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Burnett, Sir William (1779–1861), naval physician, was born on 16 January 1779 at Montrose. He was educated at Montrose grammar school, and was apprenticed to a local surgeon, Dr Hunter. He then went to Edinburgh to pursue his medical studies but, soon after, entered the navy as surgeon's mate on board the Edgar. Later he served as assistant surgeon in the Goliath under Sir John Jervis, and in 1798 he was promoted surgeon. Burnett was present at St Vincent, and the siege of Cadiz. He served with distinction at the Nile and at Trafalgar, and received a CB and four war medals for his services.

From 1805 to 1810 Burnett was in charge of the hospitals for prisoners of war at Portsmouth and Forton. In 1807 he married Maria (1784–1859), only daughter of Isaac and Elizabeth Baker; they were to have a son and four daughters. In 1810 Burnett was appointed physician and inspector of hospitals to the Mediterranean Fleet and was awarded his MD by St Andrews University; in 1825 he also became MD at Aberdeen.

Burnett returned to England towards the end of 1813 owing to poor health, but in March 1814 he was able to undertake the medical charge of the Russian fleet in the Medway, which was suffering severely from fever. In the same year he published An Account of the Bilious Remittent Fever in the Mediterranean Fleet of 1810–13. He combined with this the charge of prisoners of war at Chatham, among whom a virulent fever was raging. His account of this epidemic appeared in 1831.

Burnett then settled at Chichester where he was physician to the general dispensary. In 1822 Lord Melville offered him a seat on the victualling board of the navy. Later Burnett became physician-general of the navy, and in this capacity he introduced a number of reforms: he required regular classified returns of diseases from each naval medical officer, thus rendering it possible to obtain accurate information about the health of the navy; he urged that a hospital be built at Chatham to replace the hospital ship then in use; and he introduced the humane treatment of naval ‘lunatics’ at Haslar. The codes of instructions to naval medical officers of hospitals and ships were also revised and improved by him and he was instrumental in improving the status of assistant surgeons. In 1841 the naval medical corps expressed their gratitude to Burnett for his work on their behalf when they presented him with his portrait, painted by Sir Martin Shee.

Burnett retired from service in 1855. During his career he received a number of honours: he was knighted in May 1831 and appointed physician-in-ordinary to King William IV in 1835; he was made KCH in 1835, and KCB in 1850; and he was FRCP, FRCS of Edinburgh and Dublin, and FRS in 1833.

Although Burnett was regarded as a sound administrator, his career was not without controversy. He clashed with Sir William Pym over the nature of yellow fever, Burnett maintaining that the disease was not contagious and that quarantine measures were inappropriate. Additionally, his commercial involvement in the patenting of a solution of zinc chloride for use as a preservative and disinfectant was found distasteful by many of his colleagues.

Burnett died on 16 February 1861, at Chichester, and was buried at Boxgrove, Sussex. A memorial to Burnett and his wife was erected at Boxgrove by their son, William, vicar of the same.

G. T. Bettany, rev. Claire E. J. Herrick


H. D. Rolleston, ‘Sir William Burnett, KCB, KCH, MD, FRS, FRCP, the first medical director-general of the Royal Navy’, JRNMS, 8 (1922), 1–10 · ‘Biographical sketch of Sir William Burnett … director-general of the medical department of the navy’, The Lancet (16 Nov 1850), 558–63 · Medical Times and Gazette (2 March 1861), 240–41 · Munk, Roll · BMJ (23 Feb 1861), 213 · S. Jenkinson, ‘Sir William Burnett, KCB, KCH, MD, FRS’, JRNMS, 26 (1940), 3–15 · Medical Times and Gazette (23 Feb 1861), 214 · J. J. Keevil, J. L. S. Coulter, and C. Lloyd, Medicine and the navy, 1200–1900, 4: 1815–1900 (1963) · J. Shepherd, The Crimean doctors: a history of the British medical services in the Crimean War, 2 vols. (1991) · The Lancet (23 Feb 1861)


W. Sussex RO, letters to duke of Richmond


H. Cousins, engraving, 1844 (after M. A. Shee, 1841), repro. in Jenkinson, ‘Sir William Burnett’, 2 · Mayall, daguerreotype and crayon, 1850, repro. in ‘Biographical sketch of Sir William Burnett’, 559 · T. Bridgeford, lithograph, Professional Scientific and Literary Portrait Gallery

Wealth at death  

£5000: resworn probate, May 1864, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1861)