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David Waterston

David Waterston (1871-1942) was an historic anatomist at University of St Andrews, Scotland and King’s College, London.


Waterston D. A very young human embryo found embedded in a "decidual cast" of the uterus. (1914) Proc R Soc Med., 7: 353-7. PMID 19978039

Waterston D. A human embryo of twenty-seven pairs of somites, embedded in decidua. (1914) J Anat Physiol., 49(1): 90-118 PMID 17233016

Waterston D. Developmental changes in the pericardium, the mesocardia, and the pleural sacs in the human embryo. (1915) J Anat Physiol., 50(1): 24-9. PMID 17233049

Waterston D. The development of the heart in man. (1917) Trans. Roy. Soc. Edin., 7(2): 258-302.

In Memoriam

David Waterston, M.A., M.D., F.R.C.S.Ep., F.R.S.E.

David Waterston, Bute Professor of Anatomy in the University of St Andrews, died at Edinburgh on 4 September 1942, aged 71. His death removes an anatomist, trained in the Edinburgh tradition, who contributed freely to several branches of his subject; and it deprives the James Mackenzie Institute at St Andrews of an original member and its chairman.

Waterston, born at Glasgow in 1871, was a son of the manse, his father, the Rev. Richard Waterston, having been Free Church minister at Dundee for many years. He received his University education at Edinburgh, taking the M.A. degree in 1891 and graduating M.B., C.M. with honours in 1895. After a resident surgical post in the Royal Infirmary, he was appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy by Sir William Turner, and he was Crichton Research Scholar for three years (1899-1902). In 1898 he had become F.R.C.S.Ed., and in 1900 he proceeded to the M.D. degree, receiving a gold medal for his thesis on ‘Studies in the osteology of the human foetus and infant’. In 1903 he succeeded the late Prof. David Hepburn as Senior Demonstrator and Lecturer in Regional Anatomy under Prof. Cunningham. He thus had the advantage of association with both Turner and Cunningham.

In 1909 Waterston was elected Professor of Anatomy at King’s College, London; but his tenure of the chair was a short one, as he was recalled to Scotland in 1914 to succeed Musgrove as Bute Professor at St Andrews. In the attractive environment of Scotland’s oldest University he lived a busy and a happy life for twenty-eight years, developing both the teaching and research sides of his Department and extending it by the addition of a model Dissecting Room (fortunately only slightly damaged by recent enemy action). During these years too he had a full share of administrative duties: he represented the Senatus on the University Court for six years and the University on the General Medical Council for ten (1930-40). He was also for a time a member of the Dental Board of the United Kingdom, and lately he had added municipal work to his other activities, having joined the Town Council of St Andrews as a co-opted member.

Prof. Waterston’s early contributions to anatomical literature were directly influenced by his association with Sir William Turner, as they were in the fields of physical anthropology and, in collaboration with Hepburn, of cetacean anatomy. Before he left Edinburgh he had edited the Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Anatomy (1905) — a valuable topographical series, long out of print and now almost unobtainable—and had shared with A. C. Geddes (now Lord Geddes) in the preparation of a ‘Report on the anatomy and embryology of penguins collected by the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition’ (Trans. Roy. Soc. Edinb. 1909).

At King’s College Waterston’s work took a decidedly embryological turn. There he had succeeded the late Prof. Peter Thompson, well known for his reconstructions of embryos by the Born wax-plate method, the technique of which he had brought from Freiburg to King’s College in 1906. Prof. Waterston became equally enthusiastic and spent much time in the making of models to illustrate his papers and for use in teaching. He described a ‘Human embryo of 27 pairs of somites’ (J. Anat. 1914) — slightly older than Peter Thompson’s 2-5 mm. embryo with 25 pairs — and wrote also on the ‘development of the pericardium and pleural sacs‘ (J. Anat. 1915). In his last year at King’s College he was Arris and Gale Lecturer of the Royal College of Surgeons and delivered a lecture on ‘Development of the heart in Man in relation to its functional activity’ (Lancet, 1914).

