Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

William Marsden, surgeon and founder of the Royal Free and Royal Marsden Hospitals, London

Arpan K. Banerjee
Solihull, United Kingdom


Portrait of William Marsden
Portrait of William Marsden by Thomas Illidge 1850. Picture in public domain. Source

To found one hospital is a fairly unusual achievement; to found two is a rare feat indeed. William Marsden, a nineteenth-century British doctor, founded both the Royal Free Hospital and the Royal Cancer Hospital (now known as the Royal Marsden Hospital) in London.

William Marsden was born in August 1796 in Yorkshire and had seven older siblings.1 He trained in pharmacy in Sheffield but then moved to London. He was first apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary, then trained as a surgeon in 1824 under the tutelage of the famous John Abernethy at St. Bartholomew’s hospital.2,3 He passed his surgical examinations in 1827 and earned an MD from the University of Erlangen in Germany in 1838.

Today Marsden is remembered for his philanthropy and concern for the poor and destitute. He realized that poverty and illness went hand-in-hand, and this caring attitude resulted in the opening of the London General Institution for the Gratuitous Cure of Malignant Diseases in Holborn. His backers for this controversial project included Michael Faraday and Thomas Wakley (founding editor of the medical journal The Lancet). This was the beginning of the Royal Free Hospital (named thus in 1837), which moved to Gray’s Inn Road and was incorporated at the new site in 1842 with Marsden as one of the senior surgeons. The Royal Free moved again to Hampstead in 1978. It was also the first hospital in the UK to admit women to study for a medical degree in 1877.

Marsden’s first clinic was important in the treatment of a cholera outbreak in London in 1832, where patients were given saline infusions, a relatively new treatment at the time. Other hospitals in London refused admission to these patients. In 1834 Marsden wrote a book, Symptoms and treatment of malignant diarrhoea, better known as Asiatic or malignant cholera.4

Marsden married in 1820 and had a son, Alexander Edwin, in 1832 who also became a surgeon at the Royal Free and the Free Cancer Hospitals.5 In 1846 Marsden’s wife died of cancer. This motivated him to start a hospital for cancer patients, The Free Cancer Hospital, which opened its doors in 18516 in Westminster. It moved to larger premises on the Fulham Road, Chelsea, ten years later and remains there today. Marsden was also senior surgeon at this hospital. The hospital was renamed The Royal Marsden in his honor in 1954. An outpost of the hospital was opened in Sutton, Surrey, in 1963 and today the two sites of the Royal Marsden Hospitals are world-famous for their research in cancer.

William Marsden died of bronchitis on 16 January 1867.7 The house where he lived in Lincoln Inns Fields, London, has a plaque in his honor, placed by English Heritage in 1986.8



  1. McIntyre N. William Marsden’s Yorkshire family, 1749-1922. J Med Biogr 2004;12:154-60.
  2. Sandwith, Frieda. Surgeon Compassionate; The Story of Dr. William Marsden M.D., M.R.C.S. Peter Davies, London, 1960.
  3. Royal Free Hospital Archives.
  4. Marsden W Symptoms and treatment of malignant diarrhoea, better known by the name of Asiatic or malignant cholera (1834).
  5. Ford JM. William Marsden (1796–1867); Alexander Marsden (1832–1902). J Med Biogr 2002;10:62.
  6. Magee, R. William Marsden, a pioneer in social medicine. ANZ journal of surgery,2009 79, 918-921.
  7. https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/william-marsden/
  8. Obituary William Marsden Br Med J 1867;1:96.



ARPAN K. BANERJEEMBBS (LOND), FRCP, FRCR, FBIR, qualified in medicine at St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. London. He was a consultant radiologist in Birmingham from 1995-2019. He served on the scientific committee of the Royal College of Radiologists 2012-2016. He was Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology from 2012-2017. He is Treasurer of ISHRAD and adviser to radiopaedia. He is the author/co author of numerous papers and articles on a variety of clinical medical, radiological, and medical historical topics and seven books including Classic Papers in Modern Diagnostic Radiology 2005 and “The History of Radiology” OUP 2013.


Fall 2020  |  Sections  |  Surgery

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