Sir William Macewen- Founder of Erskine

Born on 22 June 1848 on the Isle of Bute, Sir William Macewen would go on to be one of the most innovative and successful surgeons in the world. He  gained his medical degree from the University of Glasgow and became Regius Professor of Surgery there.  His work in diverse fields of brain surgery, osteotomy and orthopaedics to name a few has resulted in a list of achievements that is far too long for one blog post, but you can read about some of them here.

Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, Macewen was commissioned as Surgeon-General in Scotland for the Royal Navy, with the Rank of Surgeon Rear-Admiral.  In addition to his naval work he continued with his clinical teaching at the Western Infirmary, Glasgow.  He also supervised and cared for the naval and military wounded at Mount Stuart House.
As the war went on with no end in sight people began to call for a hospital in the West of Scotland which would care for Scottish veterans. Sir Donald MacAlister Principal of the University of Glasgow asked Macewen to take up the cause. He agreed on one condition ‘That you do not ask other surgeons to co-operate, I am not a co-operator’.


Sir William Macewen (DC79-176-13)


He may have been underselling his collaboration skills as he managed to enlist a who’s who of Scotland to serve on the Executive Committee and the Lord Provost of Glasgow Sir Thomas Dunlop to head the committee. To run the hospital Macewen drafted in Agnes C. Douglas who had worked as a nurse on his wards in the Western Infirmary and later at Mount Stuart to be the matron of the hospital. He also recruited many of his distinguished associates as honorary surgeons and physicians including Major James Hogarth Pringle  and  Dr. Joseph McGregor-Robertson.

At the time there was a shortage of artificial limbs in Britain and hospitals were reliant on imports from abroad. Macewen was adamant that artificial limbs should be produced on site at the hospital. However many believed this idea would be difficult if not impossible, Macewen was not to be deterred:

‘Having unbounded confidence in the potentiality of Glasgow and in the capacity, youth and vigour of her sons I have no hesitation in saying that even were we left without professional limbmakers we would still get in such a cause, those who would make artificial limbs sufficient for demand’ – Sir William Macewen, 29 March 1916.

He enlisted the help of the Clyde shipbuilders and engineers, especially that of Harold Yarrow, who gave technical assistance and lent their best tradesmen and craftsmen.  The Erskine Provisional Limbs proved to be very successful.  They could be fitted quickly to a patient and they were cheap.  He was closely involved in the design of the limbs and he even took it upon himself to procure materials for making them.  He asked Sir Donald MacAlister for the University’s two willow trees as the hospital was running short of willow for artificial limbs. Sir Donald said that he did not think there would be any objections but told him that he should ask the university court at its next meeting. That afternoon Sir Donald was out for a walk – and was surprised to see that the two willow trees Macewen had pointed out had already been chopped down! Production of the artificial limbs moved to the hospital in 1917 where patients could train in manufacturing them as well as contributing to the designs.

Macewen believed that vocational training would be just as important to the healing process of the patients as medical care. In his notes for his programme of the hospital he highlighted the importance of healing the mind as well as the body.

Sir William Macewen’s notes (DC79-09)

At a public meeting to launch the scheme on 29 March 1916 he laid out his vision for the hospital.

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The full text of Sir William Macewens speech taken from ‘The Princess Louise Scottish Hospital for Limbless Sailors and Soldiers at Erskine House’ by Sir John Reid. (ACCN 3934/3/3)

The majority of the 400 operations carried out at Erskine between 1916-1919 were performed by Sir William Macewen. As well as serving on the Executive Committee he also sat on the House and Staff committee, the Limbs and Appliances committee and the Finance Committee. He frequently travelled to London to advocate on behalf of the hospital with the War Ministry. After the war the number of patients entering the hospital due to amputation naturally decreased. He guided a shift in focus towards providing a permanent home for ex-servicemen requiring prolonged treatment.

His death in March 1924 was recorded with ‘very great regret’ by the Executive Committee. Princess Louise, described Erskine as ‘His special child which he created and put his whole heart and soul into’. A century later his vision of a permanent home for veterans is still going strong and his principles of compassionate care still guiding Erskine staff today.

Find out more about the University of Glasgow’s Macewen Collection here. Further Macewen archive material is held by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons Glasgow and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives

For further reading on Macewen and Erskine  see: J.F. Calder, The Vanishing Willows, the Story of Erskine Hospital, 1982 and Johnstone, Cunningham &Leadbetter, A Century of Care 2016

Categories: Archive Services, Library

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