DUNCAN, William Henry  [1805-1863]

William Henry Duncan’s contribution to the health and well-being of nineteenth century Liverpool probably knows no equal. Shocked by the appalling poverty and living conditions he found amongst his patients during the cholera epidemic of 1832, he began a lifelong crusade seeking better housing and sanitation for the poor. It was apparent to him that there was a clear link between the spread of the disease and the conditions under which the poor existed and he found himself in a position to tackle the problem when he was appointed Medical Officer of Health, the first such civic appointment in the country. The reforms he put in place, coupled with the pioneering work of borough engineer James Newlands in establishing an integrated sewage system meant that in due course mortality rates in the city were cut significantly.

Born in Seel Street in 1805, he graduated in medicine from Edinburgh University, returning to Liverpool to go into general practice. Later he would work with several of the city’s hospitals and be a key figure in the formation of the Liverpool Medical Society, which he served as both secretary and president. He was also active in the formation of the Liverpool Medical Institution and served as its first secretary.

He is commemorated in a variety of ways around the city. A pub in St John’s Lane bears his name, as does one of the buildings making up the University’s medical school. There is a blue plaque on the house where he was born and a memorial plaque in the Medical Institution.

108 Seel Street L1

Duncan's birthplace,  now the 'Blue Angel' nightclub.

54 Rodney Street L1

Duncan's house on Rodney Street bearing a commemorative plaque.


The primary single source  is Duncan of Liverpool: Being An Account of the Work of Dr.W.H.Duncan, Medical Officer of Health of Liverpool 1847-1863 by William M Frazer. There is a comprehensive entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.