At St Andrews Prof. Waterston continued his embryological work and published two main papers—‘ Development of the heart in Man’ (Trans. Roy. Soc. Edinb. 1918) and ‘Development of the hypophysis cerebri in Man’ (ibid. 1926). He made contributions also to the technique of reconstruction from serial sections and devised a simple method of making negative prints direct on photographic paper not only to replace the usual time-consuming drawings but to provide a convenient record of the serial sections of an embryo (J. Anat. 1928). In 1927 he gave the Struthers Lecture of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh on ‘The comparative anatomy and development of the heart and alimentary canal’ (Edinb. Med. J. 1927).

Since the founding of the St Andrews Institute for Clinical Research in 1919, however, Prof. Waterston’s attention had been directed mainly to the anatomical problems of cutaneous sensation. He was an original member of the Institute and worked in harmony and friendship with Sir James Mackenzie to make this great experiment a success, taking up with enthusiasm investigations likely to further its aim. From 1928 he was a member of the Council and since 1938 he had been Chairman of the Institute. His papers on ‘Observations upon cutaneous sensations’ and ‘Sensory activities of the skin for touch and temperature’ (reprinted from Brain, 1928) appeared in vol. 1 (1922) and vol. 11 (1924) of the Reports of the Institute, and he edited vol. m1 (1926). In 1923 he contributed to the Journal of Physiology a paper in which he described experiments on himself to elucidate the relation of nerve-endings to touch and pain; and at the Bournemouth Annual Meeting of the British Medical Association he opened a discussion on ‘Pain and the mechanism of its production’ (Brit. Med. J. Dec. 1984). Sir James Mackenzie, who suffered from angina, had expressed the wish that a detailed report’ on the state of his heart should be prepared, and this task was adequately discharged by Prof. Waterston (Brit. Heart J. 1989).

During these years Prof. Waterston had become much interested also in local archaeological investigations. He was for a time President of the St Andrews branch of the League of Prehistorians, and he succeeded in interesting his students and in stimulating them to the collection of material. He contributed a number of papers on cists and their contents to the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and his last contribution of this kind awaited publication at the time of his death. When the University Chapel at St Andrews was renovated in 1980, Prof. Waterston was asked to prepare an anthropological report on the remains of Bishop Kennedy (1408-65) while a new casket to receive them was being made. His report includes an interesting essay in the reconstruction of a portrait from the features of the skull — (Trans. Roy. Soc. Edinb. 1984).:

Prof. Waterston was an able exponent of his subject, with a reputation for precision of manner and statement in his presentation of it to his students. From his earliest teaching days he took great pains in the preparation of finished blackboard drawings, and his skill as a draughtsman is well seen in the topographical plates (on a basis of orthogonal projection) that illustrate his Anatomy in the Living Model (1981).

The opinion has often been expressed, however, that the best part of that book, in conformity with its title, is the chapter on the functional anatomy of the skin. He was a contributor also to Cunningham’s Tewt-Book of Anatomy, having been responsible for the ‘Digestive System’ in successive editions since 19138.

No notice of David Waterston would be complete without reference to his favourite recreation on the links. Readers of this Journal who also are golfers may like to be reminded or to know that he contributed a brief article on ‘Anatomy and the golf swing’ to Blackwood’s Magazine (1929); and they will not be surprised to learn that it concluded with the traditional advice to ‘Keep your eye on the ball’. Whether the author profited directly by his anatomical analysis would be difficult to decide; but he was certainly a good golfer, a member of the Royal and Ancient, and a familiar figure on the old Course at St Andrews.

Prof. Waterston leaves a widow and three sons, two of whom qualified in medicine and are now both in the R.A.M.C. on active service.


J Anat. 1943 Jan; 77(Pt 2): 189–191.

Cite this page: Hill, M.A. (2024, February 28) Embryology David Waterston.jpg. Retrieved from

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