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Biographical entry Underwood, William Elphinstone (1903 - 1985)

OBE (Mil) 1943; MRCS 1927; FRCS 1929; BA Cambridge 1923; MB BCh 1928; LRCP 1927.

20 October 1903
11 April 1985
General surgeon


William Elphinstone Underwood was born in Birmingham on 20 October 1903, the son of Dr Arthur Underwood MRCS, a general practitioner, and his wife, Phyllis Maud (née Fairclough). His father was a descendant of Dr Michael Underwood, physician to Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. His early education was at Chigwell House Preparatory School, Birmingham, and at Rossall School after which he entered Cambridge University for his preclinical studies. While there he was one of the founder members and the first honorary secretary of the Cambridge Univerisity Medical Society. He graduated as Bachelor of Arts in 1923 and then entered St Bartholomew's Hospital with a senior entrance science scholarship. He qualified in 1927 and was initially appointed house surgeon to Sir Holburt Waring. He passed the FRCS in 1929 and afterwards was chief assistant to Sir Girling Ball and assistant director of the surgical unit under Sir James Paterson Ross. He was then appointed assistant surgeon to St Bartholomew's Hospital and sub-dean of the Medical College a well as being assistant surgeon to St Andrew's Hospital, Dollis Hill, and Harrow Hospital. He won the Jacksonian Prize in 1936 and was elected Hunterian Professor in 1937.

In 1939 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a surgical specialist and later rose to be assistant director of medical services and consulting surgeon with the rank of Colonel. He was twice mentioned in despatches and his war service was recognised by the award of OBE (Mil) in 1943.

After demobilisation in 1945 he was appointed Professor of Surgery and Dean of the faculty of medicine to the University of Witwatersrand and chief surgeon to Johannesburg Hospital. He was an excellent undergraduate teacher and was much appreciated by the students but antagonised many people in the department of surgery. He was doing experimental work in valvular cardiac surgery, using dogs and after carrying out a successful operation, details were leaked to the press who published a photograph of a fox-terrier with a black patch on its otherwise white leg. Some time later a reporter phoned him to enquire about the dog's progress and although it had died ten days previously he was told it was in good health. The reporter then requested permission to photograph the animal and another dog was produced with a black patch painted on its white leg. The facts were well known in his department and as soon as his enemies heard of it they reported the deception and lodged a complaint with the South African Medical and Dental Council. A formal enquiry was held and he was asked to resign. He then went to live in Zimbabwe, where for a time he was medical adviser to the Messina group of companies.

During his early years his outside interests were rugby, hockey and sailing and in later years swimming, tennis, music and theatre. He married in 1935 and one of his two sons is a research biochemist with the Glaxo-Allenbury consortium. He died on 11 April 1985 aged 81.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Daily Telegraph 13 April 1965].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England