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Biographical entry Williams, Bernard Warren (1895 - 1970)

MRCS 1921; FRCS 1924; BA Oxford BM BCh 1923; LRCP 1921.

22 March 1895
Westmoreland, Jamaica
24 September 1970
General surgeon


Born on March 22 at Kew Park, Bethel Town, Westmoreland, Jamaica, he was the third son of James Rowland Williams, the family having been in Jamaica for many generations. The family was a distinguished one, an elder sister being Dr Cicely Williams CMG, who first detected and described kwashiorkor in West Africa while serving in the Colonial Medical Service and who, later on, was a prisoner of war of the Japanese in the notorious Changi goal.

BW as he was always known was educated at Oundle and Exeter College, Oxford where he started his medical education in 1913. On the outbreak of war, he volunteered and, as a colonial, joined the 2nd King Edward's Horse in company with his life long friend C K J Hamilton, a New Zealander, who subsequently became consulting paediatrician to Charing Cross Hospital. Later both transferred to the Royal Field Artillery and, at the conclusion of the war in 1919 retiring with the rank of Captain both came to St Thomas's to continue their interrupted medical studies.

When the surgical unit was first constituted at St Thomas's in 1920 under Sir Cuthbert Wallace as director, BW was one of the three surgical dressers, the other members of the team being B C Maybury as deputy director, W W Wagstaff as chief assistant and R H O B. Robinson as house surgeon. Qualifying in 1921 with the Conjoint Diploma, he served as casualty officer and house surgeon, graduating BM BCh in 1923. In 1924 he was admitted FRCS and became chief assistant in the surgical unit and, it was while occupying this post, that he described the enormous proliferation by B welchii which occurs in the small intestine in acute intestinal obstruction with consequent B welchii toxaemia. The idea originated with an observation by Maybury who was struck by the similarity of the terminal stages of acute small bowel obstruction and of massive gas gangrene. Although at this time little was known about the effects of fluid loss and electrolyte imbalance, considerable beneficial affects resulted from the use of B welchii serum in cases of small bowel obstruction. BW delivered a Hunterian Lecture on this subject in 1927, having been awarded the Radcliffe Prize for medical research at Oxford in 1926. In 1927 he was appointed as assistant surgeon at St Thomas's and in due course held appointments as surgeon to Mount Vernon Hospital, and under the London County Council. From 1927 onwards until the outbreak of war in 1939 he was closely associated with Wallace who had become President of the College, and with Maybury, resembling both men in the possession of an original and critical mind and following their example in undertaking original research when such activity was still unusual among practising surgeons. He served the College as an examiner in pathology and he examined in surgery for the University of Oxford.

In 1940 he rejoined the army as Lt Colonel RAMC and officer commanding the surgical division of the 22 General Hospital during the ill-fated expedition to Norway. After the war, disillusioned with the Health Service and having suffered a depressing experience by the loss of his home in the country by fire with his life's collection of antiques, he retired from St Thomas's in 1947 and became Dean of the Medical School at the newly formed University College of the West Indies in Jamaica. After some years, however, he decided to retire to the family estate and became a beef farmer and breeder of a new homozygous herd of Jamaican Reds and he also introduced new methods of grass management, becoming recognised as the leading authority in the island.

BW was a charming, stimulating and provocative colleague with a wide range of interests and knowledge outside the field of medicine. In surgery he was a staunch believer in the general surgeon and, if he had a particular interest, it was in the management of malignant disease.

He married Muriel, second daughter of the 1st Lord Wrenbury, and the eldest of their three sons, Michael became a surgeon at the Kent and Canterbury Hospital and a College surgical tutor.

He died in St Thomas's Hospital on 24 September 1970, aged 75.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 25 September 1970; Brit med J 1970, 4, 58].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England