Colonel Professor Sir William Boog Leishman

Biography of Colonel Professor Sir William Boog Leishman

William Boog Leishman, the distinguished bacteriologist and pathologist, was born in Glasgow on 6th November 1865 and raised in a highly academic environment. His grandfather was Reverend Dr. Leishman, parish minister of Govan and an uncle, Thomas, was a distinguished divine. His father, William, was a Glasgow graduate of 1855, who held the chair of Medical Jurisprudence in Anderson’s College, edited the Glasgow Medical Journal and became Regius Professor of Midwifery at Glasgow University in 1868. He married Augusta Selina Drever, of Blackrock, County Dublin, and they had six children, of whom William was the fourth, and the youngest of their three sons. He followed his father into Medicine.

William was a very gifted student and one who, it seems, had to slow down to comply with the medical faculty’s regulations. After attending Westminster School, he matriculated at the University of Glasgow in the autumn of 1880 to study Greek, Latin and Mathematics. He was still only fourteen, though he anticipated his birthday in November and presented himself as fifteen. The following year he remained curiously still fifteen and signed up for Professor John Veitch’s class in Logic. In 1882, now sixteen he enrolled for classes in the Medical Faculty in Anatomy, Zoology and Chemistry. He did well, passing his exams with flying colours and he was ready to sit his Finals in June 1886.

On 23rd February that year the Faculty met. William’s father was in attendance, as professor of Midwifery, when a request to allow three students, including young William to take Finals despite being underage for graduation, was approved. The Senate agreed and William completed his professional exams with ease, passing Midwifery with 90%. Nonetheless, a rule was a rule. Medical students could not graduate until they were twenty-one. William Boog Leishman, who graduated MB CM near the top of his class, with High Commendation, had to wait until November to do so.

After graduating, William took a commission in the Royal Army Medical Corps. When he was posted to India three years later, to take part in a punitive expedition to Waziristan, he packed his microscope and began his lifelong research into microbiology and public health. Returning to England to work at the Army Medical School at Netley, he became Assistant Professor of Pathology. In 1900 he identified the causative parasite of kala azar, or black fever. The results were published in 1903 and these ovoid bodies came to be known as ‘Leishman-Donovan’ bodies, Charles Donovan having reached the same conclusions independently and published them within months of Leishman. The disease is now known as visceral leishmaniasis and remains a killer in parts of Africa and India. William also developed a method of staining blood which made it easier to identify malaria and, still in use today, it is known as ‘Leishman’s stain’.

By January 1914, when his professorship terminated at the Army Medical School, now at Millbank, London, Leishman was a very distinguished doctor. In rank a Brevet-Colonel, he was also a Knight of the Realm (1909), a past President of the Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (1911-1912), a fellow of the Royal Society (1910) and honorary physician to King George (1912). The greatest honours were yet to come and many of them were conferred in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the health of the soldiers in the Great War. In particular, he had worked for a decade to produce an effective vaccine against typhoid.

He published ‘The results which have been obtained by anti-typhoid Inoculation’ in the British Medical Journal in 1900, and continued his work, publishing much of it in the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps and giving the Harben lecture on the same subject in 1910. When war began in August 1914, 170,000 doses were issued to the troops. It is estimated that, without it, there would have been about 551,000 cases of typhoid and over 77,000 deaths. Thanks to the vaccine, there were only 1,191 deaths from 21,139 cases.

During the war Leishman was the War Office’s expert on tropical diseases. He worked on committees, and with the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders. He continued to discover more and more about the conditions that affected the troops, including the new ones arising from trench warfare, like ‘trench fever’. His ability to research and apply his knowledge in practical contexts made him especially valuable. He was Mentioned in Despatches (MID) three times and was gazetted Major-General in October 1919. After the war he became the first director of Pathology at the War Office and later the Medical Director of the Army Medical Services.

Among the many honours conferred on him, was one from his alma mater. He graduated LLD in 1914 from the University of Glasgow. McGill also gave him an honorary degree. He was created Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in 1915, Knight Commander The Most Honourable Order of the Bath (KCB)in 1924, Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in 1918. He became a grand officer of the Legion d’Honneur and received the Distinguished Service Medal of the United States of America. In 1925 he was made a member of the Athenaeum. Professor Sir William Boog Leishman had a remarkable career and died in London on 2nd June 1926 at Queen Alexandra’s Military Hospital.

 

Summary

Colonel Professor Sir William Boog Leishman
Rank: Colonel
Regiment: Royal Army Medical Corps
Degree: MB CM LLD
Awards: Mentioned in Despatches
Comments: N/A
Note/Press Clipping: N/A
Photo ID: N/A

Sources

University of Glasgow Registry, Faculty and General Council Records

University of Glasgow Archives, Minutes of the Medical Faculty, (GUAS Ref: Med 1/2; Senate Minutes GUAS Ref: Sen 1/1/14)

H D Rolleston, ‘Leishman, Sir William Boog (1865-1926)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

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