William Gull was born in Essex in 1816, the son of a barge owner and wharfinger. The family moved to Thorpe-Le-Soken when Gull was 4, and six years later his father died of cholera. Gull's mother raised him and his siblings alone, instilling in her children a strong religious and moral compass. As a child Gull attended day school, first along with his sisters and then at another local school run by a clergyman. He attended that school until he was 15, when he became a boarder for the next two years and studied Latin for the first time. When he was 17 he announced his intention to no longer attend the school. Instead he became pupil-teacher at a school in nearby Sussex where he lived with the schoolmaster's family and continued his education in Latin and Greek. At this time in his life he developed his interest in botany, especially the study of unusual plants, an interest he would maintain for the rest of his life. A further two years on, at the age of 19, he was again restless, and began to cast about for a new career path. He was taken under the wing of the local rector, who taught Gull the classics on alternating days, leaving his other days free to explore the coastline along with his sisters. During this time he developed his interest in biology by collecting, categorizing and studying wildlife specimens he found, and determined to become a doctor.
He met the treasurer from Guy's Hospital at this time, and the man offered to bring Gull to the hospital under his patronage, which he did in 1837. There Gull was an apprentice in the hospital, receiving rooms there and an annual income of 50 pounds. He decided to compete for, and won, every award offered by the hospital at the time. He continued his study of Greek, Latin and maths, and in 1838 began attending the University of London
. His work ethic paid off, and he graduated in 1841 with his M.B. and honours in Comparative Anatomy, Medicine, Physiology and Surgery. In 1842 he began teaching Materia Medica at Guy's hospital, for which he received a small house and an income of 100 pounds. In 1843 he was also appointed to lecture in Natural Philosophy, as well as being Medical Tutor at Guy's and often helping in the care of patients there. During this year he was appointed Medical Superintendent of the lunatic ward, which he was instrumental in shutting down and moving the treatment of such patients out of the hospital. In 1846 he received his M.D., again from the University of London, and also received the gold medal, the highest honour awarded by the hospital to medical students at the time. In this same year he took up the position of Lecturer on Physiology and Comparative Anatomy, which he would hold for the following ten years. In 1847 he was elected Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution of Great Britan, and the following year was elected Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, as well as being appointed Resident Physician at Guy's. He became DCL of Oxford in 1868 and Fellow of the Royal Society the following year. Between 1871 and 1873 he was a crown member of the General Medical Council. He first became LLD of the University of Cambridge in 1880, and then of the University of Edinburgh four years later. In 1886 he represented the University of London before the GMC.
In 1871 Gull was Physician in Ordinary to Prince Albert Victor
, who was suffering from typhoid fever that had been complicated by bronchitis and which seriously threatened the Prince's life for several days. The Prince recovered thanks in large part to the efforts of Gull, who for his work was created 1st Baronet of the Baronetcy of Brook Street by Queen Victoria
in February of 1872. He was also appointed Physician-in-Ordinary to the Queen herself, though this appointment was largely honourary, and received a salary of 200 pounds.
Perhaps his most enduring contribution to the field of medicine was the description and establishment of the disease Anorexia nervosa, which he first observed in 1866. He described it in a speech before the British Medical Association in Oxford in 1868, and established the term itself in 1873. He contributed to the study of Chronic Bright's Disease, now also referred to as Sutton-Gull Syndrome, about which he co-published a paper in 1872. In 1873 he also presented a paper about Myoxedema, atrophy of the thyroid gland, though he did not establish the name for it. He also conducted research into spinal cord injuries and paraplegia, mainly between 1856 and 1858. He is also noted to have been a vocal supporter for the involvement of women in medicine, at a time when most women were not encouraged to enter the medical profession. He personally contributed 10 guineas to a scholarship aimed at helping women to pursue further education in medicine.
Personal Life, Death
Gull married Susan Ann Lacy
in 1848, with whom he would eventually have three children, two of whom survived to adulthood. In 1887 Gull suffered a stroke, the first of many, which left him partially paralysed and aphasic. He regained his faculties, but continued to suffer strokes until he suffered a final attack on January 27th. He died two days later on January 29th, 1890 at the age of 74.
Jack the Ripper?
Implications that a famous London physician was responsible for the Jack the Ripper
slayings were published as early as 1895. Several American newspapers reported that a physician had begun to act oddly between August and November of 1888, when the murders took place. She informed other doctors, who committed her husband to an asylum in Islington, where he was committed under the name "Thomas Mason". It was alleged that a fake funeral was held in order to throw suspicion off of this doctor. It was also alleged that psychic Robert Lees
had been instrumental to finding this doctor.
William Gull's name was not associated with this theory at the time, though it has more recently been used in connection with him. The first time Gull's name was mentioned as being somehow related to the Ripper case was in 1970, when Dr. Thomas Stowell alleged that Prince Albert Victor was the Ripper, and Gull had diagnosed the Prince's insanity and had misreported the cause of the Prince's death in order to cover up his association with the crime. It should be noted that Gull died two years before the Prince, so his ability to falsify the Prince's medical documents would have been quite limited.
1973 saw the first suggestion that Gull was somehow tied up in the supposed "royal conspiracy", and he was portrayed as the killer in the television docudrama miniseries Jack the Ripper
. His role in the royal conspiracy was expanded in Stephen Knight's 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution
. In this book it was alleged that Prince Albert Victor had married a Catholic shopgirl, Annie Crook
, and had a daughter by her. The Ripper crimes, it explained, were a plot by the Freemasons
and the royal establishment to cover up this embarrassing affair. In this theory Gull, a high-ranking Freemason, is cast as the murderer, assisted by his coachman John Netley
. Since then many fictional accounts have taken the view that Gull was indeed the murderer, most notably in Eddie Campbell
and Alan Moore's From Hell
The royal conspiracy has been widely discredited, and the allegations against Gull himself are generally dismissed as unsupported by historical evidence. For one, there is no evidence that Gull was a Freemason at all, let alone a particularly high-ranking one. As well, by the time of the first murder Gull was 71-years-old, and had already suffered one debilitating stroke. The chances that he could have committed the murders so dexterously and quickly, and then escaped so easily, are practically nil. Nonetheless the theory remains a popular one, and the dramatic value of the theory tends to outweigh established historical fact in the public consciousness.