William Anderson, surgeon and naturalist, was an anatomy student at Edinburgh University for the year 1762/3. On 1 December 1768 he qualified as surgeon's first mate for the navy and was promoted to surgeon on 1 November 1770. He had a knowledge of botany and an interest in natural history in general, and was selected to accompany the second expedition of Captain James Cook during 1772-1775 as surgeon's mate on the Resolution. During the voyage he benefitted much from close contact with the naturalist J.R. Forster*. He also made a study of the vocabularies of various languages and compiled ethnological notes. The expedition visited the Cape twice, from 30 October to 23 November 1772 and from 21 March to 21 April 1775.
Anderson again accompanied Cook on his third voyage of circumnavigation during 1776-1780, this time as surgeon and naturalist. By this time he had a wide knowledge of nature and also played a useful role as interpreter. This expedition visited the Cape from 18 October to 30 November 1776. Anderson collected plants with his assistant, David Nelson, but in a letter to Sir Joseph Banks* from the Cape wrote that they found very few plants in flower. On 19 November 1776 he visited Paarl Mountain, having been urged to do so by Francis Masson*. He described the general appearance and extraordinary size of one of the granite domes on the mountain in his journal and took some samples. These were sent to Sir William Hamilton, who found them to be granite.
Anderson's health began to fail towards the end of 1777and he eventually died of consumption during the voyage, near an island that was named Anderson's island in his memory. The botanical and zoological specimens he had collected were bequeathed to Sir Joseph Banks, but had deteriorated badly by the time they were taken up in the British Museum. He is known to have kept three journals, but only two of the manuscripts are extant. One of these, A journal of a voyage made in His Majesty's sloop Resolution, covering the period 16 May 1776 to 2 September 1777, includes his last visit to the Cape and was published by Beaglehole (1955-1967, Vol. 3). As his botanical notes were not published, the names of some of the new genera of plants that he described have not come into use. However, the genus Andersonia was named in his honour by Robert Brown*, who described him as devoted to botany. His description of the granite dome near Paarl was published as "An account of a large stone near Cape Town" in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1778. Another paper by him, on poisonous fish, appeared earlier in the same journal.