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Material relating to John W. L. Spence

Identifier: Coll-1273
Within the collection there is an autograph letter signed from the X-ray pioneer to 'My dear Forbes' on their leaving the Royal High School, placed and dated as Edinburgh (Dalhousie Terrace), 13 March 1889. The letter was written when Spence was 17-years old. He writes, 'In parting with you I part from a friend, and I hope you will not take it as an insult when I say that I have a greater liking for you than I ever had for any of my companions'. He hopes Forbes reached home safely, and he is looking forward to seeing his own parents soon: 'They will leave Constantinople about the first week of April'. He has been up at the school 'paying the V a general visit'. Spence goes on to talk about the forthcoming 'Interscholastic Games at Corstorphine' to be held on 13 April 1889, and how 'Wilson is going in for the long drop at the Interscholastic' and how he 'was thinking of going in for the half mile handicap' at their own School Games to be held on the same day. Additionally, some local historical information is provided in that there is a reference to Jessie King who 'was executed in the Calton Jail on Monday morning. She took things very coolly to the very last', he writes. Although Spence studied Medicine at University, his letter tells of 'doing a little Xenophon every day with the view to going up in October for Greek and Dynamics'.


  • 1889


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but some material closed. Please contact repository for details about access to the collection in advance of any visit.


1 letter

Biographical / Historical

John Webster Lowson Spence was born in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey) in 1871, the son of a Church of Scotland missionary, the Rev David Brown Spence, who later moved to Constantinople. The younger Spence went to the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and then studied Medicine at Edinburgh University graduating in 1898.

After an earlier association with Wilhelm Roentgen (discoverer of X-rays, 1895), radiology became his speciality, first as an assistant in the new electrical department at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, then, from 1907, as head of the electrical and radiological department of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Sick Children where he remained for 22 years.

Because of the lack of protection available in these early years of working with X-rays - and indeed lack of understanding of the damage that they could do - Spence soon showed signs of illness and damage and between 1910 and 1916 he had to undergo amputations. In 1922 he was awarded a bronze medal by the Carnegie Hero Fund with an annuity of £130 in recognition of his work in radiology. A few years after his death his name was inscribed on a memorial erected in the garden of St. George's Hospital in Hamburg (April 1936) by the German Roentgen Society to honour those X-ray pioneers who had sacrificed their health or their lives in the interests of their work.

John Webster Lowson Spence died in Edinburgh on 15 March 1930, aged only 58.

Physical Location


Immediate Source of Acquisition

Item purchased June 2010. Accession no: E2010.25.

Processing Information

Compiled by Graeme D. Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections.
Material relating to John Webster Lowson Spence (1871-1930)

Repository Details

Part of the Edinburgh University Library Special Collections Repository

Centre for Research Collections
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