William Henderson MD Edin.  (17 January 1810 – 1 April 1872), Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and Professor of General Pathology at the University of Edinburgh, was an orthodox physician who converted to homeopathy.
Henderson became influential in homeopathy, debating many times with his professional colleague James Young Simpson, and writing his book Homeopathy Fairly Represented as a direct rebuttal of James Young Simpson‘s attack on homeopathy. This debate was taken up in America and in India, and as a result, homeopathy attracted even more converts.
William Henderson was born in Thurso, Caithness, the fourth son and seventh child of Sheriff William Henderson of Scotscalder, and Ann Brodie. He was a pupil at the Royal High School of Edinburgh, before entering the medical school at Edinburgh University. Henderson graduated MD in 1831 with a thesis entitled De Empyemate cum Pneumothorace.
After graduation Henderson was appointed Clinical Clerk in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, a position he valued as the practical foundation of his medical education. After this term he continued his medical studies for a further two years in Paris, Berlin, and Vienna.
On his return to Edinburgh, Henderson was appointed physician to the Fever Hospital, situated in the old Surgeons’ Square. He was appointed pathologist to the Infirmary and in 1838 assistant physician to the same institution. That year he had also been elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.
By this time, Henderson had married Williamina Henderson (unrelated), a union which produced six children. His two sons did not follow him into medicine; one became a lawyer and the other, an officer in the 77th Regiment of Foot, served in Bengal.
Henderson had a tremendously successful career as an orthodox physician and was at the vanguard of advances in pathology, including being one of the very first pathologists in the country to use a microscope in his studies of pneumonia and molluscum contagiosum.
It is unclear when Henderson began practicing homeopathically. He would have already been familiar with the new medicine and very likely observed homeopathy in action in Vienna where he may have observed Friedrich Wilhelm Karl Fleischman at the Gumpersdorf Homeopathic Hospital in the mid-1830s. By 1841, there was also a Homeopathic Dispensary in Edinburgh, and homeopathic chemists in Princess Street and Honover Street.
If he were a homeopathist by the early 1840s, then he did not reveal the fact. In 1842, he was present at a quarterly meeting of the RCPE when a ballot was taken as to the admission to the Fellowship of Francis Black who was known to practice homeopathy; he was not admitted but without apparent opposition by Henderson.
The same year, 1842, Henderson was appointed to the Chair of Pathology at the Infirmary. Shortly after taking up this position though Henderson’s attention was directed towards homeopathy. This was in part due to the influence of Dr. John Rutherford Russell, who had founded the Edinburgh Homeopathic Dispensary, and a medical student, Henry Victor Malan.
It was Henderson’s most distinguished mentor, Dr. John Abercrombie, who encouraged him to investigate homeopathy in 1844. To the horror of his orthodox medical colleagues, Henderson’s conclusions, published in An Inquiry into the Homeopathic Practice of Medicine (1845), endorsed the new medicine:
“From what experience has taught me of its operation in disorders curable by any medical treatment, I do not hesitate to say, that I feel bound to give it a decided preference over the ordinary practice; and, in those curable disorders in which I have not hitherto had an opportunity of employing it, the correspondence of the results I have witnessed, with what the practical works on homoeopathy declare to be the consequence of the employment of homoeopathic remedies, leads me to anticipate with confidence practical advantages of the like nature.”
In the storm that ensued Henderson was subjected to intense personal and professional hostility. The new Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, James Syme, was particularly vindictive and ensured Henderson was promptly removed from clinical teaching and patient care at the Infirmary. Syme even lobbied for Henderson to be replaced as Chair of pathology, although he was unsuccessful in this action.
Henderson’s erstwhile orthodox colleagues made clear what a suicidal career decision it was to practice homeopathy. Professor John Reid of St Andrews was said to have remarked, “If it hadn’t been for homoeopathy, Henderson would have been the first physician in Scotland.” Instead, Henderson was vilified; however, he remained steadfast and vigorously defended his position.
During the 1850s, the debate rumbled on, involving local and national institutions. The correspondence columns of The Scotsman and Edinburgh Advertiser resounded to claims and counterclaims; the RCSEd and the Royal Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association, the Medical Association of London and the BMA all condemned homeopathy. Pamphlets penned by the protagonists flew like shrapnel around the academic, medical and lay worlds.
No doubt because of his own experiences, in 1849 Henderson came forward to defend homeopath John Ozanne, leading to the first legal case for libel against homeopathy, which Ozanne won handsomely. John Forbes accompanied Henderson to Ozanne‘s defense, where Forbes declared that it was “but simple justice to admit that Hahnemann was a man of profound learning and perfect integrity, and that many of his disciples were sincere, honest and learned men.”
Henderson continued to defend homeopathy for the rest of his career and was a key figure in the conversion of many Scottish allopaths, including David Wilson who changed his stance after reading one of Henderson’s books.
In addition to his books on the subject, Henderson also contributed to the homeopathic periodical literature. Not least, his series of “Essays on General Pathology” in the British Journal of Homoeopathy. Arguably the most important of these essays was a comparison Henderson undertook of the treatment of pneumonia by homeopathic, allopathic, and expectant methods in Volume 10.
Eventually the persecution Henderson endured took its toll and in the winter of 1868 his health began to fail. The following year he recognized the symptoms of aortic aneurysm, a disease he had studied in depth earlier in his career. He resigned his chair and retired from practice, intending to write extensively on homeopathy. However, the disease moved rapidly and Henderson was rendered housebound for the last year and a half of his life. He died on 1 April, 1872, aged 62.
The concluding lines of his obituary in the May 1872 British Homeopathic Review underscored the impressive legacy Henderson left:
“The loss of Henderson to homoeopathy is great. His example, however, remains to us, and it is a bright one. Unswerving in his fidelity to what he beloved to be true, in the interests of truth, regardless alike of the entreaties of friends, of the prospects of professional distinction, of the emoluments which, in the form of a consulting practice, lay before him – Henderson, during five-and-twenty years, stood out from the crowd of professional self-seekers by whom he was surrounded, alone, scorned, sneered at, and defamed by lying lips innumerable! Such a character is all too rare at this period of the world’s history – far rarer in the profession of medicine than is pleasant to contemplate.”