Sir William Macewen (1848-1924, knighted in 1902) graduated with a medical degree from Glasgow University in 1872. He was greatly influenced by the work of Joseph Lister. He became assistant surgeon at GRI in 1874 and was promoted to full surgeon in 1877, Macewen is widely considered to be the father of brain surgery, having further developed Lister’s work in sterilisation, disinfection and antisepsis. Macewen carried out the world’s first successful brain surgery in 1879, removing a tumour (a left frontal meningioma) from a young woman. She lived for a further eight years. He made significant contributions also in orthopaedics, the removal of infected lungs in the treatment of tuberculosis and lung cancer and endotracheal anaesthesia, the method for which he described in 1880 and which is still in use today.

Macewen also believed in the advancement of training and conditions for nursing and nurses as an essential support to developments in surgery and medicine, and in 1880 he began a training programme for nurses, with a focus on sterilisation, under the management of Mrs Rebecca Strong, Matron of GRI. The two formed a formidable and effective partnership and eventually their training methods for nurses were adopted worldwide. In 1942, the Macewen Medal in Surgical Nursing and the Mrs Strong Medal in Medical Nursing were established at GRI to commemorate the work of both individuals.

In 1883, Macewen was appointed Surgeon to the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow and in 1892 he became Regius Professor of Surgery at Glasgow University, a post which Lister had held when Macewen was a student. At this time he also moved his surgical activities to the Western Infirmary, Glasgow.

Macewen continued to innovate well into his later years, He became the first surgeon appointed to the Princess Louise Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors (now Erskine Hospital) and with the help of engineers from Yarrow’s shipyard on Clydeside designed artificial limbs for patients of the hospital.

William Macewen (standing to left, hand on patient) operates as Rebecca Strong looks on (right wearing grey dress and black cardigan). Photograph courtesy of NHSGGC Medical Illustration Services