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William Henry Duncan, (1805–1863)

William Henry Duncan
William Henry Duncan, (1805–1863), was a physician and medical officer of health, he was born in Seel Street, Liverpool on 27 January 1805, the third son and fifth of the seven children of George Duncan, merchant of Liverpool, and his wife, Christian, the youngest daughter of James Currie, minister of Middlebie and of Kirkpatrick Fleming, Dumfriesshire, and a sister of James Currie MD FRS of Liverpool. He was educated under the supervision of his uncle, the Revd Henry Duncan DD, at Ruthwell manse, his tutors including Robert Mitchell. From 1825 to 1829 he studied at Edinburgh University. He graduated MD in 1829.

By 1830 Duncan had begun practicing medicine in Liverpool, also serving as a physician at the Central and North dispensaries. He published his analysis of the cholera cases he had attended during the 1832 epidemic. Duncan drew attention to the correlations between the disease and environment, in particular the habitation of the poor which was principally in cellars and courts. Duncan submitted evidence to an inquiry into the corporation of Liverpool in 1833, and also to the House of Commons' select committee on the health of towns (1840). He highlighted the deplorable ‘sanitary state of the labouring classes’ in Liverpool, whose population was rapidly increasing, principally by migration from Ireland and elsewhere. His paper ‘On the physical causes of the high rate of mortality in Liverpool’ (1843) was particularly influential; Liverpool he declared to be ‘the most unhealthy town in England’. He was a prominent member of the Liverpool branch of the Health of Towns Association, established in 1845.

It was largely due to Duncan's efforts that the corporation of Liverpool promoted the Liverpool Sanitary Act 1846, which established a public health service as an essential activity of local government. In 1846 Liverpool became the first city in the world to appoint a Medical Officer of Health when it appointed Dr William Henry Duncan to this position, which he took up on 1st January 1847, the post became full-time in 1848 at an annual salary of £750.

Duncan was a pioneer in sanitary reform and although he faced opposition he robustly defended his actions and publications against criticism. He enjoyed a good relationship with the corporation and particularly with its able engineer, James Newlands  a Scottish civil engineer who worked in Liverpool as the first Borough Engineer appointed in the United Kingdom, (he is credited with designing and implementing the first integrated sewerage system in the world in 1848). However, Duncan encountered difficulties with the select vestry (responsible for poor-law institutions), particularly during the years when epidemics of typhus (1847) and cholera (1849, 1854) ravaged the town. Housing such as back to backs and courts in Liverpool were typical, Duncan had carried out a survey of sanitary conditions in such dwellings while still working as a local general practitioner. He found that a third of the population lived in the cellars of these houses, which had earth floors and no ventilation or sanitation, (never meant as living accommodation but rather for storage), and as many as 16 people to a room. These conditions predisposed to the spread of epidemic disease, and in particular the cholera that struck England in the mid19th century with devastating consequences.

The following article appeared in the  Liverpool Mercury June 22 1849

 Liverpool Mercury June 22 1849

His influence and subsequent actions by the council resulted in a significant reduction in the population living in cellars and other ‘unhealthy dwellings’, and a general improvement in environmental hygiene. He established methods of work, and initiated courses of improvement under which, by 1890, the average general death rate of Liverpool was declared by Sir John Simon to have been reduced by ‘probably at least a fourth part’ of the rate which prevailed when Duncan had become medical officer of health.

The first Northern Hospital on Leeds Street
Duncan was a physician at Liverpool's Northern Hospital from 1837 to 1838 and at Liverpool Infirmary from 1843 to 1848. He lectured at the Liverpool Royal Institution school of medicine and surgery (from 1844 the Liverpool Infirmary medical school) from 1835 to 1848, and was the school's secretary in 1844–5. He helped to establish the Liverpool Medical Society (of which he was secretary from 1833 and president from 1836 to 1838) and also the Liverpool Medical Institution and in 1840 he became its first secretary. He was an active member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool from 1837 onwards and served as its treasurer.

Duncan was twice married: in 1848 to Philadelphia (d. 1850), eldest daughter of James Rickarby, merchant, of Liverpool; and secondly, in 1853, to Catherine (d. 1909), daughter of William Duncan MacAndrew, merchant, of Liverpool. He and his second wife had a son and a daughter. Duncan, whose health had been failing for several years, died in West Park, Elgin, on 23 May 1863.


Liverpool Central Library
Liverpool Records Office
Oxford National Biography
The History of Public Health
John Ashton

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