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Looking Back in History

Sir Erasmus Wilson – A pioneer in dermatology

Dermatology, KMCH Institute of Health Sciences and Research, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India
Corresponding author: Vinupriya Sakkaravarthi, Dermatology, KMCH Institute of Health Sciences and Research, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India.
This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 4.0 License, which allows others to remix, transform, and build upon the work non-commercially, as long as the author is credited and the new creations are licensed under the identical terms.

How to cite this article: Sakkaravarthi V. Sir Erasmus Wilson – A pioneer in dermatology. CosmoDerma 2022;2:9.


William James Erasmus Wilson [Figure 1] was a leading figure who pioneered Dermatology in England. He popularized the term “Dermatology” when he founded the first chair of dermatology at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1869. His contributions to dermatology were numerous including his most popular work, “Diseases of the Skin – A Practical and Theoretical Treatise.” One of the greatest achievements of Wilson was to establish dermatology as a medical specialty in England during which time it was hostile to specialization.[1]

Figure 1:: William James Erasmus Wilson FRCS FRS (1809–1884).


Wilson was born in London on November 25, 1809. His father, William Wilson, was a surgeon in the Royal Navy and his mother was an artist. He studied at Dartford Grammar School. In 1826, Wilson was a pupil of Mr. Abernathy at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. He won prizes in surgery and midwifery at the Aldersgate School of Medicine and became a skillful surgeon and dissector. In 1830, he passed the licentiate examination of the Society of Apothecaries, and 1 year later, he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons.[1]


Wilson started his medical career as a demonstrator tutoring students in anatomy. He was a skilled surgeon who showed his expertise in dissection. Later, he developed an interest in skin diseases and published a couple of articles in Lancet. He became acquainted with Thomas Wakley, the editor, and founder of the Lancet. His dermatology career flourished in his private practice and he was busy holding multiple posts at the same time [Table 1]. He was named as the first professor in dermatology due to his contributions to the specialty [Table 2].[1,2]

Table 1:: Milestones in Sir Erasmus Wilson’s career.
Year Milestones
1831–1836 He started his career as a demonstrator in anatomy at University College and remained in this post for 5 years
1836–1840 He started a private general practice
1840 Appointed as a lecturer on anatomy and physiology at Middlesex Hospital and developed an interest in the subject of skin diseases
1840 He was appointed as a sub-editor of the Lancet by Thomas Wakley
1840 He was also appointed as a consultant surgeon to the Marylebone Infirmary
1844–1845 His practice grew rapidly due to his interest in dermatology and his philanthropic disposition
1845 He quit his job as a sub-editor of the Lancet
1869 Professor of dermatology at the college of surgeons
1870–1878 He remained as the first professor at the Council of the Royal Society of Surgery
1879 he resigned from his post as a professor of dermatology in the college of surgeons
Table 2:: Contributions and honors of Sir Erasmus Wilson in dermatology.
Year Achievements
1842 “Diseases of the Skin – A Practical and Theoretical Treatise” a landmark of the English school of dermatology was published
1843 He was elected as one of the original 149 fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons principally for his contribution on a cutaneous parasite, Demodex
1845 “A Practical Treatise on Healthy Skin; with Rules for the Medical and Domestic Treatment of Cutaneous Diseases” was the most popular book on skincare for the lay audience
1847 “Portraits of the skin”
1855 “Folio Atlas of Portraits of Diseases of the Skin”
Other achievements Pioneering descriptions on lichen planus, exfoliative dermatitis, roseola, and neurotic excoriations
Separated acne vulgaris from acne rosacea
Investigated Demodex folliculorum
Estimated the number of hairs on the human head(147 black per square inch, 162 chestnut, and 182 blonds)
He described trichorrhexis nodosa
Proposed the name xanthoma or xanthelasma for the condition called vitiligoidea
Described pityriasis rosea as Lichen annulatus
He also described erythema nodosa
Suggested the name morphea
1867 He established the second dermatology journal “the Quarterly Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Diseases of the Skin”
1881 He was knighted for many charitable works
1884 A gold medal was awarded by the college of surgeons recognizing his achievements


Wilson was the first dermatologist to own a bungalow. He believed that a bungalow provides the best sanitary home for a family and bought the first bungalow at the Westgate-onsea. This emphasizes the fact that Wilson was a great advocate of cleanliness, hygiene, and regular bathing. His work on the history of Turkish baths helped revitalize bathing spas in England.[3]

Wilson was the first physician to endorse a personal care product, Pears soap. It all started with his book on “Healthy skin” (1845). To promote cleanliness, he encouraged all social class people to use soaps for bathing. His most notorious statement about Pears soap was mixed with his other soap comments and appeared in Pears soap advertisement. This created controversies about Wilson’s involvement with such commercial products. Even though Wilson denied any connection with these advertisements, some confusion existed whether he received any financial compensation from the Pears Soap Company that added to his wealth.[2]

Due to his interest in Egyptology, in 1878, he funded and organized the transportation from Egypt and erection of Cleopatra’s Needle obelisk in London at the Victoria Embankment of the River Thames.[1]

During the mid-century, the attitude toward specialization was still unfavorable in England. When Wilson pioneered dermatology in England, it was widely criticized that “the exclusive practice of some small specialty tends to perpetuate and increase ignorance, if it does not deprave professional morals.” Wilson’s greatest achievement was to establish dermatology as a medical specialty worthy of the respect of the physician in such a hostile environment to specialization.[1]


Apart from being a dermatologist, Wilson was an author, sub-editor of the journal “Lancet,” hygienist, philanthropist, and Egyptologist. As a man of many talents, his love for dermatology made him one of the leaders of dermatology.

Declaration of patient consent

Patient consent is not required as there are no patients in this study.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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  2. , , , . Erasmus Wilson's role in soap advertisements: Cleansing a soiled reputation. Clin Dermatol. 2021;39:1046-62.
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  3. , , , , , . The first dermatologist to own a bungalow: Sir Erasmus Wilson. Clin Dermatol. 2021;39:927-9.
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