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Conserving a portrait of surgical pioneer William Macewen

Thanks to funding from the Scotland and Medicine network, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow has been able to conserve one of the most important portraits in its collection.


Portrait of Sir William Macewen
Sir William Macewen

The portrait of Sir William Macewen (1848 – 1924) by Charles R. Dowell has been on almost continuous display in the College Hall since the 1920s. During 2021 the Hall’s portrait display was being refreshed, which presented a good opportunity to rest the Macewen portrait. The funding has allowed us to take advantage of this and carry out some much needed conservation and preservation work on the painting, ensuring it can return as a prominent feature in future displays. This work has included surface and reverse cleaning, adding support to unlined canvas, and repairs to the original frame. The fitting of protective, low-reflective glass will help preserve the condition of the portrait for generations to come.


William Macewen is one of the most significant and inspiring figures in 19th and early 20th century surgery, and is intrinsically linked to the city of Glasgow (where he studied, practiced and taught), while his achievements had a massive impact across the UK and internationally. The College holds a large portion of his surgical and medical papers, along with two of our partners in Scotland and Medicine, the University of Glasgow Archives and Special Collections, and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives. The College’s rooms were the site of some of Macewen’s early, innovative lectures and presentations, for which we also hold the records.


The portrait was commissioned for the College in 1924 by Dr Freeland Fergus, immediately after Macewen’s death. The famous surgeon refused to sit for his portrait during his lifetime, so Fergus provided the artist Charles R. Dowell with a large photographic portrait of Macewen as the basis for the painting.


Macewen is an inspiring figure from the College’s history, and is a fantastic example of how medical heritage can be used to connect to medical practice today. Using archive and museum collections we have made numerous connections between Macewen’s pioneering work and achievements, and medical and surgical training and medical humanities in the 21st century. Given the extent and significance of the Macewen collections, this work will continue for many years to come.

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