an English surgeon and dermatologist.


Wilson was born in London, studied at Dartford Grammar School before St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, and at Aberdeen, and early in life became known as a skilful surgeon and dissector.

It was his sympathy with the poor of London and a suggestion from Mr. Thomas Wakley of The Lancet, of which he acted for a time as sub-editor, which first led him to take up skin diseases as a special study. The cases of scrofula, anaemia, and blood-poisoning which he saw made him set to work to alleviate the suffering of persons so afflicted, and he quickly established a reputation for treating this class of patients. It was said that he treated the rich by ordering them to give up luxuries; the poor by prescribing for them proper nourishment, which was often provided out of his own pocket. In the opinion of one of his biographers, we owe to Wilson in great measure the habit of the daily bath, and he helped very much to bring the Turkish bath into use in Great Britain, and in the process writing a number of works on spas, baths and thermo-therapy, all of which overlap in their content.[1][2][3]

Indeed his works on spas, baths, and thermo-therapy were directly related to his work on the health of skin. His earliest such works on this topic outlined the relationship between various applications of water, vapour baths, the action of heat and cold through such media on the action of the skin, and the relationship between this and health in general.[4] Moreover, his works had a direct impact on the hydrotherapy movement of the time (then known as hydropathy), and the overlapping sanitary reform movement.[5] He applauded the establishment of Public Baths and Wash-houses, as "amongst the noblest of the institutions…as they are one of the greatest discoveries of the present age",[6] and dedicated his 1854 book Healthy Skin to another sanitary reform proponent, Edwin Chadwick "In admiration of his strenuous and indefatigable labors in the cause of Sanitary Reform".[7]

Nor was Wilson shy of saying what needed to be said in the promotion of sanitary reform. In Metcalfe's (1877) work on sanitary reform and all the above-mentioned overlaps, he describes the Chinese vapour baths. After describing the bathing establishments as a whole, he describes the bathing room itself, "which is about thirty feet by twenty, and is filled with hot steam or vapour":[8]

The entire floor, except a narrow space round the sides, is occupied by a hot-water bath from one to eighteen inches deep. The furnace is outside, and the flues are carried under the centre of the bath. In the hazy light of this room may be seen the perspiring Chinamen disperting themselves in the shallow water, until, when cleansed to their satisfaction, they return to the cooling room, there to regale themselves with cups of tea and pipes of tobacco. All classes of Chinese frequent these bathing establishments. Mr Ellis, in his "Journal of the Embassy to China (1816)," says of this Chinese cleansing apparatus, that it is "disgusting," but says Mr Erasmus Wilson, "What would Mr Ellis say of a country in which there existed no cleansing apparatus whatever? For example, his own.[8]

Wilson wrote much upon the diseases which specially occupied his attention, and his books, A Healthy Skin[7] and Student's Book of Diseases of the Skin,[9] though they were not received without criticism at the time of their appearance, long remained text-books of their subject. He visited the East to study leprosy, Switzerland to investigate the causes of goitre, and Italy with the purpose of adding to his knowledge of the skin diseases affecting an ill-nourished peasantry.

He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1881,[10] and died at Westgate-on-Sea, Kent in 1884. He had married Charlotte Mary Doherty in 1841; they had no children. After the death of his wife, the bulk of his property, some £200,000, went to the Royal College of Surgeons.

Philanthropic Works

Cleopatra's Needle and the plaque to Erasmus Wilson at its base

He made a large fortune by his successful practice and by skilful investments, and since he had no family he devoted a great deal of his money to charitable and educational purposes. In 1869 he founded the chair and museum of dermatology in the Royal College of Surgeons, of which he was chosen president in 1881, and which just before his death awarded him its honorary gold medal, which had been founded in 1800 and only awarded on six previous occasions. He also founded a professorship of pathology at the University of Aberdeen and paid for the vast medical library at the Hunterian Museum, London where his bust takes pride of place at the end of the library.

In 1878 he earned the thanks of the nation on different grounds, by defraying the expense of bringing the Egyptian obelisk inaccurately called Cleopatra's Needle from Alexandria to London, where it was erected on the Thames Embankment. The British Government had not thought it worth the expense of transportation. This is now one of London's best known landmarks. Erasmus Wilson was also closely associated with the Royal Medical Benevolent College in Epsom, Surrey now Epsom College. One of the boarding houses 'Wilson House' established in 1873 is named after him and carries his name on the foundation stone located to the north east corner of the building, right of the entrance.

Famous statements

1878: When the Paris Exhibition closes, electric light will close with it and no more be heard of.

Text above was based on an entry from the 1902 edition of Britannica, It may need some updating or revision

Published works as known

Note: Internet Archives lists more copies of some of these titles. Not all were checked. Some may be duplicates, and some may be later editions. The sample above shows that some titles had multiple subsequent editions. Also for books prior to 1881, Wilson did not have the title Sir, as he had not yet been knighted.


  1. Wilson, Erasmus (1858). A Three Week Scamper through the Spas of Germany and Belgium; with an Appendix on the Nature and Uses of Mineral Waters. London: John Churchill. Retrieved 8 November 2009. Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org)
  2. Wilson, Erasmus (1860). Thermo-Therapeia: The Heat Cure: or, The Treatment of Disease by Immersion of the Body in Heated Air. London: Printed by T. Richards. Retrieved 8 November 2009. (Reprinted from the British Medical Journal). Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org)
  3. Wilson, Erasmus (1861). The Eastern or Turkish Bath; Its History, Rebirth in Britain, and Application to the Purposes of Health. London: John Churchill. Retrieved 8 November 2009.. Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org)
  4. Wilson, Erasmus (1849). On The Management of the Skin as a Means of Promoting and Preserving Health (3rd ed.). London: John Churchill. Retrieved 8 November 2009. Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org)
  5. Metcalfe, Richard (1877). Sanitus Sanitum et omnia Sanitus. 1. London: The Co-operative Printing Co. p. 101. Retrieved 4 November 2009. Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org)
  6. Wilson, Erasmus (1849), p.viii
  7. 1 2 Wilson, Erasmus (1854). Healthy Skin: A Popular Teatise on the Skin and Hair, their Preservation and Management (2nd American, from the 4th Revised London ed.). Philadelphia: Blanchard & Lea. Retrieved 8 November 2009. Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org)
  8. 1 2 Metcalfe, Richard (1877) p. 19
  9. Wilson, Erasmus (1865). The Student's Book of Cutaneous Medicine and Diseases of the Skin. London: John Churchill and Sons. Retrieved 8 November 2009. Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org)
  10. "Sir Erasmus Wilson". British Medical Journal. 2 (1089): 788. 1881. doi:10.1136/bmj.2.1089.784.
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