university of glasgow
skip navigation

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives

Link to NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde website.

Research Guides

Sir William Macewen (1848-1924)


Sir William Macewen (1848–1924)

A former student of Lister, Macewen was one of a number of surgeons who sought to take Lister’s work further by trying to achieve asceptic (germ–free) conditions in the operating theatre. His successful aseptic practices subsequently led to him becoming a pioneer of surgery of the brain and spine.

Born on the Isle of Bute in 1848 Macewen qualified MB, CM from the University of Glasgow in 1869 and MD in 1872. He was appointed surgeon to the Western Infirmary in 1873 and to the Royal Infirmary in 1877 and it was in these hospitals that he developed his revolutionary aseptic practices.

Macewen developed an ‘aseptic ritual’ in the operating theatre insisting that his assistants and staff scrubbed up thoroughly before surgery. He replaced the overcoats normally worn by medical staff during operations at the time to protect their clothing with sterilisable white coats. He also ensured that surgical instruments, dressings and everything else in the theatre which might be a source of infection was sterilised.

The clinical record collections of the Western Infirmary and the Royal Infirmary document the work carried out by Macewen in the hospitals. The volumes recording his work are the following:

Glasgow Royal Infirmary  (Ref: HB 14 and HH 67)

  • 1881–1884; Casebooks, Ward 21.  (Ref: HB 14/5/8)
  • 1883–1889; Casebooks, Ward 29.  (Ref: HH 67/29/3–4)

The minutes and annual reports of both the Western Infirmary  (Ref: HB 6/1 and 6/3) and the Royal Infirmary  (Ref: HB 14/1 and 14/2) provide additional information on Macewen’s activities in the hospitals.

Further information on Macewen’s work can be found in articles and reports in contemporary medical journals such as the British Medical Journal, the Lancet and the Glasgow Medical Journal. A useful bibliography of Macewen’s publications can be found in the Glasgow Medical Journal (vol. 101, 1924, pp. 233–237) accompanying his obituary.

The Glasgow Royal Infirmary collection  (Ref: HB 14) contains other material relating to Macewen including:

  • 1920–1950; Material collected by Dr. R. A. M. Davidson relating to Macewen including photographs and press cuttings.  (Ref: HB 14/6/121)
  • 1972–1979; Correspondence and press cuttings collected by Dr. R. A. M. Davidson re. Macewen.  (Ref: HB 14/6/122)
  • c.1900; Photograph of Macewen conducting an operation.  (Ref: HB 14/8/50)
  • 1923; Photograph of Macewen in operating theatre in the Western Infirmary.  (Ref: HB 14/8/51)
  • Undated; Photographic portrait of Macewen (signed).  (Ref: HB 14/8/57)
  • 1878–1972; File containing articles by, or concerning, Macewen, 1878–1972.  (Ref: HB 14/9/8)
  • 1972; ‘Sir William Macewen, a memoir’ by R. A. M. Davidson, Macewen’s last House Surgeon.  (Ref: HB 14/9/26)

Glasgow Western Infirmary  (Ref: HH 66)

  • 1894–1916; Casebooks, Ward 15.  (Ref: HH 66/15/25a–41)
  • 1919–1923; Casebooks, Ward 15.  (Ref: HH 66/15/43–45)
  • 1895–1925; Casebooks, Ward 19.  (Ref: HH 66/18/9–24; 26)
  • 1904–1924; Casebooks, Ward 21.  (Ref: HH 66/21/17–37)

Further reading

Bowman, A. K., Sir William Macewen, (London, 1942).

Cameron, Sir H. C., Reminiscences of Lister and of his work in the wards of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, (Glasgow, 1927).

Duguid, C., Macewen of Glasgow, (Edinburgh, 1957).

Jenkinson, J., Moss, M. & Russell, I., The Royal – The History of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, 1794–1994, (Glasgow, 1994).

Macewen, H. A., The Man in the White Coat, (Glasgow, 1974).

Glasgow University Archive Services holds a large collection of correspondence and papers of Macewen and his family, including his brother–in–law J. W. Allan (Medical Superintendent, Belvidere Hospital, 1875–1897; Physician, Glasgow Royal Infirmary, 1901–1906)   (Ref: DC 79). Both the The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, Glasgow and the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine also hold archival collections relating to Macewen.

For further information on these archives you should consult the UK National Register of Archives.