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MACMICHAEL, William (1783-1839)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0113 MS-MACMW
Held at: Royal College of Physicians
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Full title: MACMICHAEL, William (1783-1839)
Date(s): 1827-1830
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 2 volumes
Name of creator(s): Macmichael | William | 1783-1839 | physician and medical biographer


Administrative/Biographical history:

William Macmichael was born in Bridgnorth, Shropshire on 30 November 1783, the son of William Macmichael, a banker of Bridgnorth. He was educated at Bridgnorth Grammar School and then entered Christchurch, Oxford, in 1800 on a scholarship. He proceeded BA in 1805, MA in 1807, and MB in 1808. He spent the next three years continuing his medical studies in Edinburgh and then at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London. In 1811 he was elected to one of the Radcliffe traveling fellowships, and traveled for several years, visiting Greece, Russia, the Danubian principalities (now Romania), Bulgaria, Turkey and Palestine. In 1812 whilst in Thermopylae, Greece, he contracted malaria. He suffered intermittently from fevers for the next two years. In 1814, less than two years after Napolean Bonaparte's defeat, Macmichael visited Moscow, which he found to be in ruins. He was employed for a short time as physician to the Marquis of Londonderry, Charles William Vane, whilst he was ambassador at Vienna. Macmichael returned from his travels, having received the news that his bankers had failed and that most of his money was lost. He graduated MD at Oxford in 1816.

He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1817, and a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians the following year. He returned to Europe in 1817-18 before settling to practice in London. In 1819 he published an account of his travels illustrated by his own drawings, A Journey from Moscow to Constantinople in the Years 1817, 1818. He became closely involved with the Royal College of Physicians, where he was appointed censor in 1820. In 1822 he was elected physician to the Middlesex Hospital. In the same year he published his first medical work, A New View of the Infection of Scarlet Fever: Illustrated by Remarks on other Contagious Disorders. Having realised that second attacks of the scarlet fever were rare, he advocated if one child in a family developed the disease it was wise to let the other children contract it.

From 1824-29 he was registrar at the College, serving during the College's move from its premises in Warwick Lane, to Pall Mall East, in 1825. During this time Macmichael anonymously published the biographical work The Gold-Headed Cane (1827), which tells of the adventures of the physician's cane carried by John Radcliffe, Richard Mead, Anthony Askew, William Pitcairn and Matthew Baillie in turn. It gives both good biographies of the owners and information on the condition of medicine in 18th century England.

In 1829 Macmichael was appointed physician extraordinary to the King, George IV. The following year he published a small volume entitled The Lives of British Physicians (1830), again anonymously. This work consisted of eighteen biographies by himself and others, of such eminent physicians as Thomas Linacre, John Caius, and William Harvey. It has been said that the work was of `the same merit of style as the Gold-Headed Cane; they contain much information, and are never dry' (DNB, 1893, p.230). It was also in 1830 that Macmichael became librarian to the King, and in 1831 physician in ordinary to the new King, William IV. He had treated the King for gout before he succeeded to the throne, and the King gave Macmichael his own gold-headed cane, as free from gout he no longer needed it. He was indebted to his patron Sir Henry Halford for these appointments, but despite this powerful patronage Macmichael never acquired a large practice.

In 1831 he resigned from the Middlesex Hospital. He was censor again for the Royal College of Physicians in 1832. The following year Macmichael was appointed as Inspector General of Lunatic Asylums, one of four commissioners whose job it was to license and inspect London's madhouses. Macmichael carried out this duty until 1835. The following year, at the College, he was made Consiliarius (adviser or counsellor to the President).

In 1837 he suffered an attack of paralysis. Compelled to withdraw from professional life, he retired to Maida Hill. He had married Mary Jane Freer in 1827 and they had one daughter. Macmichael died on 10 January 1839 at the age of 55.

A Journey from Moscow to Constantinople in the Years 1817, 1818 (London, 1819)
A New View of the Infection of Scarlet Fever: Illustrated by Remarks on other Contagious Disorders (London, 1822)
A Brief Sketch of the Progress of Opinion upon the Subject of Contagion, with some Remarks on Quarantine (London, 1825)
The Gold-Headed Cane (London, 1827; 2nd ed. 1828; 3rd ed. by Munk with additions, 1884)
Lives of British Physicians (London, 1830)
Is the Cholera Spasmodica of India a Contagious Disease? The Question Considered in a Letter to Sir Henry Halford, Bart, MD (London, 1831)
Some Remarks on Dropsy, with a Narrative of the Last Illness of the Duke of York, read at the Royal College of Physicians, May 25, 1835 (London, 1835)


Scope and content/abstract:

Macmichael's papers, 1827-1830, consist of his author's copies of The Gold-Headed Cane, interleaved with notes in his hand, 1827 (MS113) and the Lives of British Physicians, with additional notes about William Harvey in his hand, 1830 (MS439).

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

Conditions governing access:


Conditions governing reproduction:

All requests should be referred to the Archivist

Finding aids:

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

The Gold-Headed Cane was donated by Dr Thomas Hunt, Macmichael's great grandson, on 12 June 1974; the provenance of the Lives of British Physicians is unknown.

Allied Materials

Related material:

There is material relating to Macmichael held elsewhere in the archives, especially relating to his role as College Registrar including a letter of complaint sent to Macmichael about unlicensed practicing, 1827 (MS2411/45-46); Return of the questionnaire on population, disease and climate abroad, 1829 (MS4032/1); Comments by Macmichael on a paper by John Barnes, on the natives of Van Dieman's Land, read at one of the College's evening meetings, 1820s-30s (MS3058/1-3) and a letter from Samuel Merriman regarding changes to his paper read at one of these meetings [1831] (MS1045/4); Biographical notes on Macmichael by Allan George Williams Whitfield, amongst his notes on the College's first 37 registrars, 1979-81 (MS799/31).

Also in the archives there are notes written by Macmichael accompanying specimens for the College Museum, c.1820-30 (MS2001/37, 42); His signature is one of those that endorsed the resolution regarding the sale of the College premises in Warwick Lane, 1822 (MS1097/35). There are a numbers of letters to and from Macmichael amongst the College's autographed letters collection (ALS).

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Publication note:

The Gold-Headed Cane, William Macmichael (London, 1827; 2nd ed. 1828; 3rd ed. by Munk with additions, 1884)
Lives of British Physicians, William Macmichael (London, 1830)

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Sources: The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, Vol. III, 1801-1825, William Munk (London, 1878) [Munk's Roll, 1878, pp.182-83]; Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. XXXV, Sidney Lee (ed.) (London, 1893) [DNB, 1893, pp.229-30]; The First Thirty Seven Registrars of the College, George Whitfield (privately published, 1981); `The Gold-Headed Cane: William Macmichael', William B. Bean, Current Medical Digest, Vol. XXXVI, No. 8, August 1969, pp.649-56; `The Gold Headed Cane and its Author, William Macmichael', Francis R. Packard; Library Correspondence about William Macmichael.
Compiled by Katharine Williams

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives, Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
Compiled July 2003; Modified September 2003

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