Sir Dawson Williams CBE FRCP (17 July 1854 – 27 February 1928) was a British physician and the longest serving editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ).


Dawson Williams
Sir Dawson Williams by Byrne & Co albumen cabinet card, circa 1885.jpg
Dawson Williams on a cabinet card, c. 1885.[1]
Born(1854-07-17)17 July 1854
Died27 February 1928(1928-02-27) (aged 73)
Resting placeLittle Marlow Cemetery, Marlow, Buckinghamshire
Alma materUniversity College London
Scientific career
InfluencedSir Thomas Barlow, 1st Baronet

He gave up his medical practice to edit the BMJ and published influential studies into "mental healing" and bogus medications that exposed numerous preparations as "valueless" and containing only minute quantities of what was claimed. He retired in 1928 after thirty years of editorship.

Early life and educationEdit

Dawson Williams was born in Ulleskelf, Yorkshire, on 17 July 1854 to the reverend John Mack Williams, previously the rector of Burnby and of Irish and Welsh descent, and his wife Ellen Monsarrat, of Spanish and Huguenot descent. He was the eldest son of seven children, and educated at Pocklington Grammar School, subsequently going on to University College London (UCL) to study arts.[2][3]

He stayed on at UCL to study medicine, graduating in 1878, and then taking up junior posts at UCL, the Victoria Hospital for Children and the Brompton Hospital.[2] At one time, he aspired to join the Indian Medical Service, but changed direction to paediatrics.[3]

In 1882, he married Catherine (died 1917), daughter of the Scottish land-owner Robert Kirkpatrick-Howat, and they had one daughter.[2]


After ten years as physician to the East London Hospital for Children from 1884, Williams became full physician and then consultant.[2]

He met his lifelong friend, Herbert R. Spencer at UCL, which consequently established a close tie between UCL and the BMJ. Spencer ultimately followed Williams to Harley Street, and Williams frequently published works by Spencer.[4]

He wrote several articles including contributions to Clifford Allbutt’s System of Medicine, and in 1898, he published Medical Diseases of Infancy and Childhood. He was closely connected with the British Medical Journal throughout his career, being first a reporter, then principal sub-editor, and then assistant editor in 1895. He succeeded the editor, Ernest Hart, in 1898, following which he gave up much of his clinical practice, ultimately leaving it completely from 1902 to dedicate his whole time to the journal's editorship which he held for thirty years.[2]

In 1904, Dawson commissioned Edward Harrison, a renowned pharmacist, to analyse the contents of a variety of proprietary drugs. The results, including the drug costs, were published in a series of articles that lasted until 1908, and exposed numerous medications as "valueless"[5] and containing only minute quantities of what was claimed.[5] Some of this work was reproduced in 1909 in Secret Remedies. What they Cost and What they Contain, which sold more than 60,000 copies within two years. A follow-up, More Secret Remedies (1912), was published but was less successful.[5]

Some of his other BMJ editorial activities included publishing a series of specially commissioned articles on "mental healing", where significant contributions came from eminent medical professionals including Clifford Allbutt, Henry Morris, H. T. Butlin, and William Osler.[6]

In 1917, he was succeeded as editor of the BMJ by Norman Gerald Horner, who had been his assistant.[7]

Later lifeEdit

In 1919, he received the CBE. In 1921 he was knighted and also awarded the gold medal of merit of the British Medical Association.[2]

During the last two decades of his life he suffered from the after-effects of a car accident and later from bronchitis and heart failure.[3] He died on 27 February 1928,[2][8] at his home near Bourne End, Buckinghamshire.[3][9]

Selected publicationsEdit


  1. ^ Sir Dawson Williams. National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 16 August 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Munks Roll Details for Dawson (Sir) Williams". Retrieved 16 August 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d "Sir Dawson Williams, C.B.E., M.D., Hon. LL.D., D.Litt., D.Sc.; F.R.C.P." British Medical Journal. 1 (3505): 414–25. 10 March 1928. PMC 2455149. PMID 20773742.
  4. ^ Stokes, Michèle. A Measure of the Élite: A History of Medical Practitioners in Harley Street, 1845–1914 (PDF). University College London, PhD Thesis. p. 99.
  5. ^ a b c Bartrip, Peter (1995). "9. Secret Remedies, Medical Ethics, and the Finances of the BMJ". In Baker, Robert (ed.). The Codification of Medical Morality: Historical and Philosophical Studies of the Formalization of Western Medical Morality in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Volume Two: Anglo-American Medical Ethics and Medical Jurisprudence in the Nineteenth Century. Dordrecht: Kluwer. p. 199. ISBN 978-0-7923-3528-3.
  6. ^ Kuhn, Philip. (2017). Psychoanalysis in Britain, 1893–1913: Histories and Historiography. Lanham: Lexington Books. p. 150. ISBN 9781498505222.
  7. ^ "Obituary- Norman Gerald Horner". British Medical Journal: 19. 4 January 1947.
  8. ^ Williams, Sir Dawson. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 18 August 2018. (subscription required)
  9. ^ "Death of Sir Dawson Williams". British Medical Journal. 1 (3504): 361. 3 March 1928. doi:10.1136/bmj.1.3504.361. ISSN 0007-1447. PMC 2455206. PMID 20773728.

External linksEdit