BOYCE, Sir Rubert William [1863-1911]

Rubert William Boyce was a key figure in the establishment of Liverpool University as a separate entity and more especially in the founding and prospering of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. (A point of clarification, his name is occasionally recorded as either ‘Rupert’ or ‘Robert’, it is neither, but Rubert, a German and Catalan name derived from the same root as the two more familiar names).

Born in London, the son of an engineer who surveyed British buildings in China, he graduated in  medicine at University College London. After an assistant professorship at this establishment, in 1894 he moved to Liverpool having been appointed to the newly created George Holt chair of pathology at University College, Liverpool (then a part of Victoria University, Manchester). He soon acquired an appointment with Liverpool Corporation and his twin academic and municipal dimensions placed him well to be a driving force for the process which saw the establishment of Liverpool University in 1902.

Boyce’s talents were said to be less in original research than in putting in place the means by which effective research could be carried out and acquiring the best people to take it forward. He had established a laboratory of scientific pathology and was instrumental in seeing that the ‘new’ university would have chairs of biochemistry, tropical medicine, comparative pathology and medical entomology. In 1899 he had persuaded future Nobel Laureate Ronald Ross to join the newly formed Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine as a lecturer and in 1902 he was appointed Professor of Tropical Medicine in 1902.

In his Memoirs [1923] Ross drew a picture of the man “I shall always cherish the greatest affection”. He remembered Boyce as “small wizened body; head with long fair hair, grey eyes, aquiline clean-shaved face, resolute lips always working together in thought; one moment seated quietly writing in his office, the next moment gone, disappeared, no one knows where, perhaps for days; like a boy of forty or an old man of fourteen; pulling his forelock while he thinks; not heeding what one says; then a reply like a rapier thrust….His métier really was that of a projector of new schemes, all for the benefit of others, of his laboratory and of the college”. It says something for Boyce’s character that he should have been held in such regard by Ross, who was particularly obsessive about his demands for more remuneration, not all of which were met by Boyce. Ross also recorded that Boyce was an exceptional fundraiser and was also prepared to put in his own money if the need arose.

As Dean of the School of Tropical Medicine he arranged expeditions far and wide to study diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, taking part in several himself. His achievements were recognised by his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1902 and a knighthood in 1906. In a somewhat more mundane field he was asked to serve on a royal commission on sewage disposal.

Boyce suffered a stroke in September 1906 which left him partly disabled. Doggedly, he returned to work, travelling to the West Indies in 1909 and West Africa in 1910, to study yellow fever. Sadly he suffered a seizure in 1912 and died at his home, Park Lodge near Sefton Park aged just 48. He had married Kate Johnson , the daughter of a shipowner in 1901, but she sadly died shortly after the birth of their daughter. The obituaries appearing in local publications at the time of his death show the high regard in which he was held, not only for his professional achievements but for his character, warmth and humanitarian outlook.

Park Lodge, Sefton Park Road L17

Boyce's home at Park Lodge opposite Sefton Park gates. On the left is a view from a contemporary publication, on the right the house as it appears today.

This painting depicts (left to right) Ronald Ross, C S Sherrington and Rubert Boyce in their Liverpool laboratory


There is a comprehensive entry for Boyce in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The Wikipedia entry seems to be a much slimmed down version of the ODNB entry. Examples of his authorship can be viewed on the Royal Society website. Many of his works on tropical diseases are still in print.