Scotland’s pioneering brain surgeon William Macewen

This year marks the 140th anniversary of the world’s first successful removal of a brain tumour  – carried out in Scotland by a Glasgow-based surgeon.

Full story of the incredible archives of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow in Scotland Correspondent magazine

Full story in Scotland Correspondent

The groundbreaking operation was performed on a 14 year old girl by the celebrated super-surgeon Sir William Macewen.

Today such operations are commonplace and performed in hospitals around the world, saving thousands of lives every year, but in 1879 it was an amazing advance in medicine.



This month the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow (RCPSG) is hosting a symposium to celebrate the historic breakthrough, hear the story behind this ground-breaking operation and discover some of the amazing advances that have taken place in this extraordinary field of surgery.

Full story of the incredible RCPSG archive in Scotland Correspondent magazine

Born near Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, in 1848 Macewen graduated in medicine from the University of Glasgow in 1872. He was highly influenced by fellow Glasgow doctor Joseph Lister who pioneered the use of antiseptic in surgery, dramatically reducing the mortality of patients who might otherwise have died from post-operative infections rather than the trauma of surgery.

Macewen was a member of the RCPSG and in 1879 he gave a lecture in the main hall on his brain surgery techniques at which the young girl he operated on attended to show off the success of her treatment.

“Doctors would often give talks at the Royal College on the latest discoveries and techniques and that would include showing off patients and specimens. One of the meetings that happened here in 1879 was by William Macewen, one of the most prominent surgeons in Scotland,” said Ross McGregor, Library and Heritage Manager of the College.

Ross McGregor, Library and Heritage Manager of the Royal College.of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow

Photograph by: Stewart CunninghamRoss McGregor

“We have lots of archive material relating Macewen, including the hand written surgical notebook in which he recorded everything he was up to, his surgical methods and techniques. and even his operating table.

“We also have a photograph of the patient, a 14-year-old girl. He successfully removed the tumour from just above the eye, wrote it up in his journal and took a photograph of her. He was quite an early user of photographs of patients to record their recovery.”

In addition to brain surgery Macewen specialised in orthopaedics developing the first bone grafts and pioneering knee surgery using a special instrument now known as Macewen’s osteotome to treat rickets. The condition caused by a lack of Vitamin D resulted in soft and deformed bones and was a major problem among children in Glasgow at the time.

Macewen also developed surgical methods for removal of lungs to treat tuberculosis and lung cancer to save many lives. Another of his techniques devised in 1880 and still used today is the method of inserting a tube into the trachea to keep a patient’s airway open.

In 1916 Macewen helped found the Princess Louise Scottish Hospital for Limbless Sailors and Soldiers in Erskine, now known as the Erskine Hospital, which helped treat thousands of First World War amputees. His work helped lay the foundation for many of the treatments used to help injured soldiers and civilians today.