Sir William Watson Cheyne


In Lister's footsteps

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     An introduction to Sir William Watson Cheyne
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 In Lister's footsteps
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Sir Watson
Part of the exhibition at Fetlar Interpretive Centre









Sir William Watson Cheyne
Sir William Watson Cheyne prior to leaving for the Boer War as Consultant Surgeon to Lord Roberts











Leagarth House in Fetlar
Leagarth House in Fetlar, built by Sir William Watson Cheyne around 1901

When Lister moved to King's College Hospital in London, Cheyne moved with him as his House Surgeon, and when Lister retired, many years later, Cheyne took over Lister's position. Acceptance of Lister's methods by the medical profession was a long struggle, and Cheyne continued his unceasing promotion of antiseptic methods which, as time went on, showed an alarming tendency to slip in and out of fashion.

For his services to medicine and surgery Cheyne was created a baronet by Edward VII in 1908, and in 1916 George V made him a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George. A number of medical instruments were named after him: a fine dissector and probe, a hernia needle and a testicle frame.

During the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century, Cheyne's vast experience of the treatment of wounds led him to an appointment as a Consultant Surgeon to Lord Roberts, and on his return he lectured and wrote extensively on the appalling medical conditions in the field. He immediately renewed his crusade for the use of antiseptic treatment in surgery, against a background of changing medical fashions in which it was often neglected. During World War 1, he was appointed Surgeon Rear-Admiral in the Royal Navy, and was also Chief Surgeon at the Naval Hospital at Chatham, where he operated on the wounded from the attack on Zeebrugge.

In public life, Sir Watson became MP in 1917 for the Universities of Edinburgh and St. Andrews, and was later returned as MP for the Combined Scottish Universities in 1918. In 1919 he became Lord Lieutenant for Orkney and Shetland, a position he held until 1930. His scientific honours include election as a member of the Royal Society and the Presidency of the Royal College of Surgeons between 1914 and 1916.

When he retired from his practice in Harley Street in 1919 he moved to the house he had built at Leagarth in Fetlar around 1901. He built extensive gardens with a range of hothouses and greenhouses, and employed a full-time gardener, making a considerable contribution to local employment with his household staff.

His rooms were an annex on the side of the house, and included a small laboratory which, apart from his own work, became a useful facility for visiting botanists and naturalists. He was also able to respond on a number of occasions to local medical emergencies and kept a glass-topped operating table at Leagarth. One of the chairs at Leagarth, unfortunately sold at auction on his death, is said to have been made from part of Lister's operating table.

Sir Watson died in England in 1932 after the onslaught of what was probably Alzheimers Disease, and his ashes were brought to Fetlar. He was succeeded by his son, Joseph Lister Cheyne, who in turn left Leagarth to his own three sons, two of whom are still alive - Sir Joseph Cheyne, Sir Watson's grandson, lives in Shetland. Leagarth is still maintained by Sir Watson's grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and remains today as a monument both to Sir Watson's great career and to his love of Fetlar.

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Fetlar Interpretive Centre,

Beach of Houbie, Fetlar, Shetland, ZE2 9DJ.
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