Stephens, William (1696–1760), physician, was the son of Walter Stephens and the great-grandson of Colonel Richard Stephens, governor of Ross in Co. Wexford. He was schooled in Dublin and studied natural philosophy at the University of Glasgow in 1715. In September 1716 he enrolled to study physic at Leiden; his MD thesis, 'De elixir proprietatis', was sponsored by the celebrated Dutch physician Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738). Stephens was awarded his doctorate in 1718, and on his return to Ireland gained an MB and MD from TCD in 1724.
On 1 December 1718 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, his proposer being Thomas Watkins. He married (1721) Sarah Shelly, with whom he had two daughters. Elected a fellow of the King and Queen's College of Physicians in Ireland in 1728, he served as its president in 1733, 1742 and 1759. He lectured in botany at TCD (c.1724–1733), and, on the death of William Smyth, was elected lecturer in chemistry (1733), a position he held for the remainder of his life.
Stephens was responsible for the construction of the college's second physic garden, which commenced in 1722 and was opened to the public on 1 June 1725. He drew up a detailed catalogue of all the plants in the physic garden, which listed over 500 taxa and provided an important register of the varieties of plants grown in Ireland at the time. In 1726 Stephens sent the catalogue to Thomas Dale, secretary of a botanical society in London, entering into a correspondence with the society and also exchanging seeds.
In 1727 Stephens published his lecture notes under the title Botanical elements for the use of the botany school of the University of Dublin. According to its preface, the work was published in order 'to avoid the trouble of dictating yearly so many pages to the students of Botany, it being impossible to expect, that they should acquire a distinct and permanent knowledge of the method of botany, by a bare attendance upon one lecture without something farther to assist their memories'. The Botanical elements was notable in acknowledging the sexual function of the pistil and stamens. Besides publishing on botany, Stephens also completed a translation of Johannes Dolaeus's The cure of gout by milk diet, to which he prefixed his own 'Essay upon diet'. The work was published in London in 1732, and was shortly followed by his Instructions for managing bees (1733), published by the Dublin Society.
Among Stephens's many correspondents was James Jurin, secretary of the Royal Society, whom he had met during his travels in Holland and London. Their letters discuss, among other subjects, botanical and magnetical experiments and inoculation; the extant correspondence is preserved between the Royal Society and the Wellcome Library. Stephens also corresponded and exchanged plants with Philip Miller, FRS, a talented botanist and chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden, and James Sherard, FRS, an English apothecary.
Stephens was a founding member of the Dublin Society, and was elected to the chair at the society's first meeting in 1731. With Arthur Dobbs (qv), Thomas Prior (qv), John Pratt (qv) and John Whitcombe (1694?–1753), he was a member of a committee which in 1731 produced a report outlining the society's future plans and projects. Two thousand copies of the report were instructed to be printed, and these were circulated. An active member of the society, Stephens served as its secretary for home affairs (1736–50), and regularly attended meetings, contributed to proceedings, and delivered numerous papers on divergent subjects, ranging from the art of bee keeping, to dyeing, to Roman inscriptions.
He was physician to a number of Dublin hospitals, notably the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Mercer's (1734–47) and Dr Steevens' (1749), and was also appointed trustee of Mercer's (1734), and governor of both Mercer's (1734) and Steevens' (1743). He fostered the advancement of the study of anatomy in Dublin by advocating the practice of dissection, and in 1752 invited the pioneering anatomist Samuel Clossy (qv) to undertake autopsy work at Steevens' Hospital (1752–6). As obtaining bodies for dissection at this time was a difficult task, with even university anatomy professors forced to restrict dissections to one or possibly two a year, the opportunity that Stephens presented to Clossy was not only immensely valuable but very likely exceptional. Stephens had sponsored Clossy's medical education at TCD and had a profound effect on his career as Clossy subsequently became the first university professor of a medical subject in North America.
William Stephens died on 10 February 1760 in Chilcombe, Co. Wexford. Unfortunately, he left no records behind which shed any substantial light on the contents of his library. However, according to the Wallis list of the books to which eighteenth-century medics subscribed, he subscribed to three different titles. His papers are in the Wellcome Library (MS 6146); Royal Society Library (Early Letters S.2.41–45); and Natural History Museum (South Kensington) (botany manuscripts (MSS BOT)). His portrait hangs in the Edward Worth Library at Dr Steevens' Hospital, Dublin.