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Biographical entry Wynne-Davies, Ruth (1926 - 2012)

FRCS 1960; MB BS London 1953; PhD Edinburgh 1973; BA Oxford 1995.

11 August 1926
11 March 2012
Orthopaedic geneticist


Ruth Wynne-Davies was a unique and important figure in British orthopaedics. As a geneticist she made significant contributions to our understanding of diverse musculo-skeletal conditions, both common and rare. She had an international reputation in the area of skeletal dysplasias (developmental disorders of bone).

She was born in south London on 11 August 1926 as Ruth Blower, the youngest of four children, and the only one to outlive her (Welsh) mother. The Second World War started when she was a young teenager. She demonstrated her future talents by meticulously recording all air activity over her house in Sutton, every bomb that dropped locally, and on which street it struck. Her journal, which is in the archive of the Imperial War Museum, stops abruptly on 30 October 1940, when the Battle of Britain ended and she was evacuated to north Wales. She lived in the Ceiriog valley, one of the most beautiful places in north Wales. This helped to make Wales, gardening and dogs an important part of her life.

She completed her schooling at Oswestry High School for Girls, just across the border in Shropshire. After school, she was a land girl. She then trained as a secretary and worked for Beddington and Wallington Borough Council in south London. In 1947 she started her medical training at the Royal Free School of Medicine. She had been encouraged to do this by her uncle Llewellyn Wynne-Davies, who also supported her financially. She qualified in 1953. For six years she was married to a fellow student. In 1959 she changed her name to Wynne-Davies by deed poll.

She was a house officer at Great Ormond Street and a surgical registrar at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital. She became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1960, after a period as prosector in anatomy at the Royal Free. She became an orthopaedic registrar in Exeter for Norman Capener. It was in Exeter that it became apparent that her métier was in research rather than surgery. She completed an important piece of work on the genetics of club foot, for which she was later awarded the Robert Jones gold medal of the British Orthopaedic Association. She was able to explore the different influences of genetics, joint laxity and environment in a well-defined population of 635 patients who had been treated in Exeter.

She was then a senior registrar in orthopaedic surgery to Arthur Naylor and James Wishart in Bradford. At a time when it was particularly difficult to find consultant posts, she jumped at the opportunity to move to J I P James' newly-founded orthopaedic department in Edinburgh in 1961.

Ruth worked on genetic problems in orthopaedic disease throughout her time in Edinburgh, initially as a research fellow and then as a senior lecturer. She was awarded her PhD for a thesis on genetic and other factors in the aetiology of scoliosis in 1973. She then became a reader in orthopaedics, until her early retirement. It was during this period that her orthopaedic reputation flourished. She demonstrated, in collaboration with E J Riseborough, a so far unexplained difference in prevalence of early onset scoliosis between the UK and New England (it was rare in New England) in a population of similar genetic background. She was looking at both genetic and environmental factors, such as prone or supine lying. This was very new and exciting for surgeons puzzling over the causes of scoliosis.

In Edinburgh she set up a register of cases, which was the basis of a number of studies. She went on to develop a series of skeletal dysplasia clinics in many of the UK specialist orthopaedic units, including Oswestry, Harlow Wood and Bristol. She used these clinics not only to diagnose and advise, but to explore research questions such as the possible familial basis of Klippel-Feil syndrome (although she was never able to confirm this particular question).

She was a regular contributor to the British Orthopaedic Research Society, and was its president from 1975 to 1976. She was a founder member of the Skeletal Dysplasia Group for Teaching and Research in 1979. This grew from an amalgamation of the British Orthopaedic Association skeletal dysplasia section (led by Ruth) and a skeletal dysplasia and metabolic bone disease group run by Christine Hall at Great Ormond Street. The Skeletal Dysplasia Group now has a membership of over 300, runs regular courses and meetings nationally and internationally. Ruth was president for a time and was its secretary for many years.

Ruth helped to retrieve H A T Fairbank's classic atlas of general affections of the skeleton (Edinburgh/London, E & S Livingstone, 1951) from oblivion by assisting T J Fairbank (the author's son) on a second edition (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone, 1976). A comparison of the first and second editions shows how our knowledge has developed - from findings by Fairbank in the first half of the 20th century based on a collection of cases of skeletal dysplasia, through to an early understanding of the links with genetics, which Ruth brought to the text.

She went on to publish two seminal books - Heritable disorders in orthopaedic practice(Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1973) and Atlas of skeletal dysplasias (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone, 1985)‬ with co-authors Christine Hall and A Graham Apley. The atlas was based on cases collected through her clinics and the Skeletal Dysplasia Group. Royalties from this book were donated to the Skeletal Dysplasia Group.

She took early retirement from Edinburgh in 1981 and moved to Oxford. She continued to attend the various skeletal dysplasia clinics she had set up, and started a new one in Oxford. She quickly established a link with Green College, which had been recently established by Sir Richard Doll and others with a major focus on medicine. In 1995 she took an undergraduate degree in English at St Hilda's, which took four years to complete. It involved an extra foundation year, as her previous degrees were not recognised by the university, much to her annoyance. This was no trivial undertaking for someone in their late sixties, and her success earned her the respect of her tutors and a longstanding involvement with St Hilda's College to her death.

This was not all. She maintained a whole range of interests: she was used as an expert on human osteology by archaeologists who were involved in moving graveyards; she worked as a research assistant to Jane Mellanby in the department of experimental psychology, in research to develop the assessment of children with learning difficulties; and she was an accomplished organist and harpsichordist, playing in various amateur quartets.

She had a particular interest in the Church of St Mary Magdalene, one of Oxford's oldest. She was successful in raising large sums of money for that church during the annual St Giles Fair. The top floor of her house was given over to accommodating donated material to be sold through the localauction house or stalls; the bottom floor was used by church staff.

Ruth was a remarkable woman who developed an extraordinary network of friends and colleagues all over the world. She created a lasting place for herself in the genetics of orthopaedic diseases, and above all helped define the phenotypes through careful clinical and radiological assessment. She retired before the current genetic revolution took off, but maintained a close interest in its development. She also demonstrated the possibilities and opportunities of an extended and productive retirement when good health is maintained and a scholarly brain applied. She died on 11 March 2012, aged 85.

Leslie Klenerman

The Royal College of Surgeons of England