Sir Walter Cheyne: Shetland orphan to London surgeon

An orphan brought up on one of the remotest of the Shetland islands went on to become on of the country’s first important bacteriologists in medicine, and worked as one of the most respected surgeons on the world-famous Harley Street.

Sir William Cheyne played an important role in the advancement of medicine

The full, incredible story of Sir William Cheyne has been closely researched by author Jane Coutts, whose has just had a book published on her findings.

From his humble beginnings, she found he not only found fame on Harley Street, but played an important role in the advancement of medicine

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His life spanned the flamboyant era of colonial expansion and some of the most important medical developments of the 19th century.

His own role in these advances - as an eminent surgeon, an early researcher in medical bacteriology, a staunch ally of Lord Lister, an MP, and an intrepid traveller - had not previously been studied in depth – until now.

Mrs Coutts said: “Earlier this year, the Journal of Medical Biography published an article I submitted on Cheyne.

“The main point of the article was a re-evaluation of his role in the history of science, as one of Britain’s first bacteriologists in medicine.

“My interest in Sir William Watson Cheyne began when I managed Fetlar Interpretive Centre, the small museum on the island of Fetlar, in Shetland – where my husband is from.

Sir Watson (as he was universally known after he was awarded a baronetcy), had grown up on the island, considered it his real home throughout his life, and built himself a retirement home there at Leagarth.

“He tended to be known in Shetland as Lord Lister’s assistant in the development of antiseptic surgery in the 1870s and ‘80s.

“I began to discover snippets of information, however, which led me to believe there was more to Sir Watson in his own right. Over the course of the research, I realised he was one of a small handful of Britain’s first bacteriologists.

“He did more than anyone in Britain in the 1880s to incorporate the laboratory techniques into medicine that helped isolate the cause of diseases and prevent killer conditions such as sepsis in hospitals.

“He was a close friend and colleague of Robert Koch in Germany, and Lord Lister could almost be considered the surrogate father Cheyne never really knew.”

Mrs Coutts added that his childhood was nothing short of a chapter from Robert Louis Stevenson. His father was a Shetlander who became a merchant adventurer in the South Seas, initially in the sandalwood trade.

Cheyne himself was born in Hobart on one of his father’s voyages, on a ship transporting convicts to Tasmania.

Their adventures on the way back to Fetlar exacerbated his mother’s ill health, and she died shortly after their return.

Mrs Coutts said: “His mother’s family forbade his father access to his son.

“Cheyne grew up not knowing who his father was, until he was informed as a teenager that he had been clubbed to death in a dispute with Palau islanders in the Pacific.

“It made Cheyne into something of an adventurer himself in terms of scientific investigation, and his career took off after he discovered Lord Lister’s lectures by chance at Edinburgh University, when he was studying medicine.”

She claimed to have been lucky enough to manage the museum on Cheyne’s native island of Fetlar for around 15 years, and also looked after Leagarth House during the winters.

She added: “As soon as we began to look more carefully, all kinds of things turned up that led me to believe Sir Watson should be more recognised than he was.

“The Cheyne family, Sir Watson’s descendants, found sets of lantern slides, for example, which turned out to be the rare images Cheyne had taken when General Cronje surrendered to Lord Roberts, while he (Cheyne) was Roberts’ Consultant Surgeon during the Boer War. Some of the slides showed the devastation the medical teams found in Cronje’s abandoned laager, and he was instrumental in campaigning for dedicated medical transport during the war.”

All this led us to develop an exhibition on Cheyne at Fetlar Interpretive Centre which won the Educational Initiative award at Scottish Museum of the Year in 2000.

Mrs Coutts said: This was enough to convince me that Cheyne deserved greater recognition. However, it was not until I moved with my family to Spain in 2007 that I began to pursue this properly.

“I returned to the UK to give a paper on Cheyne at the Lister centenary celebrations at King’s College in London, and the support it received convinced me it was time to write Cheyne’s official biography. Despite his importance, there had been no major work on him in his own right.

“The Cheyne family was enormously supportive, and I made trips over to the UK as often as I could to conduct the archival side of the research in London, Edinburgh and Shetland, but I also had access to digital resources which would not have been available a few years ago, so was able to do some of the research, and most of the writing up, from home in Spain.

“When it came to writing the book, I wanted to reassess Cheyne’s importance as a scientist, but also wanted to discover who he really was.

“He was a private, very modest individual on the whole, and as much of his personal correspondence had been destroyed after his death, it was not easy to build a picture of him.

“On the other hand, I was fortunate in being able to draw on information from people in the Cheyne family and in Fetlar who had stories of their own about him.

“I’m sure anyone who has written a biography will agree that you almost “live with” the person you’re writing about for the duration of the process.

“They become part of your life, and I’m certainly going to miss Sir Watson now that the book has a life of its own.”

She said seeing it in print was exciting enough, but she was ‘absolutely astounded’ when it was shortlisted for a Saltire award, adding: “This kind of recognition is more Sir Watson’s achievement than mine. He was such an extraordinary person.”

Microbes and the Fetlar Man: The Life of Sir William Watson Cheyne is published by Humming Earth and costs £35.

Mrs Coutts currently teaches and translates in the province of Cáceres in Extremadura, and is an Affiliate Researcher at the University of Glasgow, where she is involved in community consultation projects connected with rabies prevention in Tanzania (Department of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine).

She has also begun looking into another book, drawing on more Fetlar material.