William Henderson. Watercolour by J. Hope Stewart, 1845.

  • Stewart, James Hope, 1789-1856.
  • Pictures

About this work


At first sight this looks like a conventional portrait of an elite physician, of the kind collected by medical colleges to commemorate their distinguished fellows. It shows William Henderson, a medical man of Victorian Edinburgh, born and brought up in that city, awarded the MD of Edinburgh University in 1831, a sometime student in all three of the continental centres of pathology (the Paris of Cruveilhier, the Berlin of Robert Froriep, and the Vienna of von Rokitansky), a pathologist at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, a contributor of articles on aortic aneurysm and other morbid-anatomical subjects to the Edinburgh medical and surgical Journal, a fellow of the Edinburgh Medico-Chirurgical Society, a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, and, from 1842, professor of general pathology at Edinburgh University

The portrait shows the young professor lecturing, wearing his academic robes, his professorial cathedra behind him, and on the table allusions to topographical and morbid anatomy: the écorché statuette and a volume on pathology. Lofted drapery in the top right corner implies an elevated status.

This sympathetic but highly conventional portrait dates from 1844, as stated in a label on the back recording the work's exhibition in that year. However, in that year, Henderson's life would change completely, as a result of a request from John Abercrombie (1780-1844) to investigate the incursion of homoeopathy into the Royal Infirmary. Henderson carried out the enquiry, but to the horror of the medical establishment to which Henderson had previously aspired, he was converted to the new cult. His conversion carried the more weight because of his previous espousal of the most conventional type of (pre-germ-theory) morbid anatomy, as advertised in the present portrait

As a result of his conversion, Henderson was expelled from the Edinburgh Medico-Chirurgical Society and faced years of persecution from the establishment, as represented by James Syme (1799–1870) and Sir James Young Simpson (1811-1870). Henderson fought back, however: Syme's attempt to take back his chair failed because his appointment by the university had been for life, and the Edinburgh College of Physicians' attempt to withdraw his fellowship also failed for procedural reasons. Deprived of access to the medical journals, Henderson continued to publish pamphlets expressing his point of view: the ODNB calls his pamphlets "models of acute reasoning, playful irony, and good-natured banter". Henderson died in 1872 of an aortic aneurysm which he diagnosed as a result of his early studies of the subject, while recognizing (wearing his homoeopathic hat) that there was nothing that conventional medicine could do to cure it



Physical description

1 painting : watercolour


Label on verso: "William Henderson M.D. Professor of Pathology in Edinburgh University, 4th son of William Henderson of Scotscalder [in the Scottish Highlands], m. his cousin Wilhelmina Henderson d. of Wm. Henderson, Edin."


Wellcome Collection 2064994i

Creator/production credits

Attribution from label on verso: "No. 4. Portrait of Professor Henderson M.D. by Hope J. Stewart. 1 Alva Street Edin.r 1 Feb.y 1844". On the artist: Christine E. Jackson, 'James Hope Stewart, artist for The Naturalist's Library', Archives of natural history, February 1994, 21: 37-42. Jackson states that James Hope Stewart of Slodahill, born at Hillside on 2 August 1789, was the son of William Stewart of Hillhead. The National Library of Scotland has 20 watercolours of natural history subjects by him. After 1843 he "appears to have gone back to farming and obscurity". He died at Gillenbie on 20 July 1856

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