William R. Gowers: clinical neurologist and artist

William R. Gowers (1845-1915) died 101 years ago.  I was first introduced to Gowers by an American Academy of Neurology fellow who requested many editions of his Manual of diseases of the nervous system. I continue to be amazed that he could capture so much of neurological signs and symptoms in line drawings.


Drawings, etchings, and Manual of diseases of the nervous system

In the first book-length biography of Gowers (1949), MacDonald Critchley describes Gowers as “ the greatest clinical neurologist of all time.” The sources for his ambitious monograph, Manual of diseases of the nervous system, were Gower’s own case-notes, clinical memory, and illustrations taken from Gower’s own patients that he had drawn himself (Critchley 1949, page 47). 

Of Gowers as an artist, MacDonald Critchley said: “it was the delicate, almost finicking technique of the etcher and engraver which appealed to him most as a medium.  He also did pencil drawings, especially of medical and pathological subjects, with which he illustrated his textbooks.  Water-colours appealed to him less… Gowers boasted that he never had a lesson in drawing, but he studied handbooks on the subject and practiced assiduously (Critchley 1949, page 87). “   

The recent biography by Scott, Lees and Eadie (http://beckercat.wustl.edu/cgi-bin/koha/opac-detail.pl?biblionumber=137741 ) shows a number of original drawings for  Manual of diseases of the nervous system from the Queen Square Library, Archive and Museum.   Although etching was one of Gower’s skills, the majority of 374 illustrations for the book “were printed from blocks prepared from Gowers’ original drawings by the Typographic Etching Company using a phototype process (Scott 2015, page 150-162).


Critchley, Macdonald. Sir William Gowers, 1845-1915 : a biographical appreciation. London: Heinemann, 1949.

Eling, Paul. "Neuroanniversary 2015." Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 24 (2015): 79–83.

Scott, Ann, 1938-, Mervyn Eadie, Andrew Lees. William Richard Gowers, 1845-1915: exploring the Victorian Brain, a biography. Oxford :: Oxford University Press, 2015.