William Heberden the Elder

NPG D35681; William Heberden the Elder by James Ward, published by and after  Sir William Beechey

William Heberden (1710-1801) was an English physician

Heberden’s major text Commentarii de morborum historia et curatione, was a collation of his pocket-book notes made at the patients bedside. First published in Latin in 1802 with English translation by William Heberden the younger, in 1806

Considered to be the father of rheumatology, the first physician to distinguish between osteoarthritis and gout

  • Born 13 August 1710 in London, England
  • 1724 – St John’s College, Cambridge (MA 1732; MD 1739)
  • 1746 – FRCP Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians
  • 1748 – FRS Fellow of the Royal Society
  • 1766 – Recommended to the College of Physicians the first design of the Medical Transactions to ‘collect together such observations as might have occurred to any of their body, and were likely to illustrate the history or cure of diseases
  • 1767 – Birth of his son Dr William Heberden the Younger (1767-1845) (Physician in Ordinary to the Queen (1806) and to George III (1809).)
  • 1778 – Member of the Paris Royal Society of Medicine
  • Died 17 May 1801

Medical Eponyms
Heberden nodes (Digitorum nodi; or de nodis digitorum)

What are those little hard knobs, about the size of a small pea, which are frequently seen upon the fingers, particularly a little below the top, near the joint? They have no connexion with the gout, being found in persons who never had it; they continue for life; and being hardly ever attended with pain, or disposed to become sores, are rather unsightly, than inconvenient, though they must be some little hindrance to the free use of the fingers

Medical Attributions
Angina pectoris

Heberden was the first to describe angina pectoris in substantial detail, characterize it as a disease entity, and name it. [1772; 2: 59-67]

There is a disorder of the breast marked with strong and peculiar symptoms, considerable for the kind of danger belonging to it, and not extremely rare, of which I do not recollect any mention among medical authors, which deserves to be mentioned more at length. The seat of it, and sense of strangling, and anxiety with which it is attended, may make it not improperly be called angina pectoris.

They who are afflicted with it, are seized while they are walking, (more especially if it be up hill, and soon after eating) with a painful and most disagreeable sensation in the breast, which seems as if it would extinguish life, if it were to increase or to continue; but the moment they stand still, all this uneasiness vanishes

Heberden 1772

Henoch-Schönlein Purpura

First described Henoch-Schönlein Purpura in his bedside notes as Purpurae Maculae (or De purpureis maculis). he described a case of a 4 year old boy with all four hallmarks of HSP: gastrointestinal involvement, kidney involvement, arthritis, and purpura. Initially known as Heberden-Willan disease

Chicken pox

Heberden provided a description of the differential between chicken pox and small pox

Fun Facts

Shortly after William Heberden published his original description of the clinical features of angina pectoris in 1772, he received an intriguing letter from an unnamed physician who suffered from the disease.

The case of “Dr. Anonymous” is significant as the earliest account of ischaemic heart disease associated with cardiac arrhythmias. This astute observer not only predicted his own sudden death, but also offered his body in the benevolent hope that autopsy correlation would contribute to the understanding of the cause of angina pectoris.

The letter and the autopsy were recorded in medical Transactions [1785; 3: 1-11.]

Major Publications



Eponymous terms

  • Kligfield P. The frustrated benevolence of “Dr. Anonymous”. Am J Cardiol. 1981 Jan;47(1):185-7. [PMID 7006370]
  • Bendiner E. William Heberden: father of observation. Hosp Pract. 1991;26,103–106,109,113–6.
  • Jay V. The legacy of William Heberden. Arch Pathol Lab Med. 2000 Dec;124(12):1750-1. [PMID 11100049]
  • Lian TY, Lim KKT. The legacy of William Heberden the Elder (1710–1801). Rheumatology 2004;43:664–665
  • Heberden E. William Heberden the elder (1710–801): aspects of his London practice. Med Hist 1986;30:303–21. [PMC1139652]


BA MA (Oxon) MBChB (Edin) FACEM FFSEM. Emergency physician, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.  Passion for rugby; medical history; medical education; and asynchronous learning #FOAMed evangelist. Co-founder and CTO of Life in the Fast lane | Eponyms | Books | Twitter |

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