William John Dodds qualified through the University of Edinburgh as Bachelor of Medicine (MB) and Master of Surgery (CM) in 1876, as Doctor of Science (DSc) in 1878, and as Doctor of Medicine (MD) in 1879. As deputy medical superintendent of the Montrose Royal Asylum in Scotland he was a specialist in the Scottish psychiatric services. Between 1878 and 1887 he published about 15 papers, most of them in the journal Brain, on topics such as 'Localisations of function of the brain' (1878), 'Primary athetosis' (1880), 'Syphilis and Tabes Dorsalis' (1881) and 'On some central affections of vision' (1885).
In August 1889 Dodds was appointed by the government of the Cape Colony as visitor (later inspector) of asylums, with the tasks of directing the establishment of a psychiatric service for the colony and advising the government on medical matters. He was licensed to practice in the colony on 29 October 1889. One of his first achievements was to draft The Lunacy Act, 1891 (No. 35 of 1891), which replaced earlier mental disease legislation. It was later used as a model for similar legislation in the other South African territories. Partly through his efforts the Valkenberg Lunatic Asylum was established in Mowbray, Cape Town, in February 1891 and he was appointed as its medical superintendent - a post he retained until his retirement in 1914. In 1902 the University of the Cape of Good Hope admitted him to the degree Doctor of Medicine (MD) on the basis of the equivalent qualification he obtained at Edinburgh.
Dodds was an incisive and vigorous person who contributed much to medical organisation and education at the Cape, yet was a kind and dignified gentleman and very popular with his colleagues. He laid the foundations of the modern mental service in South Africa, in which psychiatric cases were seen as patients to be treated, rather than to be locked up. Joining the Cape of Good Hope Branch of the British Medical Association, he served on its council in 1895, and as president in 1898 and 1899. His presidential addresses, 'Medical education, with a plea for the foundation of chairs of anatomy and physiology', and 'The prevention of preventable diseases' were both important papers. He argued, among others, that the first two years of medical education should be introduced at the South African College. Years later, in May 1904, the College appointed a medical committee, with Dodds as one of its members, to obtain recognition by the British medical authorities for the introduction of first year medical education at the Cape.
Dodds was active in various other societies. He joined the South African Philosophical Society in 1890, and remained a member when it became the Royal Society of South Africa in 1908. During the late 1890's he was a member of the (second) South African Medical Association. He also joined the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1903 and served on its council in 1909/1910. And in 1905 he joined the British Association for the Advancement of Science when it met in South Africa with its local counterpart. He retired in 1914 and returned to Scotland.
Dr Dodds should not be confused with another W.J. Dodds (or J.W. Dodds) who resided in Boksburg in 1897 and 1906 and was a member of the Geological Society of South Africa and of the South African Asscociation for the Advancement of Science.