The College’s present Laws, as revised in 1977, make it impossible for a Fellow to hold office as President for more than one term. Only one Fellow in the past 200 years has served two separate terms in the College’s highest office. The fact that he was recalled to the College presidency in its Quatrocentennial year is a clear indication of Patrick Heron-Watson’s exceptional personal qualities and professional distinction.
Patrick Heron-Watson, a son of the manse, was born in Burntisland, Fife in 1832 and educated at the Edinburgh Academy and at Edinburgh University, from which he graduated MD in 1853. Having served as House Surgeon in the Royal Infirmary where one of his fellow residents was the young Joseph Lister (q.v.), he was admitted a Fellow of the College in 1855. The Crimean War was in progress and having joined the Army Medical Service, he was posted first to the base hospital at Scutari. The College has an interesting collection of letters that he wrote home at this time and in these he expresses vividly his disgust at the conditions in the hospital. It is also clear from his letters that he was by no means an uncritical admirer of Miss Florence Nightingale! Eventually he was posted to the field hospital at Balaclava in the Crimea where he got plenty of surgical experience but this was cut short by serious illness on account of which he was invalided home and out of the army. For his military services in the Crimean War he was awarded the British, Turkish and Sardinian campaign medals.
He returned to Edinburgh where, after a lengthy convalescence, he settled in general practice but surgery was his prime interest and he became assistant to the Professor of Surgery, James Miller, whose daughter he married. In 1860 he was appointed surgeon to the Royal Infirmary and lecturer in surgery at the School of Medicine of the Royal Colleges in which capacity he soon laid the foundations of what was to be an impressive reputation as a teacher. His surgical practice expanded rapidly with his appointment as surgeon to Chalmers Hospital in succession to his father in law, and over the next two decades his renown as a bold and dextrous operator spread far beyond Scotland. His surgical versatility was indeed extraordinary and Rutherford Morrison (q.v.) who was his house surgeon in 1875 regarded him as one of the best operators he ever saw anywhere.
Heron Watson successfully removed the spleen and the kidney and resected bowel when these procedures were considered to be almost prohibitively hazardous. He was the first surgeon to carry out total laryngectomy and one of the earliest to treat hyperthyroidism by thyroidectomy. His practice of preliminary ligation of the thyroid arteries before excision of the gland was an important landmark advance in the technique of thyroid surgery.
By the late 1870s Heron Watson had become probably the most successful surgeon in Scotland but he did not confine himself to surgery and maintained a large and lucrative general medical consulting practice. In modern terms he was as much a consultant physician as he was a consultant surgeon and, perhaps incongruously, he was the foremost authority in Scotland on venereal diseases.
The only disappointment which he suffered in his career was the failure of his application in 1882 to succeed Professor James Spence (q.v.) in the University Chair of Systematic Surgery. It seems likely that the unusually wide range of his clinical activities may have been prejudiced to his candidature.
He had always been active in College affairs and in 1878 he was elected President. Edinburgh University, his alma mater, conferred on him the Honorary degree of Doctor of Laws (LLD) in 1884 and from 1882 for 26 years he represented the College on the General Medical Council.
Heron Watson was an inspiring teacher at the bedside and in the lecture theatre and as a member of the University Commission of 1889 he helped to effect important changes in the undergraduate medical curriculum. It was, however, as a vehement and persistent protagonist of medical education for women, in the face of fierce professional hostility and vilification that he made his most important educational contribution and there is no doubt that his powerful advocacy had a major influence on the ultimate acceptance of female medical students by his own University.
His appointment as Surgeon to HM Queen Victoria in Scotland and later as Surgeon to HM King Edward VII was followed in 1903 by the honour of Knighthood, but his supreme accolade came in 1905 with his recall to the Presidency of the College 27 years after his first election to that office. His re-election for a second term so that he could preside over the Quatercentennial celebrations is a clear indication that the high esteem in which he was so widely held was based on much more than his professional excellence.
Sir Patrick Heron Watson received many well deserved honours in his lifetime; he was a wise, far-seeing man, in many ways ahead of his time who, as surgeon, teacher and medical statesman, most worthily earned his honoured place in Scottish medical history.
British Medical Journal; 1908; v1; p62
Edinburgh Medical Journal; 1908; v23; p3
Scottish Medical and Surgical Journal; 1908; v22; p66