William Smith Forbes

William Smith Forbes was born on February 10, 1831, in Falmouth, Virginia, to John Murray Forbes and Sally Ennis Thornton. His father was a merchant and magistrate who owned at least thirteen slaves. William attended the Fredericksburg and Concord Academies before beginning his medical studies under Dr. George Carmichael. 

He enrolled at the University of Virginia in 1850, where he studied medicine, surgery, and anatomy. He transferred to Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia the following year, earning his medical degree in 1852. After graduation, he became a resident physician in the Pennsylvania Hospital on September 26, 1853, where he remained until March 1855. He then travelled to Europe to study military surgery. He served in the English Military Hospital in Istanbul during the Crimean War, and the British army offered him a permanent position in their Surgical Corps. He declined the offer, however, because he was unwilling to renounce his American citizenship. He returned to Philadelphia after the war, and in March 1857 he opened the College Avenue Anatomical School.

On November 3, 1859, Forbes married Celanire Bernoudi Sims, the daughter of a successful Philadelphia lawyer. They had seven children over the next sixteen years: Emeline, born 1860; Murray, born 1863; John, born 1866; William, born 1868; Sally, born 1870; James, born 1872; and Elizabeth, born 1875.

When the Civil War broke out, two of his brothers enlisted in the Confederate army. His older brother, James Fitzgerald Forbes, served on General A. P. Hill’s staff and died from the same volley of friendly fire that killed Stonewall Jackson in May 1863. William, however, remained loyal to the Union. He closed his school and joined the Union army, serving as an acting assistant surgeon. In 1862, he was promoted to the rank of major and named attending surgeon for the Port of Philadelphia. He became the medical director for the 13th Army Corps on May 1, 1863, serving under General Ulysses S. Grant and participating in the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. He resigned his position on November 20 and returned to Philadelphia, where he served as a contract surgeon for Summit Hospital. He was relieved from duty on October 4, 1864. 

After the war, Forbes reopened the Anatomical School, and he received another medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1866. He helped write the Pennsylvania Anatomical Act of 1867, which legally sanctioned the dissecting of bodies for medical research. From 1879 until 1886, he was a demonstrator of anatomy at Jefferson Medical College, and for the next twenty years he served as professor of anatomy and clinical surgery.

In December 1882, police arrested four men for digging up a corpse in Philadelphia’s Lebanon Cemetery. A subsequent investigation suggested that Forbes had hired the men to provide cadavers for the medical school. He was arrested on December 15 and tried on March 13, 1883. The trial, however, revealed that Forbes had never had any direct dealings with the grave robbers, and he was ultimately acquitted. The controversy led to the creation of a new Pennsylvania anatomical law, which empowered a state board to regulate the problem of securing medical cadavers.

Near the end of his life, Forbes authored a number of medical papers including “The removal of stone in the bladder,” “The transit of blood from the arteries,” and “History of the Anatomy Act of Pennsylvania.” Additionally, Forbes became the first surgeon to perform an operation to separate the tendons of the hand to free the ring finger, enabling more free movement and especially benefiting musicians. Forbes purportedly performed this operation over four hundred times. Due to his advanced age, he began filing for a pension on September 14, 1905. The War Department initially rejected his pension after concluding that he did not suffer from a disability but changed course shortly after his death, giving the accrued pension to his widow. Forbes died on December 17, 1905, in Philadelphia of angina pectoris. His body was cremated and taken to the family's land in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Following his death, his widow, Celanire, received a pension of $12 a month from August 8, 1908 until her death on April 14, 1910.

Image: William S. Forbes (Courtesy of Thomas Jefferson University, Archives & Special Collections)


Obituary of William S. Forbes

Name:Forbes, William Smith
Alternative names:
  • Soldier
  • UVA (Union)
13th Regiment U.S. InfantryH
Branch of service:Army
Commission1862-11-07Philadelphia, PA
Muster Out1863-11-20Philadelphia, PAResigned
Residence at UVA:Fredericksburg, VA
UVA Begin Year:1850
UVA End Year:1851
Residence at enlistment:Philadelphia, PA
Rank In:Major, Acting Assistant Surgeon
Rank Out:Medical Director
Highest rank achieved:Medical Director
Person 1Person 2NumberRelation Type
Forbes, William SmithForbes, William Smith1340203application-invalid
Forbes, William Smithnoneapplication-minor
Forbes, William Smithnoneapplication-parent
Forbes, William SmithForbes, Celanire Bernoudi Sims902016application-widow
Forbes, William SmithForbes, William Smith1151364certificate-invalid
Forbes, William SmithForbes, Celanire Bernoudi Sims668764certificate-widow
Birth date:1831-02-10
Birth date certainty:Certain
Birth place:Falmouth, VA
Death date:1905-12-17
Death place:Philadelphia, PA
Causes of death:disease: indigestion , disease: angina pectoris
Occupations:Doctor, Professor
Person 1Relation TypePerson 2
Forbes, William Smithparent ofForbes, Murray
Forbes, William Smithparent ofForbes, John Sims
Forbes, William Smithparent ofForbes, William Inness
Forbes, William Smithparent ofForbes, James Fitzgerald
Forbes, William Smithparent ofForbes, Emeline Sims
Forbes, William Smithparent ofForbes, Sally Inness
Forbes, William Smithparent ofForbes, Elizabeth Fitzgerald Taylor
Forbes, Celanire Bernoudi Simswife ofForbes, William Smith

Compiled Service Records for William S. Forbes, RG 94, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Pension Records for William S. Forbes, RG 15, National Archives and Records Administration; United States Census, 1850, 1860, 1880, and 1900, accessed through Ancestry.com; UVA Student Catalogue, Jefferson's University: Early Life; “Dr. Forbes Dies While Dressing,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 18, 1905; Howard A. Kelly, American Medical Biographies (1920); Francis Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army (1903); Transactions of the American Surgical Association, Vol. 24 (1906); Royal College of Surgeons of England, Memoir of Dr. William S. Forbes (1907); Justin Glenn, The Washingtons, Vol. 4, Part 1 (2014).