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Biographical entry Willan, Robert Joseph (1878 - 1955)

CBE 1946; MVO 1915; VD 1919; MRCS 25 July 1907; FRCS 10 December 1908; MB BS Durham 1906; MS 1909.

10 January 1878
12 January 1955
General surgeon


Born on 10 January 1878 second son of John Willan JP of Durham, he was educated at Durham School and Durham University where he qualified with honours in 1906, having as an undergraduate gained the Gibb scholarship in pathology in 1904 and the Charlton scholarship in the principles and practice of medicine in 1905.

In 1908 he was awarded the Stephen Scott scholarship of Durham University and, much later, in 1920 the Heath Scholarship of Durham University for an essay based on personal investigations. After qualification he was house surgeon and surgical registrar at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle and senior house surgeon at St Peter's Hospital for Stone, London. In 1914 he was elected to the honorary staff of the Royal Victoria Infirmary as assistant surgeon.

As a young man he joined the Volunteers being attached to the Durham Light Infantry, but later joined the medical branch of the RNVR attached to the Tyne Division and in the war of 1914-18 he was mobilised in 1914 in the rank of Staff Surgeon, serving in the hospital ship Plassey attached to the Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow. During this period he operated on the then Duke of York, later King George VI, for which service he was awarded the MVO in 1915. It was in this year that he also wrote a minor classic entitled Clinical notes for Surgeon Probationers aimed at senior medical students who were commissioned in that rank serving in destroyers and minesweepers. In the later stages of the war he was appointed to the Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar. After the war he remained in the Tyne Division, retiring in 1933 with the rank of Surgeon-Captain, the highest attainable rank in the Reserve, carrying with it the position of King's Honorary Surgeon.

In 1922 he became full surgeon at the Royal Victoria Infirmary. He was also honorary surgeon to Ingham Infirmary, South Shields, to Newcastle-on-Tyne Dental Hospital, and the Whickham and District Hospital. In 1935 he succeeded to the chair of surgery, when Professor Grey Turner decided to go south to the Post-Graduate Medical School, Hammersmith, a post Willan occupied until his retirement in 1942, when he became emeritus professor and a life governor of the Infirmary. During the war of 1939-45 he was re-employed first in the rank of Surgeon-Captain RNVR and later as Surgeon Rear-Admiral, Royal Navy and consultant in surgery for Scotland and adviser to No 1 region of the Ministry of Health.

At the College he was elected a member of Council in 1939, serving until 1947. He was a past President of the Durham University Medical Society and of the Newcastle-on-Tyne and Northern Counties Medical Society. He had always been a keen member of the BMA and in 1912 he was honorary secretary of the Newcastle-on-Tyne Division, from 1915 to 1922 scientific secretary of the North of England Branch, in 1924-25 Chairman of the Division and in 1929-30 Chairman of the Branch. At the Association's Annual General Meeting in 1921 he was honorary local secretary and at the Glasgow meeting in 1922 he was vice-president of the Section of Surgery; he was a representative to the centenary meeting in 1932 and member of the Council; a member of the Science Committee for thirty years, he was chairman of the library sub-committee from 1946 until his death. He wrote a number of articles, chiefly concerned with affections of the genito-urinary tract, as this particular branch of surgery was his major interest.

After his retirement he moved to London, living in Harley House W1 and interesting himself in medical charities, becoming a member of the council of Epsom College and chairman of its Special Committee. He was also chairman of the committee of management of the Medical Insurance Agency for many years.

Sturdy and of medium height, he was good-natured and quiet in demeanour. He regularly attended the Chapel of the Savoy, being connected with it by virtue of being a member of the Victorian Order. In later years his health began to fail and he had for some time been embarrassed by the accidental loss of an eye caused while casting for salmon. He was also a keen golf player.

He married in 1910 Dorothy Eleanor Shawyer who died on 8 September 1949 and by whom he had a son and two daughters. His only son who died at the age of 20 had been an invalid for many years.

Willan died on 12 January 1955. A memorial service was held in the Queen's Chapel of the Savoy on 27 January 1955 at which the lesson was read by Sir James Paterson Ross and an address was given by Sir Zachary Cope.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 13 January 1955 p 11 c, 27 January p 10 c memorial service, and 22 April Will; Lancet 1955,1,208 with portrait and appreciation by Sir CPGW and JG; Brit med J 1955, 1, 231 with portrait and appreciation by GMcC, p 295 by GG-T, and p 442 by GRA and HA; Ann Roy Coll Surg Engl 1955, 16, 138-141 with appreciation by A Hedley Whyte; Newcastle med J 1955, 24, 29 with portrait. The Times 9 September 1949 p 1 b: Mrs Willan].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England