William Allen Sturge - The good medicine of Queen Victoria's doctor

William Allen SturgeSome years ago researching a university project, I came across a copy of a Nice-Médicale brochure, published by a 19th-century group of hygiene and public health doctors in Nice, mentioning the arrival of a most unusual couple. Dr William Allen Sturge, MVO, MD (1850-1919) and his first wife, Dr Emily Bovell Sturge, MD (1840-1885), promoted the importance of local public health, the evolution of medical practices, and public education of girls and women’s rights.

William Allen Sturge was the eldest son of a prominent Quaker family and named after two uncles. One uncle, William Sturge, was a famous abolitionist; the other had a rather peculiar connection to Queen Victoria’s father. Mr Allen lent money to Edward Duke of Kent and his pregnant German wife in order to travel to England, so their daughter would be born on English soil and thus she could be crowned Queen. Victoria fully paid back this loan decades later.

William Allen Sturge had two brothers and five sisters, the Sturge Suffragettes of Bristol, known for their fight for women’s right to education.

Dr Sturge undertook his medical studies in Bristol and London, completing them in Paris, specializing both in pathology and in neurology. In fact, Sturge-Weber syndrome, the rare port-wine stain birthmark, usually on the face, carries his name. He met his first wife, Emily Bovell in Paris. She was one of the first seven women who studied medical courses in Edinburgh, but they were forbidden to pass their final exams and were thrown out of university by protesting male students. Emily finished her degree and qualified brilliantly as a doctor in Paris. They both started practising in London, but William was requested to withdraw his application for a hospital position because … he was married to a lady doctor! Incredible as it may sound, being a doctor made her a woman of ill repute.

Emily’s health also started to show the first signs of tuberculosis and so they decided to move to the milder climate of Nice. Here, Emily was warmly welcomed being the city’s first lady doctor, and she soon had a large group of women patients. A published lecturer, she was an advocate of cleaning up Nice’s streets and installing sewers. She was respected by her peers and was the first woman to receive the Ordre des Palmes Académiques distinction. Sadly, in 1885, aged only 45, she died of the dreaded lung disease. She was buried in the Caucade cemetery where her grave is still in reasonable condition.

William decided to remain in Nice and a year later married his second wife, Julia Shirreff (1846-1926), the well-educated daughter of the MP of Worchester, who had studied nursing in London, and was the founder and manager of the Nurses Institute of Nice. Her Institute provided properly trained English-speaking nurses to the numerous British doctors who worked here during the season. Looking after the huge community of “invalid” winter residents was a medical necessity and Julia was a business manager in the true sense of the word. She ran her husband’s important practice, the Gibraltar Mission for Seamen, the Nurses Institute and Nurses Home, the English Library of Nice (Dr Sturge was its President), as well as an association helping abandoned and penniless British domestics to return home. She rented the same pew in the church for decades and was a tireless fundraiser of Holy Trinity. The Sturges were close friends of Consul and Lady Harris and the Reverend and Mrs Langford, their friendship was the pillar of British society in Nice.

Dr Sturge was personal physician of Queen Victoria during her successive winter visits and he went to great lengths to ensure that all was done for her to be received in the most salubrious conditions. His report of the Grand Hotel ran several pages and was published in the British Medical Journal. The Queen also much appreciated Julia, and rewarded her with gifts generously.

William and Julia had a second passion: palaeontology. He was one of the forerunners of this new science and they travelled widely every summer to Egypt, Australia and even the US, attending conferences, visiting sites and adding to their immense collection, which became the largest private museum of its time. Their bronze amphoras and vases are now exhibited in Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto; their huge flint collection was donated to the British Museum.

Having lived in Nice for 27 years, the Sturges retired due to his frail health in 1907, and moved to Icklingham, Suffolk.William Allen Sturge died in 1919, when after suffering from Spanish flu he developed nephritis. Julia moved to live with one of his sisters, Caroline, who was also a doctor and nursed her through her final years. She also carried on helping the District Nurse visiting the poor and was active till her final year. She died in 1926 and was buried next to her husband in Icklingham.

The Sturges are all amongst my favourite characters of the longstanding British community in Nice. They had no children and most of their private papers and photos sadly disappeared.

Adapted from the yet unpublished book, The English Church of a French Resort, the author wishes to thank Dorothy “Sherlockette” Ramser for her kind help with genealogical research.


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