Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

William Murrell and nitroglycerin

William Murrell. US National Library of Medicine.

Born in London in 1853, William Murrell was the first to use nitroglycerin in the treatment of angina pectoris. Son of a barrister, he received his medical training at the University College Hospital in London and then taught physiology there. He became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and Royal College of Physicians in 1877 and earned his MD from the University of Brussels in 1879. He was a shy, polite, and unassuming man, a bachelor who lived a somewhat secluded life, finding his main occupation in his work. He was always pleasant to the nurses, commanding respect by his quiet manner but expecting them to adequately prepare the patients for his visits.

Murrell was appointed to the staff of Westminster Hospital in 1877. Two years later he published an article in The Lancet, advocating the administration of nitroglycerin (“Nitro-glycerine”) for angina pectoris, describing in detail its effects of nitroglycerin based on testing the drug on himself. Ironically, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of nitroglycerin for use as an explosive, received nitroglycerin for treatment of angina.

Murrell attained a wide reputation in pharmacology and therapeutics, publishing a Handbook of Treatment in 1897 and a popular little book titled What to Do in Cases of Poisoning in 1881 that went through eleven editions. He also wrote on massage, chronic bronchitis, arthritis, forensic medicine, and toxicology. His publications included a report on the presence of arsenic in cigarettes, green urine due to methylene blue in pills, and the treatment of cirrhosis of the liver by surgically establishing a collateral circulation. He had long looked forward to becoming Senior Physician at the Westminster Hospital, and tragically developed fatal heart failure in 1912 just as his ambition had been realized.


  • Obituary. BMJ July 13, 1912.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

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