Cheyne, Sir (William) Watson, first baronet 1852-1932, bacteriologist and surgeon, was born at sea, off Hobart Town, Tasmania, 14 December 1852, the only son of Andrew Cheyne, of Ollaberry, Shetland, captain in the mercantile marine, by his wife, Eliza, daughter of William Watson, minister of the united parishes of Fetlar and North Yell. He was educated at the grammar school and King's College, Aberdeen, and at Edinburgh University, where he graduated with first class honours in medicine in 1875. He went the same year to Vienna, where he attended the lectures of A. C. Theodor Billroth, Ernest Wilhelm von Brücke, Anton Politzer, Ferdinand R. von Hebra, and Siegmund Exner, and the following spring spent three months with the great pathologist Friedrich Daniel von Recklinghausen at Strasburg.
Shortly after his return to Edinburgh Cheyne became house-surgeon to Joseph (afterwards Lord) Lister [qv.], who invited him to accompany him to King's College Hospital, where Lister had been appointed professor of clinical surgery in 1877. At first, Lister and Cheyne received only a cold welcome which, however, enabled Cheyne to pursue his study of bacteriology, including the translation of two German works on bacteriology for the New Sydenham Society, namely, Robert Koch's Etiology of the Traumatic Infective Diseases (1880) and Carl Flügge's Micro-organisms, with Special Reference to the Etiology of the Infective Diseases (1890). Gradually, however, Cheyne received due recognition, and in 1882 he published an important work entitled Antiseptic Surgery: its Principles, Practice, History and Results, an enlargement of his thesis for the Jacksonian prize, awarded by the Royal College of Surgeons in 1881, followed three years later by Lister and his Achievements (1885), which formed the subject of the first Lister memorial lecture delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1924, when he was awarded the Lister medal. In 1880 Cheyne was appointed assistant-surgeon at King's College Hospital, becoming full surgeon in due course, professor of the principles and practice of surgery in 1891, and professor of clinical surgery in 1902. He was Hunterian professor at the Royal College of Surgeons from 1888 to 1890.
On the outbreak of the South African war in 1899 Cheyne was appointed civil consulting surgeon to the forces and was appointed C.B. for his services, and in 1908 he was created a baronet. When war broke out in 1914 he was made consulting surgeon to the navy and in 1915 became temporary surgeon-general, and was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1916. He retired from active practice at the end of the war.
The importance of Cheyne's work lies in the fact that not only was he a pioneer in antiseptic surgery and was one of Lister's most active followers, but he also emphasized the value of preventive medicine in clinical practice. When Cheyne began his bacteriological investigations at Edinburgh there was no staining of bacteria, no oil immersion lenses, no solid cultivating media, no proper incubators—in fact, everything was in its infancy.
In 1917 Cheyne was elected member of parliament for the universities of Edinburgh and St. Andrews and from 1918 to 1922 he was a member for the combined Scottish Universities. In 1919 he was gazetted lord-lieutenant of Orkney and Shetland, an office from which he resigned in 1930. He was elected in 1879 a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, was president from 1914 to 1916, and Hunterian orator in 1915. In 1894 he was elected F.R.S. He received honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford, Edinburgh, and Birmingham.
Cheyne was twice married: first, in 1887 to Mary Emma (died 1894), daughter of the Rev. William Servante, of Plumstead, Kent, and had two sons and one daughter, who died in infancy; secondly, in 1894 to Margaret (died 1922), daughter of George Smith, of Lerwick, Shetland, and had one son and two daughters, all of whom predeceased him. He retired in 1922 to Fetlar where he died after a prolonged illness 19 April 1932, and was succeeded as second baronet by his eldest son, Joseph Lister Cheyne, M.C. (born 1888), colonel, 16th Lancers.
The Times, 20 April 1932
Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, No. 1, December 1932 (portrait)
British Medical Journal, 1932, vol. i, p. 821 (portrait)
Lancet, 1932, vol. i, p. 963.
Contributor: J. D. Rolleston.